These days when you hear people call something that is not a play or a musical “theatre,” they usually mean to disparage its authenticity, to suggest it was staged rather than spontaneous, done merely for show. But when we talk about our current political moment as a drama, unfolding in hearing rooms and on the Senate floor, in stopped elevators and at night rallies, I think we mean something different: that it’s all too real, both too extreme to be believed and too urgent to ignore.
While life in the Trump era often seems to have the outlines of a reality TV show scripted by a sadist with ADHD, theatrical analogies are also readily at hand: I heard the infamous day-long Ford/Kavanaugh hearings in late September compared to The Crucible and 12 Angry Men. On Twitter the playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury called it “the most riveting Senate hearing I’ve seen, including all productions of Julius Caesar.” At least one pundit dubbed Senator Jeff Flake’s last-minute equivocation on his eventual vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court a “Hamlet act.” And a friend joked that the spectacle of octogenarian Senate Judiciary Committee heads Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein bickering over Senate procedure reminded him of The Gin Game.
That was the most riveting senate hearing I’ve seen, including all productions of Julius Caesar, so. Cool. Cool. So, the state of the republic is like Falling Rome-ish?
— JackieSibbliesDrury (@jackiesdrury) September 27, 2018
Far from trivializing the high stakes of the rolling democratic crisis we’re living through, I’d argue that such stagebound citations are entirely on point. Theatre, no less than religion or politics or journalism, is a system of embodied metaphors, human rituals imbued with larger significance, or ideally vice versa—systems of meaning infused with humanity. Indeed the irreducible human body and voice are what give theatre its immediacy, as well as its link to direct action, to the theatre of protest. In an age when our endless opportunities for diversion can seem to blur into one cable-and-social-media menu, all the bread and circuses you can eat, the positively antiquated practice of making an appointment to gather in a room to share the experience of a scripted, rehearsed live performance retains a power that can’t be gainsaid. Yes, this precious power is too often squandered on mediocrity, sequestered by elitism, and riddled with all the ills of social exclusion—it is made by and for humans, after all.
We might take encouragement from Amelia Parenteau’s vivid piece in this issue about Egyptians who, in the long winter that has followed the Arab Spring, are finding in theatre a place to gather and speak to each other, sometimes in coded or stylized ways to get around state censors, in much the same way writers in the former Soviet bloc once did (and may yet again in the current Russian Federation). The artists and journalists Parenteau met last spring told her they all “know what tear gas smells like” and fear being labeled “threats to the state,” a term that would lump them with terrorists. And yet they persist, because, as playwright Rasha Abdel Monem puts it, “Theatre, out of all the forms of art, is the one most deeply rooted in community. It’s a celebration. If you don’t write for that community, what are you doing?”
This question is as urgent for us in the relatively freer but increasingly fraught United States. What are we doing with this powerful medium, and for whose benefit? I’m heartened by the drive of many theatres to register folks to vote, and by shows like actor/playwright Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, a fiercely idiosyncratic and painfully timely feat of engaged civic theatre, which has played in Berkeley and New York and richly deserves a national tour (all it needs is one set, three actors, and a few thousand copies of the U.S. Constitution). Can the fears that keep us awake at night also be the causes that get us up in the morning? Either way, now is not the time for sleep.