The Culture Project and Plays That Make a Difference
by Charles Isherwood, The New York Times, September 3 2006
The world is in a fractious state. News reports grimly tally the daily death tolls in Iraq. Polls reveal a pronounced lack of confidence in the American powers that be. The clatter of chatter about potential terrorist attacks floods the airwaves.
Can art save the day? More specifically, can theater rouse the populace from a sense of numbed anxiety? Can a stage play change minds, or help channel passive beliefs into active commitment?
Short-term answer: a resounding “Nope.” Long-term answer: a less resounding if hardly less dispiriting “Probably not, alas.”
The history of world drama offers plenty of examples of theatrical events that caused rippling responses in political and social spheres. Patriotic speeches from Shakespeare’s “Henry V” rallied British soldiers to battle even in World War II. Clifford Odets’s “Waiting for Lefty” became a powerful persuader in support of the burgeoning labor movement. A fateful performance of a comedy called “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater can be said to have changed the course of American history. But plays do not regularly stop or start wars or social causes, win or lose national elections.
And as theater’s foothold in American culture has steadily shrunk over the last 50 years or so, the chance that a play could have any significant influence on social or political discourse has also waned. To be influential a playwright’s voice has to be heard, and it’s become harder to hear the lonely cry of the outraged playwright as the media landscape has been monopolized by more profitable and more easily mass-marketed forms of entertainment.
But you can’t blame the Culture Project for trying, can you? The determined little nonprofit theater at the corner of Bleecker and Lafayette in the East Village, under the artistic direction of Allan Buchman, is spearheading a new “citywide arts festival focusing on human rights, social justice and political action,” beginning on Sept. 12 and running through Oct. 22. The festival’s very title, Impact, is a one-word salvo hurled in the teeth of those who would argue that art can never be an effective tool of social or political progress.
The Culture Project’s central contribution to the festival could be seen as a prime piece of supporting evidence in favor of art’s ability to stir activism, an argument for the possibility of real impact. It’s the premiere of a new play by Eve Ensler called “The Treatment,” about an encounter between a psychologist and a traumatized American military interrogator involved in torture.
No one could reasonably argue Ms. Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues” was a socially insignificant or politically ineffectual work. Her collage of testimonials about the culture of silence surrounding sexual violence against women is probably the most important piece of political theater of the last decade, at least if we measure a play’s impact in quantifiable terms. It has been produced in 90 countries, and the annual “V-Day” benefits it inspired have raised more than $40 million for local charities.
Still, “The Vagina Monologues” is an exception to the general rule that politically minded theater is not wildly popular, that there is a limited audience for drama that seeks to awaken our consciousness to contemporary ills or probe thorny political topics. After all, it took a year and a half for the only “major” play specifically about the American invasion of Iraq, David Hare’s “Stuff Happens,” to arrive in New York, despite the city’s large theater culture and famed liberalism. First produced at the National Theater in London in September 2004, it opened last spring in New York. And it was not produced on Broadway, the usual New York home for Sir David’s plays, and for acclaimed work from the National Theater. It opened off Broadway, at the Public Theater, to a healthy if not spectacular run. (Hoping to enlarge the audience, the Public is sponsoring a free reading of the play in Central Park on Wednesday.)
The reasons for audiences’ resistance to this kind of theater are not hard to discover. Look into your own heart, regular theatergoer. I’ll admit that I sometimes approach the genre with wariness or a sense of duty, as if lining up for a vaccination against apathy to social or political causes. Publicly avowing an interest in the latest piece of earnest theatrical journalism, but privately deciding that you’re not really in the mood just tonight, is hardly unnatural. (I still haven’t seen “An Inconvenient Truth,” by the way. Anyone know if it’s still playing?)
For most of us — virtually all of us — theaters are, above all, places of entertainment. It would be a perverse person indeed who would trip with glee into a theater presenting a play with the word “Guantánamo” in the title, overjoyed at an opportunity to relish the spectacle of human suffering and reckon with troubling questions of injustice.
That quasi-journalistic aspect of much contemporary political theater doesn’t help either. If asked, most theatergoers would say they don’t want to go to the theater to be told what they already know, or can acquire elsewhere. But for the socially conscious theatergoer (and who would lay claim to being a socially unconscious one?), the medicinal element in this genre can be more of a draw than a drawback.
It gives us the pleasant sensation of having received a moral booster-shot or undergone a cleansing fast that flushes out all the cultural toxins we ingest when we scoot off to guilty-pleasure movies like “The Devil Wears Prada” or obsessively watch “Project Runway.”
In recent seasons, the Culture Project has presented long runs of “Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” and “The Exonerated,” about wrongly convicted prisoners saved from death row: neither a joyous topic. Other recent successes in the genre include Heather Raffo’s solo show “Nine Parts of Desire,” about the plight of women in Iraq, and “In the Continuum,” Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter’s docudrama about women and AIDS in the United States and Zimbabwe.
Yet aside from making us feel virtuous, political theater can be a source of real solace too. Reading the newspaper or scanning headlines on the Internet is a solitary activity, as is much television watching. When cruelty and violence pervade the newspapers to an unusual degree, as they have lately, our sense of alienation can be magnified. You think: Is this my species?
If I may indulge in a Hallmark card-ish image, going to see plays that tackle some of the same issues can be like reading the paper while holding someone’s hand. The cold touch of the truth isn’t mitigated, but the accompanying sensation, of comfort in companionship, alters the experience.
Seeing politically engaged theater can give us a sense of fellow-feeling that is elusive in these much-polarized political times, and it can also reconnect us to our sense of impassioned outrage that can fade quickly after you’ve put down the morning papers. It’s easier to be apathetic when you’re alone. (Ever given a standing ovation in your living room?)
Much enduring theater art — from Aeschylus to Shakespeare to Ibsen — is a collective form of bearing witness to human suffering. As part of a live audience you are a more active participant in the airing of the problem or the exposure of suffering. The exchange of information is not mediated by video or print. It’s human to human, and when the subject is of immediate political significance it can be harder to dismiss as propaganda or dry journalism.
The theater critic Eric Bentley has discussed politically engaged theater in more than one essay. Writing in 1966 about a controversial production of the Rolf Hochhuth play “The Deputy” in “The Theater of Commitment,” he noted that theatrical presentation transforms the material at hand. “Theater is sur-real,” he wrote. “The little ritual of performance, given just a modicum of competence, can lend to the events represented another dimension, a more urgent reality.”
Mr. Bentley went on to note the similarities between propagandistic theater and the rituals of church, touching on another reason for the appeal of theater. “Preaching to the converted” is the dismissive epithet easily hurled at plays that air a social ill in front of audiences predisposed to share the playwright’s view. But why shouldn’t theatergoers draw the same kind of sustenance from the collective experience of theater that congregants do from sermons at church? We all have spiritual lives of some kind, beliefs that are articles of faith more than reason. And they are nurtured by a sense of common feeling, the knowledge that we are not alone in our perceptions, whether they consist of general religious tenets or specific moral stances on social or political issues.
Does this mean that theater has a perceptible or quantifiable impact on the issues raised? As I suggested earlier, not necessarily, or not much. I haven’t rushed to the barricades, hand in hand with the fellow in seat G102, any time recently. But I have left the theater with a more vivid sense of the painful human cost of public policy or a deeper knowledge of the gritty specifics of a specific historical event.
Art can inculcate empathy, and empathy directed not at a generalized humanity but a specific person or persons keeps healthy and intact our alertness to immediate evils, not general ones. It reminds us that history doesn’t happen in newspapers but to people.
This is despite the fact that most political theater does not really rise to the level of enduring art. Nuanced perspective, structural elegance and imaginative scope are sometimes sacrificed to immediacy and polemics. “Stuff Happens,” written as a fresh response to historical events, felt dated by the time it arrived in New York, while Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” which did not appear until the end of the 1980’s, the decade it examined, retained its power when it was filmed for HBO several years after its premiere. Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage,” revived by the Public Theater this summer, retains its potency because Brecht’s polemics about the connections between warfare and capitalism dissolve into a complex and even contradictory vision of human suffering and endurance.
Which isn’t to suggest we all sit on the sidelines and wait for the first bona fide masterwork contemplating the war in Iraq or the political ferment in the country at the moment. In the essay I mentioned above, Mr. Bentley concluded, “Any dent that any theater can make in the world is no doubt small, but theater people who on that account give up the effort as hopeless are generally agreeing to make no dent at all.”
I would add that theatergoers who neglect to support those efforts are generally agreeing to let the art form degenerate into the pervasive vacuousness of the cultural atmosphere, the fog of uncaring and unmeaning that cuts us off from a sometimes painful but necessary knowledge of the world as it is, right now.