Gordon Parsons reviews Joe Kelleher's book on theatre and politics.
W. H. Auden’s insisted that all his poetry put together had not saved a single Jew, and claimed that poetry makes nothing happen. This was certainly not a view shared by Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War who seized the opportunity to execute the country’s greatest poet, Frederico Garcia Lorca. Nor was it shared by Pinochet’s Chilean fascist thugs, who crushed the hands of poet, singer-guitarist and theatre director, Victor Jara before butchering him.
However, the question arises how can or does any work of art affect the power structures within society?
Joe Kelleher’s short book is one in a series written by leading theatre scholars, exploring connections between theatre and multiple aspects of the wider world, asking how the theatre might illuminate the world and how the world might illuminate the theatre.
Kelleher here engages with the complexities of what happens politically in the theatrical experience in a sterling and intellectually demanding effort to engage with the human chemistry at play in theatrical events. Theatre, after all, which objectively can be described as people performing “various harmless and inconsequential actions: a bit of wandering around, some waving of the arms, some standing up and sitting down, and playing it all up as they do so, often getting remarkably excited”.
How can such simplistic experiences have political relevance?
Kelleher, insisting that his book is about theatre and politics rather than political theatre, necessarily starts with a definition of politics as “the important, inescapable and difficult attempt to determine relations of power in a given space”. Here the space is that of the theatre stage and the imagined space of the outside world to which the theatre relates. As all theatre must relate to something that its audiences can recognise, even if they fail to understand the implications, then all theatre in a general way can be discussed “in terms of its own political dimensions”.
The immediacy, the ‘nowness’, of theatre, its ”liveness and sociality”, and its gathering of ‘strangers’ around issues of disagreement or common concern make it essentially political. It also has the potential to propose “alternative realities to how things are at present”. Unlike Auden, Kellerher hopes that if all the qualities of the theatrical presentation, “the commitment that goes into the work, the realism of the representation and the canniness of the staging and the associations it establishes with people, times and ideas” are “tuned right” then theatre can make a difference to what is going on in the outside world.
He does, however, engage with the argument that the fixedness of theatre, by which I assume he means that the play or performance happens now and in front of its specific audience, obstructs politics which is figured as “a continuous process that eludes representation”.
This appears to be a limited view of politics which contextually must include past present and future. Depending on the ‘tuning’, we can surely recognise the universal nature of power politics in (for example) Shakespeare’s history cycles and relate this recognition to the machinations of our present political scene. While Edward Bond’s Lear intentionally links past, present and future in its political Import. The question is, of course, what do we do with this recognition?
Intriguingly Kelleher wonders whether the very “fragility” of theatre its “tendency to cast a mask over its own face”, never mind its ”inability to stop the police as they march forward”, carries its greatest political potential.. He uses Mark Antony’s Forum speech, suggesting its very manipulative theatricality, whereby we, the audience in the theatre, understanding how the stage audience are being worked upon, recognise how in the outside political scene we are the stage audience similarly exploited rhetorically by our politicians.
He doesn’t ignore the essential entertainment aspect of theatre – the good night out syndrome - but maintains that theatre is the place “where work and enjoyment are dependant one on another”. John McGrath and his defunct 7:84 company with shows like The Cheviot, the stag, and the black, black oil come to mind. In his investigation of what political effect a play can have on an audience, Kelleher notes that a particularly powerful production can “leave a mark on the consciousness … that can stay with people for a lifetime”. Nevertheless it “does not touch us in the same way that a real life tragedy can touch us”.
This brings us to Brecht, who recognised and distrusted the powers of emotion in the theatre. Through his much mauled verfremdungeffect, or mistranslated ‘alienation’ technique, Brecht aimed to encourage his audiences to appreciate the dramatic situation intellectually and in understanding rather than simply reacting emotionally to the dramatic images of their world outside the theatre, go out and change it.
Kelleher, however, following the Austrian playwright Peter Handke, rejects any political influence of Brecht who “never unsettled anyone who was settled, but he did give countless people a few lovely hours”.
At essence Kelleher knows that the effects of theatre are unpredictable, residing as they do in whatever the spectators make of it. Questioning “whether such a basically playful and un-dangerous medium as the theatre could ever justly be compared to the sort of “real work involved in…politics”, fails to recognise that whereas the cosy world of British theatre may well be ‘un-dangerous’, there have been many examples in less comfortable environments where theatre has been a precarious activity for all involved. One thinks for example of Barney Simon’s Johannesburg Market Theatre productions of Athol Fugard’s plays during the apartheid years .
An area that Kelleher does not engage with is the particular make-up of theatre audiences . In the not too distant past there was a definite class base to theatre-goers. This has changed since the heady days of touring fringe theatre. Still, however, education and social class play a part in cinema/theatre choices. Theatre ticket prices compared with cinema seats makes for a specific type-identity to theatre audiences who, outside London and one or two major cities, are essentially older and more ’conventional’ than cinema audiences. They may well bring a set of expectations that are different from cinema audiences. It is arguable that these expectations might be more open to the political potential of ‘live’ performance with all its unpredicatability, compared with the influence of the technically ‘controlled’ filmic experiences.
It is impossible in this pithy analysis of theatre and politics to do more than raise significant questions. It may be that there are no definitive answers and Kelleher’s recognition that capitalism can always co-opt, make room for, and “fatten itself” on the most ’transgressive’ or ‘subversive ‘ art forms that seem to threaten it.
Theatre and Politics by Joe Kelleher is published by Palgrave at £6.99.