You know one place the theatre gets no respect? In our political discourse, where “theatre” is deployed as an automatic pejorative, a synonym for “hollow posturing” or “publicity stunt.” In a recent Internet browse of news headlines, I found the phrase “political theatre” applied to everything from a congressional hearing on veterans’ affairs to the efforts of big oil companies to clean up toxic petroleum spills. The meaning in all these cases is clear: that the public gestures in question, some scripted or ritualized in great detail, others more haphazard and provisional, are all merely, even entirely for show. The awful truth is somewhere else, tucked away out of sight, behind the curtain.
But as any stage artist could tell you, there can be deeper truths behind the mask, even in the artifice of theatre itself. One of theatre’s key insights is the reminder that we all play roles and perform our lives—that what we think of as “real” life unfolds within an implicitly agreed upon story about what it means to be a human being, and that many of the conflicts among us arise when that social contract is broken, or never even acknowledged in the first place. The underlying narratives of how we live and move in the world may be toxic or salubrious, fundamentally decent or cynical, or simply blinkered and incomplete; but that we feel ourselves living within stories, and act our parts in them as well as we can, is not in itself an indictment. The theatrical improvisations that are our lives are not in themselves phony or fictive any more than are our notions of nation, family, property, work.
Or politics. Because you know what else would qualify as political theatre? Civil disobedience. Think of maybe the most famous instance, on the Montgomery bus in 1955 where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white patron. It was neither the first time a black person had done this in America nor was it a spontaneous, isolated event; it had the impact it did because Parks was a trained activist cast for the lead role in a larger, explicitly orchestrated bus boycott campaign. As Ta-Nehisi Coates once put it, Parks was “not some witless old lady but a civil rights worker who’d been trained to accord herself a certain way. When Martin Luther King would be arrested he dressed a certain way; he seemed to try to convey to the cameras a kind of solemn restraint. The marches themselves were choreographed.” And as George C. Wolfe once told me, regarding an exhibit he designed for Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights: “I was impressed by how immaculately dressed everyone would be when they would go to a protest. It was about using the weaponry of fashion: The gloves and shoes matched when you went to sit at a lunch counter while hooligans squirted mustard on you.”
Or think of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which capped half a century of brutal apartheid with a years-long courtroom drama of a sort. The commission didn’t exist to issue legally binding judgments on the crimes of a racist system but to air them, retell them, and offer victims and oppressors alike a shared narrative of shame and outrage—and dare we say it, a kind of catharsis.
This year’s U.S. presidential campaign, admittedly, has had a lot more of the bread-and-circuses sort of political theatre than the inspiring, serious-minded kind—and not just because a cartoon tycoon is, improbably, the nominee of a major political party. Political campaigns are by nature scripted and stage-managed events designed to hide as much as to reveal, and decoding their import and meaning can be a full-time job for professional and armchair pundits alike. We can’t resist getting in on the act, either, which is why this issue contains stories about some of the ways politicians use theatre to win our votes, from Michele Volanksy’s dramaturgical breakdown of campaign events to Mike Daisey’s examination of the orange avatar who is the subject of Daisey’s new show The Trump Card. (Look here for a whole slew of stories about the intersection of politics and theatre.) For whether we’re exorcising our demons or lifting up our better angels, our national stage is the place where we present, and represent, our American character.