Raise the curtain on a genuinely political act

From the www.monabaker.com archive (legacy material)

Alan Read | The Times Higher Education Supplement | 4 April 2003

In this time of war, we must reclaim from celebrities our right to make significant gestures and voice opinions in the public arena, argues Alan Read
The cliché “theatre of war” has been tripping off strategists’ lips in recent days as though it describes something self-evident and uncontestable. But it’s worth pausing to consider the association between the two ends of the phrase before leaping into battle armed with a metaphor that is as likely to expose the irrationalities of violent action as to conceal them.
The risk of piling in on a cause that is already overloaded with more cultural theorists and political analysts than the 101st Airborne could handle is obvious. To ask these questions is also to risk the ire of those who believe that cultural relativists should stay in their playgrounds while the frontline polemical specialists spout off. Even Hans Blix was pejoratively described at the United Nations as arguing with all the balanced finesse that his doctorate demanded, as though this rhetorical sophistication weakened the potential relevance of any recommendations he might make. As Glenda Jackson recently observed: when it comes to matters of import, never mind war, the last people the English heed are theatre people and intellectuals.
But despite the fact that nobody in the country, never mind in the government, has taken any notice of us, there has been a groundswell of resistance from exactly these people to the fast-flowing currents of US supplication. The Royal Shakespeare Company wrote to The Guardian to distance its tour to Michigan from US foreign policy, for example. Theatre directors Peter Sellars and Peter Brook made impassioned anti-war statements in the run-up to conflict, and even the resolute orchestra at the Oscar ceremony was not quite able to drown out Michael Moore’s surgical put-down of his own administration’s policy.
And we have some justification for involvement. From Aeschylus’ The Persians , the first extant western drama, which featured as its harrowing opening scene Xerxes’ defeated return from war, to Sarah Kane’s Blasted , the staging of the consequences of fighting has never gone away. And even when plays are not overtly dealing with military issues, they can be viewed in new ways at times of portent such as these.
This must be the first war during which people’s determination to “make a gesture” has seemed so strong yet so irrelevant to the government. And those of us concerned with theatre must take some of the blame.
This distancing of drama from political action has been speeded by two very recent forces. First, the rapid and wholly illusory democratisation of the subject matter of television media, and second, the vapid dramatisations inherent in celebrity and sport.
It was Big Brother and the beginning of reality TV that started the revolution. Whether it is our gardens under threat from Groundforce , our dress sense from What not to Wear or our love of singing in the bath from Operatunity , it is most surely “our” gestures that are ricocheting back to us, uncannily emptied of their sense of self and somehow morphed into everyone else’s. We see people doing something that looks strangely familiar, and that might be because we used to do some of these things ourselves without recourse to the television. Now we cannot think about moving house, relocating to France, planting some bulbs or whipping up an omelette without one eye on the screen to see how we might already have done it better, somewhere else, just before.
The renunciation of our right to make a gesture has been seized on by celebrities and sports stars all too happy to make theirs. In the fascinating banality of their lives and affairs, they seem to be simultaneously as distant from our daily existence as one could imagine while being responsible for our salvation from the drudgery of the everyday.
It is no surprise to see the BBC building on this sense of theatricality and our willing investment in these holy relics by the way it sells this year’s FA Cup: “Great Drama from the BBC”. But it is not great drama in the same sense that Play for Today was in the hands of David Mercer, or The Office or Marion and Geoff have just been, and certainly not in the sense of Xerxes’ impassioned plea for a hearing from his defeated people, the Persians. It is synthetic and circular with very little progress other than remorseless déjà vu .
As the troops were waved on their way from Portsmouth and Plymouth, photographs captured one of the few gestures of war that has any generally recognisable human currency. For from that point on in a war of tense briefings and digital replays, all human contact is – and has to be – lost.
In the place of this wave, the theatre of war draws on its own stylised conventions, familiar mise-en-scène and set-piece stagings that have the circular logic of sport, albeit a blood sport, without the progressive understanding and knowledge of drama.
At this time, we have a responsibility to draw back those gestures that have most recently been out on loan from those we have vested them in for safe keeping and occasional exaggeration. These celebrities and sports stars, singers and reality-show survivors have been our performance proxies, acting on our behalf while we took a break from the front line of public scrutiny.
When we say “Not in my name”, our words cannot be heard too clearly because we gave up any right to speak in our own name some time ago. We have been negligent with the very identity that bore our sovereign right to say what we mean, to act on our own behalf.
Before you know it, gestures become the sole province of the state: a protective arm around the shoulders of a child (Saddam Hussein), a strangely fixed look of insouciance (George W. Bush), a propensity to juggle balls under pressure (Tony Blair). Reclaiming the right to performance, to our own gestures, might be the first act in a genuinely political drama.
Alan Read is professor of drama and theatre studies, University of Surrey Roehampton, and director of Civic Centre: Reclaiming the Right to Performance, a seven-day research symposium on civic intervention and cultural practice that took place at venues across London on April 9-16, 2003
A longer version of this piece can be found at: www.civiccentre.org