Linda Yu

Poetry, Auden famously remarked, makes nothing happen. Can the same be said of theatre? Instinctively, the comparison feels inapt – poetry, at least at its most conventional, is static, private, and ambiguous, whereas drama is dynamic, spontaneous, and transitional. If theatre necessitates one form of action, could it then precipitate another? Can we meaningfully regard the form as a potential mode of political praxis?

Theatre possesses an almost unique ability to capture, situate and circulate subversive views, perhaps due to its potential for what Keats termed ‘negative capability’ and literary scholar Emma Smith refers to as ‘permissive gappiness’ – the adaptability that allows a text to invoke oppositional beliefs simultaneously and circle ideas without explicitly addressing them. The ‘suspension of disbelief’ that theatre requires is also a manufacturing of belief – belief in an alternative reality or imagined future that might otherwise be impossible to envision. But simulating subversion is not the same as generating change, and the difference between capturing discontent and containing it is far from distinct.

Marx – the paradigmatic example of a praxis-focused political thinker – respected some playwrights immensely, but was attuned to this issue; although Shakespeare is referenced on numerous occasions throughout Capital, the texts are used as illustrative tools rather than held up as revolutionary stratagems in and of themselves. Theatre, like every art form, will always be politically charged, but perhaps its potential for disruption is confined to the spaces it creates.

However, protest has always had a performative dimension – communal rallying, public speaking, civil disobedience, and even some forms of political violence can function as essentially theatrical acts. Extinction Rebellion’s recent naked protest in the House of Commons – in which they stripped down, displaying the provocative slogans that were painted over their torsos, and chanted in unison – was reminiscent of the feminist performance art of the sixties and seventies, whilst the ‘milkshaking’ of prominent alt-lite figures has produced scenes that wouldn’t seem out of place in a farcical Elizabethan satire. Can we regard such acts as forms of theatre? Or is what marks them out as protest, rather than art, precisely the attempt to operate as vehicles of change, to ‘make something happen’?

In an age of ‘fake news’, reality television and perpetual surveillance, social existence feels increasingly dominated by spectacle

Numerous theatrical practitioners of the twentieth century dedicated their careers to proving that the distinction between art and protest was misguided. Augusto Boal’s ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ used techniques such as ‘forum theatre’ – in which audience members could intervene in and propose solutions to the injustices enacted before them – and ‘invisible theatre’ – in which performances were staged in public spaces and disguised as genuine spontaneous interactions – to blur the boundaries between real and performed oppression, forcing audiences to construct answers instead of merely asking questions.

Brecht, perhaps the most famous political dramatist, recognised that if theatrical spectacle can function as praxis, it can also function as propaganda, consolidating the dominant ideology rather than challenging it. Brecht’s ‘epic theatre’ was conceived of as an antidote to the hypnotic, escapist, bourgeoisie theatre scene, using alienating, anti-cathartic techniques to ‘arouse’, rather than ‘wear down’, an audience’s capacity for action. 

But it is dubious as to whether the methods of such practitioners, though highly instrumental in shaping dramatic theory, continue to exert a palpable influence on the theatre being performed in Britain today. It could be argued that, in an age of ‘fake news’, reality television, and perpetual surveillance, social existence feels increasingly dominated by spectacle, and that, consequently, theatre is now simply the condition of – rather than a means of challenging – political discourse. It may also be the case that the form, along with other artistic media, is suffering from a condition that theorist Mark Fisher described as ‘hauntology’: an inability to conceive of alternative political realities, and a subsequent reliance on the ideas and aesthetics of the past. But probably the most obvious issue with regards to the political relevance of contemporary theatre is that ‘theatre’ as an abstract principle – a principle that incorporates all forms of performance and protest – refers to something very different to theatre as a cultural institution.

Despite extensive efforts to make performances more accessible, theatre in the UK is still widely perceived as an essentially elitist art form, and the expensiveness and location of most big but non-commercial theatres does nothing to assuage this view. Whilst many provocative, pertinent plays have been staged in recent years – Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s The Jungle, for example, or Nina Raine’s Consent – their audiences have been generally limited to the select few who can afford to see them, and it is doubtful as to whether most spectators – likely upper-middle-class, metropolitan, artsy liberals – will come away feeling ideologically challenged or inspired to take more direct forms of action.

This is an issue that pertains to the Cambridge theatre scene too. Arguably, the inaccessibility of Cambridge theatre, symptomatic as it is of a wider problem, isn’t something that the scene can – or should be expected to – tackle. However, if dramatists do wish to incorporate theatre into student politics or maximise the political impact of their shows, it is imperative to try to reach audiences who may otherwise regard theatre as an insular or exclusive institution.