Staging protests vs staged protests

Do we go to the theatre to confront our problems or to escape them?


There’s a rousing speech in a play that opens in Dublin next week, where a crook puts his crimes in perspective. If it were new it would seem like a playwright pandering to the moment: “What’s a jemmy compared to a share certificate? Which is worse – breaking into a bank or founding a bank? What’s murdering a man compared to employing one?”

The play is The Threepenny Opera, Bertolt Brecht’s 1928 anti-capitalist satire (filmed in 1931, above), in which everything is a racket. Morality is a front for grubby commerce, the cops are in cahoots with the gangsters, and even London’s beggars have been regulated, paying kickbacks to a boss.

When it first opened in Berlin, Brecht’s timing couldn’t have been worse. Wall Street was booming and any cracks in the Weimar Republic’s economy – scaling wages, prices and debts – were papered over with foreign capital.

Then the Stock Market crashed, the Great Depression hit, three million Germans were out of work, an aspiring politician named Hitler suggested that his party had the answer, and the play became a hit. Brecht didn’t enjoy it long; by 1933 he had fled the Nazis. In national politics, as in the stock market, prescient people know when to get out.

These days, though, The Threepenny Opera fits snugly into our idea of political theatre. Rather than an unwelcome slap in the face of the complacent, it tells us what we already know. Yes, the authorities are corrupt or inefficient. Yes, the banks are to blame. Yes, a populace is easily gulled or distracted. Or – oh my – aren’t these costumes beautiful?

You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t when it comes to political theatre. A recent critique of one performance art piece, reliant on audience interaction, found it significant only in terms of “how the artistic response to politics has lost its direction over the past century”.

That’s quite an assertion, suggesting a downward spiral from Shaw to Piscator to O’Casey to Miller to Osborne to Beckett to Boal to Churchill to Abramovic and, finally, a room where an audience might spit on a woman, cut her hair, or dunk her face in a basin of water at the slightest instruction. The show was called Protest, but I saw very little of it: on my viewing nobody refused these tasks.

Last week a genuine protest over austerity was widely dismissed as a nuisance for commuters, which says a lot about political inaction and forelock-tugging obedience in our country, or how the popular response to resistance and alternatives is as lost as it ever was.

Within Anu’s Dublin Lockout-inspired projectThirteen was a fretful awareness that the show might substitute for genuine political action – “staging” protests in lieu of the real thing, working off antagonisms instead of stoking them. Brecht didn’t want to let his audience off the hook either, and so his “epic theatre” aimed to startle and estrange.

For Brecht, the conventional audience looked at the stage and said: “That’s life. That’s the way it will always be.” Today they might say: “That’s very strange. That has to stop.” It’s too easy to dismiss that assertion as well, but at least it throws the question back on the spectator. Do we go to the theatre to confront our problems or to escape them?

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