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Political Theatre is a Major Performance Artform

Brecht: Master of Political Theatre - Spree Tom
If politics is the art of the possible and the theatre is about communication, political theatre is one of the strongest weapons a stage activist can have.

Political performance traces back to the ancient Greeks. Stage lampooning those in authority was banned in the Greek republic after The Birds and Lysistrata; since when playwrights have used stages to convey messages, demand political action or change government policy and public opinion. Antigone is political: quoted by Aristotle on the loyalties of a citizen, adapted in 1944 by Anouilh setting it in the French resistance against the Nazis, while Brecht in 1948 made it more radically anti-Hitler.

Bertolt Brecht, at the Forefront of Political Theatre

Political performance is the expression of strongly-held beliefs, protesting at society or promoting a particular belief system. As politics is present in every corner of people’s lives, political performance includes party, gender, racial, sexual, animal, environmental and economic politics. Brecht said, ‘it’s not enough to understand the world, it’s necessary to change it’.

As he was so influential through his theories of ‘making strange’, his works illustrate the effectiveness of staging politics. The parable of Hitler’s rise to power is told through The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941), a small-time gangster in 1930s Chicago who takes advantage of economic turmoil to seize control of the greengrocer trade. The Threepenny Opera (1928) is written from the 1728 Beggar’s Opera as a musical-theatre piece about corruption, where central protagonist Macheath the Bandit and womaniser is best friends with Tiger Brown, chief of police. Using earthy, low-life songs to drive the narrative, it’s a classic of agit-prop, music (by Kurt Weill) and songs working together.


Laurence Olivier’s war-time film of Henry V was propaganda, although written by Shakespeare. It offered audiences a stirring speech, ’once more unto the breach’ that was timely in raising patriotism. Agitprop (agitation-propaganda) became popular in the 1960s to describe radical theatre companies, at the cutting edge of influencing public opinion.

Companies like 7:84 reflected the fact that 7% of the population owned 84% of Britain’s wealth. Red Ladder, Belt and Braces, Welfare State shared working-class origins presenting anti-establishment, pro-worker, revolutionary material outside factory gates, in schools and hospitals. Monstrous Regiment and Gay Sweatshop tackled gender politics.

John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger spawned a genre of angry young men on stage and film, presenting ordinary strugglers with relationship pressures in poor living conditions for the first time in British theatre. Steven Berkoff’s 1981 play, Decadence, links the delight of upper-class fox hunters with sex, in savage satire that drives home a message.

Performers in the arts employ a variety of influences, techniques and styles. Italian playwright Dario Fo uses commedia dell’Arte techniques to ridicule the official view that a suspect in a bombing case ‘flew out of 4th floor window at police HQ’, in his 1970 piece, Accidental Death of an Anarchist. In-yer-Face theatre of the 1990s stages taboo issues like rape, sodomy and mutilation in a violent, unpleasant manner, drawing on Shakespeare and Jacobean revenge tragedy as much as war and current affairs. Sarah Kane’s Blasted (1995) and Mark Ravenhill’s 1996 Shopping and F***ing exemplify down-to earth, challenging style that the Germans call Blood and Semen Theatre.

British drama like Howard Brenton’s neo-Brechtian Greenland (1988, set in the 1987 British general election and 700 years into the future), and Andrea Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too set in a gritty 1982 Bradford, show everyday people caught in events, powerless to affect their own lives. Arnold Wesker’s Roots (1958), set in UK’s East Anglia and Caryl Churchill’s Fen (1982), stage rural life, agricultural worlds and relative isolation. Verbatim Theatre is a genre now popular in raising political awareness, which takes actual words spoken by witnesses or participants in events. Unprotected about Liverpool prostitute murders, families, punters and The Exonerated, words by US death-row prisoners, illustrate this artform.

Harold Pinter (1930-08)

UK playwright Pinter was a passionate political activist, using writing and acting skills to express anger at injustice, most notably war. One for the Road (1984) is a study in interrogation/torture techniques, harnessing his famous pauses and menace. Party Time (1991) sees a group of British expatriates in some undefined third-world place enjoying cocktails, while a revolution rages outside that they may or may not have had a hand in. Mountain Language (1988) is about Balkans’ conflicts and is a biting attack on the brutality of invading soldiers. Press Conference (2002) is a comic sketch with a sinister politico answering media questions reminiscent of Big Brother, Stalin and Goebbels combined.

Joan Littlewood (1914-2007) was a highly political left-wing activist who personified political theatre and became an innovator in performance techniques. She devised Oh What A Lovely War!, using World War 1 songs and statistics to convey the horrors of trench warfare, pointless sacrifices of young lives, the arrogance/incompetence of the leaders in a Brechtian style, through 1963 eyes.

Throughout human history, people’s desire to be entertained, informed and stimulated by the theatre, has been harnessed by political performers to powerful effect in artistic terms, though there’s a school of thought that says few government policies have actually been changed by a stage play.

The other side of the coin, of course, is how politicians have themselves become actors and all round performer/entertainers in the pursuit of political theatre (and their careers).

First published at Suite 101, 27 April 2010.

Photo: Brecht: Master of Political Theatre – Spree Tom

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  1. […] political theatre (and their careers).  First published on Suite 101, 27 April 2010 and also on my website, 5 June 2011. David Porter Image: Brecht: Master of Political Theatre – Spree Tom Share […]