All theatre is political, just as all theatre is ethical. Theatre is a public act. When you act in public, in front of others, you act in a political and ethical context. Jaywalking is a subtle, but clear political act, as is waiting for the lights to change when no cars are coming. The first says to anyone else watching "I understand the rules and I choose to break them." The second says, "I follow the rules even when I see that they are unnecessary." Not giving your seat on the subway to an elder is an ethical act. Poaching a cab from someone is an ethical act. Giving directions is an ethical act. If you're acting in public you are acting politically and ethically, by what you do and what you don't do.
This is why Barefoot in the Park is political. It beautifully and subtly trumpets the status quo of it's time. How much more political could The Lion King be? Like most Disney work, the monarchy ethos could not be clearer, in this ethical and political universe there are those born to rule and those born to be ruled and the most interesting issue, the question we're asked to spend all of our time and energy focusing on, is: how do rulers evolve and become good rulers? Now that's some old school politics. What a playwright or a producer chooses to put on a public stage, or not put on that stage, is the result of interior political and ethical calculations. This isn't true, or certainly it isn't as pressing an issue, for a painter or a novelist or a musician. The playwright and the producer are working towards a live showing in front of live people. The stage, the theater, exists in a political and ethical zone that other artforms do not.
Political theater, or the lack of it here in New York, is a hot topic this spring. We're hearing a lot of people asking "where's the political theatre?" We've got Stuff Happens, we don't have Rachel Corrie and that seems to be the end of it. Guardians down at Culture Project, sure. But in this insanely hyper-politicized era, in this time of global turmoil and open conflict, you'd think there would be a clearer response. Because there is a response, and that response is maintain the status quo. Keep quiet. Soothe the traumatized audience. Convince people, with your silence, that things are the same as they were four years ago.
The last two shows we've put up in New York, Fatboy and screwmachine/eyecandy, have both been branded "political" by the press. Both are fast, angry, funny at the top and then awful at the end. The only "message" they have in common is "we're in deep fucking trouble, folks". We've tried very diligently with both pieces not to point fingers at an administration or an individual. They're not about us and them. They're for and about us.
Because most theater called "political" is just modern-day melodrama. Do we need to spend two hours being told that the Iraqi war was a collosal mistake? Do we need to spend our money and more importantly our time being told that Bush is a moron advancing an apocalyptic agenda? Why are we saying things that we already know?
There is a difference between "issue" theater and politically engaged theater. Issue theater, be it Guantanomo or The Exonorated or Stuff Happens, actually works against the stated or unstated political agenda of the artists involved. Issue theater puts an issue on stage, tells us all in varying shades of black and white how awful and important the issue is and sends us home feeling better about ourselves because we feel that by sitting quietly and listening to something we already know, we've engaged in an issue. We haven't. We've watched a show. And we've been told, explicitly or implicitly, that there are bad people out there and good people out there and by our applause, we've chosen the right side. How far are we from Dick Dastardly tying Sweet Sue to the railroad tracks?
These artists work against their political agenda by taking the outrage and anger and energy of their fellow citizens and turning it into applause. The energy is released. To what practical end?
I'd like to call for a temporary halt to this "issue" theater. If you're working on a play about an issue, put it down and take the time you were planning to devote to it and engage in the actual issue. I'd also like to see a lot more of us aware of and working more directly with the political and ethical ramifications, opportunities and manifestations of our work.
Political theater, like politics, is messy. It should work to implicate, not explicate. It should be frustrating, not illuminating. It should try to make a dangerous animal growl and attack, not jump through beautiful, artful hoops.
Someone somewhere defined politics as the art of the possible. The art of the possible. That's not a bad definition for theater.