Socialist Worker

Donald Freed on the cathartic power of political theatre

US playwright Donald Freed spoke to Anindya Bhattacharyya about his latest project, Patient Number One, which opens next month

Issue No. 2096

US radical playwright Donald Freed

US radical playwright Donald Freed

It's Christmas 2009 in a secret psychiatric unit hidden in the Florida Everglades. A psychoanalyst is about to confront the institution's most famous inmate – former US president George Bush.

This is the premise behind Patient Number One, the latest work by the US playwright Donald Freed, which receives its world premiere at the York Theatre Royal next month.

Freed, who has been described by radical historian Studs Terkel as 'the most political and pertinent of all US playwrights', is currently playwright in residence at the York Theatre Royal and artist in residence at the Workshop Theatre of the University of Leeds.

'I suppose you might call me a voluntary exile,' he says. 'I've been working in Britain off and on since the 1980s, writing plays that were about the US, but could only really play there by making the passage to Britain and then coming back.'

A key reason for this is the tradition of radical British theatre exemplified by playwrights such as Harold Pinter, he adds. 'That tradition is a powerful enough current to make productions possible even though the plays were politically challenging.'

Freed's work includes The Devil's Advocate, which examines the 1989 US invasion of Panama, and The White Crow, about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust.

But Donald found that writing about contemporary political events presented special challenges. 'I felt that I couldn't say anything until some years had gone by, yet I also felt it was politically intolerable to wait before saying anything.

'Then the penny dropped – why not just pretend some years had gone by? It sounds simple, but it meant setting aside the anger and loathing I felt. After that, the other ideas clicked in.'

Point of view

This dilemma relates to wider ones about the tense relationship between political propaganda and art, he says. 'The facts may be the same, the truths may be the same, but the point of view of an artist is not the point of view of a propagandist.

'Every work of art is propaganda in the sense that it propagates an idea, but the reverse is not necessarily true.'

Recent years have seen an explosion in political theatre, much of it about issues related to the 'war on terror' and based on documentary material or testimonies.

While Donald broadly welcomes this 'theatre of fact', he argues that there is a political role that theatre can play that goes beyond representing reality – something he describes as 'prophetic political theatre'.

'There's a lot of satire, parody and 'theatre of fact' being written, and I'm not being critical of it – it's all necessary and healthy. But I feel that although this is more political theatre in one way, in another it has become less adequate to the challenge.'

This political potential of theatre is closely linked to the very nature of the medium, he says. 'Theatre by its nature is fundamentally subversive.

'What happens in theatre is that a truth is revealed – a truth that has the power to start in motion a process that reaches across what seemed to have been the compartmentalised areas of personal and public life.'

Donald describes this process as 'catharsis' – a term meaning 'purification' that was used by the Greek philosopher Aristotle to describe the feelings that would sweep through an audience after watching a tragic play.

This process of catharsis is a universal feature of great drama through the ages, Donald argues, encompassing plays as diverse as Sophocles's Antigone, Shakespeare's King Lear and Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman.

'What you feel when you see a good production of one of these plays is specific to the particular play, but it sets in motion repercussions that are much more profound,' says Donald. 'You are touched by something incomparably older than the life you have experienced consciously.'

Donald is passionate about the power of art and radical political movements to change the world. 'I saw what happened in the anti-war movement in the 1960s around the world. There were whole elements of otherwise uninvolved classes that came into it.

'Don't think there hasn't been a response. Look at the US today, when 4,000 US casualties in Iraq are taken with more seriousness than 40,000 were during the Vietnam War. Why is that?

'Can you believe that today they would take the same level of casualties? And that is why historically, the US empire is over.'

Patient Number One, written by Donald Freed and directed by Damian Cruden, runs at the York Theatre Royal from 1 May to 17 May. Go to »

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Tue 8 Apr 2008, 19:57 BST
Issue No. 2096
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