Theatre and democracy

Theatre and democracy were invented in the same place and in the same decade. When two actors on stage talk to each other, at that moment a different emotion is demanded from the audience. It's the emotion of empathy. The same emotion that is required for theatre to work is the emotion that is required for democracy to work -- the idea we need to care about each other's experience.

Oskar EustisThe Public Theaterformer director of the Eureka Theatre Companydramaturge of the San Francisco production of You Can Lead a Horse to Water.

I took that quotation from Wrestling with Angels, a documentary on Tony Kushner, the author of the critically-acclaimed play Angels in America, which Oskar Eustis directed for the Eureka Theatre Company, San Francisco. As I understand it, Philip (my husband, for those of you who don't know, a theatre director) followed the production of the play (which was a two-parter, a long meditation on America, AIDS, and the end of the second millennium) and saw it when it made it to New York. Kushner's work is brilliant, and it critiques in every line the ideas that societies take for granted.

Angels in AmericaNow the thing I like about the USA (there's plenty I dislike too, so pay attention) is that democracy works, for the most part, there. Or perhaps it would be more accurate is that democracy is given room to work -- many American citizens seem to miss the point of their freedom, and spend plenty of time and money trying either to curb other people's (such as in the banning and burning of books from schools, the banning of public prayer and the like, or -- most sinister -- the making of legal exceptions against rights to privacy and speedy justice and the like for people who are not American citizens). Be that as it may, democracy can thrive in the US if people want it enough. And Tony Kushner wants it.

His epic play (it's a single play, split into two movements) examines a whole sweep of things, and for me to try and say what it's about would be futile. Suffice to say, though, that it examines the deaths from AIDS of two gay men. One of them's Prior Walter, an everyday, ordinary, gay guy, who begins the play happily when he gets his diagnosis, living pretty monogamously with his lover, who's out and living with his homosexuality in New York, where there's room for it. The other the closeted, hatemongering Republican lawyer Roy Cohn, who is also dying alone from AIDS. The two men move towards death through a series of visions/hallucinations/visits from otherwordly beings -- Prior Walter by the Angel of the title, along with a series of his ancestors, all of them also bearing the name Prior Walter (it's an ancient family name), and Roy Cohn by Ethel Rosenberg, whose death he was responsible for.

But enough about that; if you're interested in the play, you can check out the HBO Miniseries version of it and see it for yourself. My point is what Eustis had to say about theatre and democracy.

Both, he says, are inventions of the ancient Greeks and both were invented in the same decade. Leaving aside the ethnocentrism of that idea for the moment, the fact that one group of people formalized both around the same time is remarkable; it's possible to suggest that there's a connection between the two. The Wikipedia article to which I linked (and I always tell my students not to rely on Wikipedia articles, because they aren't guaranteed to be either accurate or unbiased, but never mind) points out a far deeper origin to theatre, one which I would be inclined to accept. The point is, though, that the kind of Western theatre tradition that we in the Caribbean have half-adopted as our own is one that is all about characters -- people -- in crucial positions. To succeed, that kind of theatre does indeed depend on empathy. And Eustis is claiming that empathy is fundamental to the practice of democracy as well.

I think I agree. That should come as no surprise to anybody, considering that I'm a playwright and a theatre enthusiast, but I do believe that there is something both powerful and transformative about being in the same space with people who are telling big and epic stories. Theatre is similar to, but different from film, in that the very democratic nature of theatre requires the actors to tell their stories again and again, fresh every time, to different sets of people, without a mediator, whereas film is ultimately the creation of a director. The democratic difference should be evident there. When the director retires from the production -- which my husband does at dress rehearsal -- the play is set in motion, and it is owned from there on by the performers and technicians, by the whole team that brings it all together, all the time, all at the same time as the audience. But the director (and, of course, the producers) never retires from the film. When the film is finished, it is the director's -- not the writer's or the actors', though the actors can make a big impression -- it's the director's because the director picks what parts of the actor he wants to show.

Lorca, too, appeared to have a similar feeling about theatre. He wrote the following about the place of theatre in the creation of nations:

A nation that does not support and encourage its theatre is -- if not dead -- dying; just as a theatre that does not capture with laughter and tears the social and historical pulse, the drama of its people, the genuine color of the spiritual and natural landscape, has no right to call itself theatre; but only a place for amusement.

This raises the uncomfortable question. Theatre is currently moribund in The Bahamas. What does that imply for democracy? And by that I don't mean the once-every-five-years punitive democracy that the people have been exercising this decade, the kind of thing that happens when you get out of your taxi and realize that your driver didn't take you where you wanted to go, and so you switch taxis and hope the next driver will take you closer to your destination. The problem is that if you don't give your drivers any indication of where you want to go -- and take immediate action to tell the driver when he's going off course -- you will end up far away from your goal. No; I mean the active ideal kind of democracy, where each member of the democracy helps to navigate towards that destination, so that when they all get there they agree that "There" is more or less where they wanted to be.

We haven't ever experienced that here. Or have we?

The fact that we have too little theatre -- the fact that the average Bahamian is suspicious of theatre -- may explain why.