Friday, October 17, 2008

Why is theater liberal?

A recent article in the Times talks about the political plays of today, almost all liberal. It's true: politically right wing theater is an almost non existent breed. But what the article fails to really address is why.

One answer, in modern times, is simple: the current spate of political plays have been reactive against the Bush administrative. When theater critiques society, it is critiquing power, and all the political power for the last eight years has been in the hands of the conservatives. The fact that the Bush administration has used their power as a bludgeon has certainly increased the desire (and the need) to fight it.

But even during the Clinton years political plays were not right wing. To a great extent, in New York, they were simply not; few plays bothered to address that administration. And even then, if a critique came, it was much more likely to come from the left of Clinton than from the right.

Of course, as I have been reflecting recently, choosing theater as a career is almost an act of insanity, and not the sort of insanity typical among right-wingers. It involves choosing to put more time and energy than most highly paid lawyers spend into a job that has few monetary rewards. The best theater is created by people who have, in some actively way, chosen not to earn the money they are fully capable of earning in favor of doing art.

This is a mindset that is definitely to the left of not just McCain, but of Obama, who recently stated:

"If I were watching Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me, right? Because the way I’m portrayed 24/7 is as a freak! I am the latte-sipping, New York Times-reading, Volvo-driving, no-gun-owning, effete, politically correct, arrogant liberal. Who wants somebody like that?"
There must be something off when I look at that statement and say, I would want someone like that. I really would. Perhaps arrogance isn't the most positive characteristic, but if that's what it takes to openly admit the other horrors: reading The New York Times, sipping a latte, failing to own a gun, or being a liberal (and really, do I care what sort of car you drive or whether you are "effete," usually a code word for either cultured or gay), I'll take arrogance every time.

But really, aside from the fact no one here in New York can afford a car, doesn't that describe half the Artistic Directors I know? And how did Joe the Plumber become the person we should all want to be, while a liberal who reads The New York Times became someone even the Democratic candidate calls a "freak"?

But that is all part of a disdain for intellectuals that has become a standard part of political discourse here in America. And theater is an arena for intellectuals. Yes, it is also a place for emotions, and for beauty, but it is one of the few places where people are asked to think out loud in front of you so you can consider what they have to say. Theater like no other art form is about debate, and by that I don't mean televised debates meant to convince the public that you have the right demeanor and are capable of looking into the camera and sounding forceful, but actual debates of actual ideas.

Of course, neither candidate has said anything about arts funding during those televised debates, and I suspect any question about the issue would be met with surprise, and, at best, halting platitudes. However, there has been a web site that has tracked their positions, ArtsVote2008.

Frankly, I was surprised to see that either of them had public platforms on the matter. But Obama's is surprisingly detailed. Of course, I do know that Isaac Butler over at Parabasis has mentioned that he was helping create an arts policy for Obama, so I did know some work was being done.

McCain just put out his first statement of any kind on the issue, a brief memo endorsing education. I'm all for arts education, but it would be nice to believe those kids, once educated, had something to do with their learning that actually paid money.

But none of this is surprising either. Would Republicans be more apt to support the arts if theater were more conservative in bent? Perhaps, though public funding might still be seen as a sort of socialism.

However, of all the things that Obama did not want to be seen as, perhaps the one thing I am with him on is the "politically correct" issue. Of course, political correctism has been defined many ways by many people. One thing that theater does, and does well, is create an empathy for The Other, whomever that other is. And sometimes the attempt to understand other cultures alone can bring accusations of political correctism. But that is not how I would define it.

The truly negative connotation in political correctism is the adaptation of beliefs not because they have been examined but because they are held by those around you. By that definition, hatred of the cultural elite is a sort of political correctism of the right. But there are plenty of points of view we, the effete, latte-drinking theater community, tend to have, that are not often critically examined. And if we are devoted to understand The Other, doesn't that extend to those whose political views are different from our own. Maybe we might not wish to be Joe the Plumber, but it is important to understand where he's something from, or where Sarah Palin is coming from, or McCain, or even Bush.

We cannot change who we are. I would not want to. But if the power is going to be moving to the left in this country, as I suspect (and hope) it will be, it will be our duty to not stop our critical thinking, and to be ready to examine political issues from multiple perspectives. Perhaps that will not create a political play from the right, still. But at the least it will create far more interesting political plays from the left.

That's it for now. I'm off to buy a Venti and read the latest from Ben Brantley.


Arvid said...

If we're speaking only of Europe and North America, then we should say that theater hasn't always been liberal. Euripides sometimes knocked heads but Aeschylus and Sophocles took orthodox views of state-sponsored religion. Aristophanes ridiculed Socrates to the cheers of Socrates' jurors. Shakespeare threw in with the establishment with elan and was well-rewarded.

You have to look to the changing roles of artists generally in the 19th century to find an answer to your question. In Europe, the idea that artists should question or even oppose rather than affirm the "norms" of society accompanies protestant ideas about freedom of conscience, scientific inquiry, Romantic Transcendentalism, parliamentary politics, market capitalism and its heresies, labor unions, and wider access to education.
With those elements in place, the stage is set for Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Wilde and Shaw, the headwaters of 20th and 21st century theater.

Theater of Ideas said...

I was focusing more on modern theater--I think the societal situations that make theater a left wing activity are partly a product of Hollywood. Those with the creative impulse but more right wing orientation are drawn there (plenty of left wingers are there as well, of course, but it's generally more diverse).

That being said, I don't know if I would label Shakespeare conservative (yes, he praised his patrons, but his social ideas were more subversive), and I certainly wouldn't label Moliere conservative. And Artistophanes may have mocked Socrates but his work was definitely a challenge to societal norms. So that tradition, I would argue, has been in theater from the very beginning.