The Ambit of Politics and Performance1
By Sean Metzger
I write in a moment of circumscribed choices. The defeat of a modern robber baron has brought the United States a historically hawkish new commander in chief, who will undoubtedly be better for those of us concerned with higher education and the arts. However, let us not pretend that we theatre folk, whose profession so often engages the structures of tyranny, cannot wish for and imagine a more just world order than that which spreads before us with the celebratory clamor of “You’re fired!” Trump has indeed left office, but the systems that produced him and what he represents linger. Whither theatre in “the quagmire of the present”?2
Oedipus, the Zhao orphan, and numerous other figures in the world’s dramatic corpus stage the forces that sustain and contest contemporary hierarchies of power just as performance practices from carnival to Augusto Boal’s spect-actors intervene more directly in the political sphere. In this vein, the four essays in this issue showcase a range of intersections between theatre and politics from the mid-twentieth century through today. Although submitted as discrete pieces rather than as a response to a curatorial call for papers, the articles converge in their effort to explore new possibilities not only for representation, but also for the structures that render representations legible in the first place. All of the authors hail from different locations in the United States, a country that has experienced increased divisions among its constituent populations after four years of rule by a would-be tyrant, who has repeatedly attempted to stand outside the law.
Fascist trends have included the vocal return of white supremacists to the public sphere, the scapegoating of vulnerable groups, and unabashed moves to centralize power and quash dissenting opinions. During the Trump administration, pseudoscientific claims drove governmental policy as officials ignored peer-reviewed research. In the face of these developments, the electorate remains deeply divided. Compounding anxieties for those who value democratic processes, the rise of authoritarianism in the nation has parallels in several other countries: China, Poland, and Venezuela to name a few.
Within this geopolitical context, I find reading and teaching theatre and performance theory to provide a necessary breathing space in order to consider transformations of sovereignty and challenges to it. My own scholarly and personal genealogy leads me to the work of Erwin Piscator, whose Das Politische Theater (1929) chronicles the author’s own ruminations on his titular topic moving from his experience in and observations about World War I through his affiliation with the German Dadaists and the development of his own practice in Weimar Germany. In his narrative, the political inflection of the Dadaists to disrupt the bourgeoisie leads to his own efforts to engage the proletariat. The mobilization of the workers is, of course, a central tenant of Marxist ideology, a necessary part of the transition to a more egalitarian society.
Piscator’s praxis offers one model for thinking about social change through theatre. I find sections of it inspirational even as mobilization along class lines in and of itself seems increasingly far removed from our current reality. I do not only mean that capitalism has accelerated, morphing corporation into person and exploiting the 99 percent, but also that class-based affiliations that do not attend to issues like race and the fragmenting of personhood across media may not be flexible enough to effect positive social transformation. In this regard, I think about the unrealized potentials of, for example, the Occupy movement.
More recent texts have explored the interweaving of performance and politics that engage Marxist and neo-Marxist thought, but also move beyond such frameworks; two that I find exceptionally provocative in this regard configure their interventions at different structural levels. The first, Shirin M. Rai and Janelle Reinelt’s edited collection The Grammar of Politics and Performance, derives its key term from literary theorist Kenneth Burke, whose expansive definition of grammar they explain as “an orderly formal structure of attributes.”3 Rai and Reinelt write broadly of the conditions that enable as well as the enactments and representations of “material and social structures of power and governance.”4 They engage scholars from both performance studies and political science in dialogues that cross scales between what their contributor, Michael Saward, calls sovereign and critical grammars, or those deployed at the state or institutional level, as opposed to “actors who question, criticise or seek to transform the foundations, dominant understandings of sovereign or authoritative structures.”5
The second text is Peter Eckersall and Helena Grehan’s The Routledge Companion to Theatre and Politics (2019), which curates a dizzying array of essays to configure and to track dissensus, debate, and agonism. They call their structuring process a dramaturgy, and use the essays to elaborate an octet of organizing terms—post, assembly, gap, institution, machine, message, end, and re—to model and encourage paradigm shifts that would alter the optics and theoretical underpinnings of the fields of theatre and performance studies.6 Like Rai and Reinelt’s anthology, this one examines performance as central to the exercise of sovereignty as much as it reflects the systems that govern forms of conduct within different contexts (what philosopher Michel Foucault called governmentality).
Both of these edited volumes exhibit an emphasis on transnational comparison and offer productive approaches in terms of highlighting the imbrication of politics and performance. If Rai and Reinelt’s book retains something of a humanist focus, demonstrating how people and the institutions they have created and in which they participate enact change, the dramaturgy of Eckersall and Grehan widens the ambit of political critique and action (theirs is a much larger collection of essays). In spite of their differences, the two texts collectively enlarge an ongoing artistic and scholarly conversation about why performance matters in relation to the state and its ostensible subjects.
The four essays in this issue of Theatre Journal join this dialogue. Specifically, each focalizes the intersections of politics and performance in overlapping yet identifiably distinct registers. The inventory of interventions at the broadest conceptual level will be familiar to our readers: body, time, space, and technology. However, the particular details of each argument offer much to think about in terms of the issues I have outlined above.
Paige McGinley’s essay most explicitly addresses political action as embodied practice by looking at the sociodrama as a rehearsal for protest during the long civil rights movement. She focuses on the actionists of the 1940s as they applied some of the theories and practices that emerged from Mahatma Gandhi’s noncooperation and resistance to colonialism. The American actionists rehearsed civil disobedience in order to instrumentalize empathetic identification with the goal of subverting structures of racial oppression. They explored the ethical dimensions of the laboratory as part of the mid-twentieth-century embrace of scientific experimentation. These experiments facilitated a movement toward the “political subjunctive,” a term borrowed from literary and legal theorist Carrie Hyde that describes the collision of the possible and the prescriptive. Such action continues to inform ongoing Black movements today.
Whereas McGinley concentrates her analysis on bodies trained in a certain historical moment, Marc Arthur specifically investigates time as a concept in relation to performances that foreground an ongoing pandemic. After articulating the nostalgia engendered in several theatrical revivals and retrospectives that return to performance cultures focused on HIV and AIDS during the 1980s and ’90s, Arthur moves to investigate the chronicity constructed through Karen Finley’s Written in Sand (1992–) and Demian DinéYazhí’s An Infected Sunset (2016). Against the idea that AIDS constitutes a crisis locked in the past, Arthur argues that these recent performances demonstrate how chronic disease disrupts temporal linearity, allowing the past and present to collide. These alternative timeframes facilitate understanding the continuing effects of AIDS and opens space for feminist and Indigenous voices to emerge in relation to discourses of viral illness that have often excluded them.
Also concerned with queer politics (or perhaps a queering of the political), Sean Edgecomb’s essay turns to spatial considerations. The red and blue maps that riveted audiences’ attention during the coverage of the recent US presidential election visualized a longstanding perception of an urban/rural divide. This construction, Edgecomb avers, also informs certain claims about LGBTQ+ lives and the conditions that facilitate their representation. Against metronormative ideology, Edgecomb follows scholars like like Jack Halberstam, Scott Herring, Karen Tongson, and Kath Weston, but he draws specific attention to how theatre helps to imagine and, to a lesser degree, materialize queer space. Edgecomb argues that recent productions like Christopher Alden’s take on Bernstein’s Peter Pan (2017) and Daniel Fish’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (2018) reconfigure what Eve K. Sedgwick famously called the [End Page ix] epistemology of the closet in her eponymous book. Edgecomb finds furtive possibility in what he calls the “closet ajar,” a space that might queer politics by destabilizing the correlation of political action with visibility.
Dennis Beck also destabilizes the understanding of politics, but with an emphasis on the human subject and its integration with objecthood. Looking at recent Czech theatre-makers that work in a variety of ways with puppets as ideas and as materials, Beck questions the foundation of the human being as agential subject. Through a trio of productions—Handa Gote’s Eleusis (2016), Krepsko’s The Smallest Woman on Earth (Nejmenší Žena na Světě, 2004), and Cirk la Putyka’s Dolls (2014)—Beck and the artists about whom he writes take up Václav Havel’s warnings about automatism, technology, and consumerism within the context of posthumanism. He provocatively suggests that our identities are now laminated, which facilitates both new political formations and heightened risks of ceding agency. Beck points to a long tradition of Czech theatre that questions our embrace of (technological) objects as extensions and sometimes replacements of humanity.
In our online supplement, Dennis Beck continues his inquiry into Czech theatre with Ondřej Hrab and Jana Svobodová of the Archa (Ark) Theatre in Prague. Founded in 1994, Archa has served as a venue for experimental art and performance, often with a documentary orientation. The wide-ranging conversation brings the theatre-makers into the conversation of how art has mattered and might continue to impact the changing ecologies of politics and performance today from Czechia to China.
As a group, the essays collected herein further conversations about the politics of recognition, the historiography of social movements, the material enactment of resistance to the dominant, the uses of memory to construct what is human and what lies outside of that rubric, the ways in which space (national and regional) shape epistemologies. They offer various tools that proffer political engagements that work with the material world in which we live, and speculate on the potential to realize new modes of live and mediated social engagement in the future. If I may riff on a rather canonical AIDS play, the great work continues.
1. As a first note, I would like to say that political engagement in textual or other forms requires labor. In recognition of this fact, I extend heartfelt thanks to Carla Neuss for her year of service to Theatre Journal as assistant editor. I am pleased to welcome Clara Wilch in this capacity with this issue.
2. I borrow this phrase from José Esteban Muñoz both for its perspicacity and to recognize his continuing legacy in the intersections of performance and queer studies as evidenced in two of the essays in this issue. See his Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009), 1.
3. Janelle Reinelt and Shirin M. Rai, eds., “Introduction,” in The Grammar of Politics and Performance (New York: Routledge, 2016), 3.
4. Ibid., 10.
5. Michael Saward, “Afterword: Sovereign and Critical Grammars,” in The Grammar of Politics and Performance, 218.
6. See Helena Grehan and Peter Eckersall, eds., “A Dramaturgy of Cultural Activism,” in The Routledge Companion to Theatre and Politics(New York: Routledge, 2019).