Friday, November 23, 2012

Notes Towards a Gonzo Dramaturgy

"Politics is the art of controlling your environment."--Hunter S. Thompson

Make no bones about it, kick and scream all you like, but the theatre is an inherently political art.  Regardless of what you do, what your show choice is, the casting decisions, or venue, the shadow of politics will hang over you like the ICBM of Damocles.  The contemporary theatre needs to either become comfortable with this fact, and embrace it, or resign itself to the same forces that rendered the gaslight, eight-track , and buggy whip the hot seller they are today.

Let's begin with just a little bit of history regarding the relationship between theater and politics.  A little history is good for the soul and, if you do not have a clear idea about where you are coming from, you don't have a chance of knowing where you're going.  But one of the earliest recorded run-ins between theatre and politics was the poets banishment from Plato's "City in Speech" in order to make way for the philosopher-king.  Socrates in the "Apology" even mentions Aristophanes' "The Clouds" as being one of the strongest arguments against him.  And in contemporary politics, theatre (and its close cousin rhetoric) is generally derided.  "Political theatre" sounds only slightly more pleasant coming from the mouth of a pundit than something like "Liver Herpes."  It dredges up everything potentially fake, shallow, and vacuous in the democratic process in a compact two words and effectively castigates a rival.  These two forces have been hopelessly intertwined and at loggerheads throughout their history, which is the natural enough case when really there are two organisms eating out of the same pool of resources.

And let us acknowledge the full spectrum of what generally falls under the "political theatre" spectrum.  You have plays like "Democracy," "Farragut North," and "Leaving" which deal directly with politics, policital figures, and the mechanics of statecraft.  Closely related come agit-prop or issue pieces like "Normal Heart," "Hair," or "The Laramie Project."  Usually concieved with a particular motivation in mind, usually to shake up the accepted wisdom or strip away a cover story and expose the audience to something.  We can spread this even further to cover acts like Pussy Riot and the work of Dario Fo and Augusto Boal as well.  Already we find a great deal of performance that easily falls under the rubric of "political."

But what we're getting at is even more basic than that.  ALL theatre is political.  By the very act of bringing people together (both collaborators and audience) you are committing a political act.  That community theatre down the road, with its seasons comprised of the most non-objectionable material possible still brings people together to engage in escapism.  The college that rejects a piece because it's not "middle-of-the-road enough" stands as bosom buddies to the frightened ostrich.  These are political acts to reinforce the status quo.  Though they might not be intentional, the final effect does not change.  "Everything is just fine.... forget about things for a while.  Dr. Feelgood will see you now."

There's nothing wrong with a little escapism, so long as you acknowledge that is what it is.  But why pass up so many opportunities as they present themselves?  GOP Senator Marco Rubio acknowledged his anti-science stance recently in an interview when asked about the age of the Earth.  Why is he not being mocked mercilessly for this?  Why laugh at "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" when there is so much more fertile ground that is being largely neglected by the American theatre?  Hypocrisies are shining like cat turds in the moonlight!  It is time that the American theatre seize control of its environment.  The stage is one of the most powerful communication tools in the history of mankind, and the rise of internet technology has extended our reach further than we ever thought imaginable.  Henry Mencken is dead and gone, so is Mark Twain.  Even Vonnegut and Thompson have left us.  So it is time that the theatre reclaim its rightful place and start telling everyone that the Emperor has no clothes.  It is time for a Gonzo Dramaturgy.

The difference between the pundits who deride "political theatre" and those of us engaged in Gonzo Dramaturgy is that we, unlike the aforementioned pundits, are operating in good faith and full knowledge of what we are doing.  They are hypocrits.  We are not.

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