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Protest Theatre Is Everywhere: Past, Present and Future

Protest Can Be Anywhere, Anytime, Any Place - Erik Moller
Protest by performance (protest theatre) is as old as mankind. It seems that In an age of future conformity, there’ll always be protesters somewhere breaking boundaries.

What artists in all genres choose to protest about/against, how they seek to effect change, is open to different interpretations, from geographical to racial, from historical to social and from environmental to economic.

After the 1960s, Bob Dylan denied his songs were part of the protest movement (war, nuclear bomb, drugs, youth), yet clearly, songs like Maggie’s Farm, Blowin’ in the Wind, Hurricane, Oxford Town, With God On Our Side, for instance, convey messages strong enough to stir emotion against injustice and prejudice. That is just what protest theatre does, whether it be on stage, in song/dance, through paintings, movies or speeches declaimed like Martin Luther King’s 1963, ‘I have a dream’.

Protest Theatre as Subversive Comedy

In their book The Triumph of Pierrot: The Commedia dell’Arte and the Modern Imagination (1993), Martin Green and John Swan argued that three lists of items from the late 20th century should be compiled. One, included Rocky Horror Show, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s operas and Halloween in Greenwich Village exaggerated style in language of violence and sexual challenge.

Two, included New York City Ballet, exhibitions of Picasso’s acrobat and Harlequin paintings, revivals of Pierot Lunaire or Berg’s Lulu, American Repertory Theater’s King Stag, which controlled the originals’ bold, disturbing, experimental works ‘by decorum and sophistication’.

Their third list was contemporary artistes deriving from surrealism, who challenged decorum, self respect and reality itself: works by David Hockney, Ravel, Poulenc, Samuel Beckett, films by Fellini and Bergman, music by Cage and dance by Cunningham. The authors suggested that the three lists had much in common.

The second derived from the commedia dell’Arte; the first and third showed ‘today what the commedia represented in the past’. Society’s dominant respectable values were attacked by commedia’s ‘non-serious means’. That distinguished the commedia from other forms of political and artistic radicalism.

They believed commedia was always ‘non-serious in intention, defiantly frivolous and sullenly crude’. It belonged to the world of entertainment, but frequently invaded high-art and tragedy. To see it as a weapon of subversion undermining authority through ridicule, satire and exaggeration, is but a small step.

Protest as Commercial Enterprise

The commedia particularly mocked authority in whatever guise it dressed, and was the most effective subversive protest theatre. A line can be traced through the art form to Gay’s Beggars’ Opera (1728), adapted by Brecht as The Threepenny Opera (1928) in which criminality became part of the rebellion of commedia. A movie like The Breakfast Club (1985) showed disrespect for authority among other themes, without being an overtly teenage protest film.

Often the avant garde, the revolutionary becomes mainstream, as commercialism takes over. Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, Hedgehoppers Anonymous’ It”s Good News Week, Phil Ochs’ I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore and Edwin Starr’s War are remembered for chart success then (and now in the nostalgia market) rather than protest anthems as such.

Neil Young, first famous in the 1960s, produced in 2006 ‘a full blown anti-Bush protest album’, Living With War. Ray Davies has produced subsequent work to his 60s’ hits with The Kinks of a social comment style, that could be seen as a working class voice of protest. Working Man’s Cafe (2007) is a cross between class warfare and nostalgia.

Picasso’s painting Guernica (1937), described by Treasures of the World as ‘modern art’s most powerful antiwar statement’ emerged from Spain’s civil war between republicans and fascists. Although his sympathies lay with republicans, Picasso avoided politics and disdained overtly political art. Today, it is viewed as a powerful piece of art first, and as political protest later.

Legacy of the 1960s

While many artists from the 60s are still active and political/protest theatre didn’t begin in the 1960s, the era was marked by increasing affluence empowering young people, along with cultural changes in music, art, theatre, fashion and sex that put young people’s demands near the front of politico-media agendas.

1968 in Europe especially was labelled the ‘Year of Revolution’ with protesters and police clashing outside the American Embassy over the Vietnam War and students manning the barricades in Paris and across parts of France, echoing protests in some US cities, Mexico and Prague. Britain also had troubles in Northern Ireland with housing and employment protests; Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament regularly attracted hundreds of thousands in peaceful marches.

So, the issues were civil rights, individual freedom, racial equality. Australian Michael Hughes wrote in Let’s Talk magazine in 2008 about how his was the only foreign country to fight alongside the USA in Vietnam, and he was among the first to be conscripted. He wrote: ‘We were all so young and naive, that none really understood what the war was all about’.

The rock musical Hair (1967) encapsulated that feeling that young men particularly did not want to fight with a high probability of dying in a war that they neither understood nor cared about. Arlo Guthrie’s movie Alice’s Restaurant (1969) did much the same exercise in protest. These were musical protest theatre pieces.

Nowadays, protest is as likely in the arena of the global internet than elsewhere. In August 2007, students and graduates were angered by the bank HSBC charging interest on previously free overdrafts. The Guardian reported in an article by Tony Levene, how they launched a ‘viral campaign’ against the bank on Facebook.

Even in the 21st century, news footage of rioters/protesters being water cannoned, truncheoned, rounded up by the authorities is commonplace in many countries. In Britain there is still freedom to mock authority to some extent. The late 2010 student riots that threatened Prince Charles and his wife arose from peaceful campaigning on London’s streets, showing that protest can turn violent, ugly and probably counterproductive.

On a lesser scale, public monuments (like Nelson’s column in London) are frequently daubed with temporary laser light images to highlight issues in public consciousness. As protest against the power of British TV talent show The X Factor to determine the Christmas Number 1 single, people in their thousands ensured that Rage Against The Machine was the most bought/downloaded 2009 Christmas single.

Across the world, in South Africa to South America, the Pacific to the poles, there are peoples, tribes, cultures where somebody at some time is protesting and using performance to do it. Protest theatre is clearly alive and flourishing as it adapts to changing circumstances, freshly perceived outrages and evolving technology.

First published on Suite 101, 19 January 2011.

Photo: Protest Can Be Anywhere, Anytime, Any Place – Erik Moller

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