Presidents’ Day Weekend is coming up, so it’s a great time to think about politics in theater! Given the tumult of the political landscape these days, navigating politics and art can be challenging, but political theater often works on a deeper level for audiences and understanding the way that theater might be working politically, can make us better, more informed audiences.
There are two fundamental schools of thought about what theater should do and how it should operate. Aristotelian theater, as described (appropriately) by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his book The Poetics, lays the groundwork for what makes theater “good.” Those rules stood for more than a millennium until the 20th century when epic theater, or non-Aristotelian theater, roared into life during the major wars that dominated the first half of the century.
Simply stated, Aristotle wanted his audiences to get lost in the story and hopefully have a good cry at the end. Bertolt Brecht, the godfather of epic theater, most decidedly did not want his audiences to get lost in the story. If anyone was going to cry at the end of a piece of epic theater, it was going to be tears of rage.
Aristotle saw theater as a means of controlling the public. In ancient Greece, one major form of entertainment was a drama festival. People would attend these special events with rabidity of NFL fans. The festivals were not simply kindhearted gestures of civic largesse. They were carefully crafted programs with a political motive: the quelling of a rowdy populace. Aristotle suggested that farmers and merchants would enter the theater preoccupied with the price of corn and the lack of traders from Sparta. Through the course of the drama unfolding before them, they would become so engrossed in the action, story, and tension of the play that they would forget their problems. Eventually, the hero would meet his or her tragic end, which would cause a catharsis, or emotional purge, in the audience. Relieved of excess emotion, the audience would return home, quelled. If you thought the price of gas was keeping you up at night, you should see what poor Oedipus (available on BroadwayHD) had to deal with.
Brecht wanted no part of Aristotle’s controlling catharsis. To him, no good could come from state control through this emotional manipulation. His epic theater works actively against catharsis through a number of different tactics. It all boils down to the idea that Brecht believes you shouldn’t ever forget that you’re watching a play when you’re watching a play. When the farmer or merchant can’t forget they’re watching a play, for example, then they’ll not only stay angry about the price of corn, they might even become angrier, which might lead to them actually doing something about the price of corn. That ultimately was Brecht’s whole point.
These two forces remain at work in our art and entertainment to this very day, and it has spilled out of the theater into the movies and onto television. Ironically, one of the most Aristotelian forms of entertainment is reality TV. Who doesn’t watch The Bachelor and lose themselves in the narrative that’s being spun? The same thing goes for sporting events. We can pour our hearts and souls into rooting for our team to win, which often distracts us from the daily grind.
There are people who want to escape into art and entertainment and there are those who want to activate through it. That is the eternal dinner table argument about theater. Are you an Aristotelian or a Brechtian? Probably a little bit of both, and that is great. There are many great options for experiencing both. The politics of theater may not be as complicated as the politics in the rest of the world, but as we think about Presidents’ Day Weekend, we can remember that learning about the political forces in our daily lives can help us function more completely in our society.