Socialist Worker

Drama made out of a crisis

by Lindsey German
Issue No. 1919

IF YOU want to hear debate about the war in Iraq, look no further than a theatre near you. Blair may have succeeded in closing down debate in parliament, but a record number of plays have as their themes the war and its consequences.

The most prestigious is David Hare’s Stuff Happens, on the huge Olivier stage at the National Theatre in London. The title refers to Donald Rumsfeld’s casual racist remark as Baghdad’s museums were looted of treasures while US Marines guarded the oil ministry.

Hare uses words from Bush, Blair, Cheney, Powell and Rice to make the case against war. Hare allows a speech justifying war and accusing those who are against it of being Western liberals.

But Hare’s last word goes to the Iraqis themselves in whose name the war took place. You can be in no doubt at the end where the writer’s—and the audience’s—sympathies lie.

Edinburgh’s festival last month was full of anti-war plays. Within the last year in London there have been plays about the Hutton report and Guantanamo Bay, Justin Butcher’s The Madness of George Dubya (which returns to the London stage next month), Pugilist Specialist, about US soldiers assassinating a moustachioed Middle Eastern dictator, Follow my Leader by Alastair Beaton and now Embedded, Tim Robbins’s anti-war play.

Established plays from Greek tragedy to Shakespeare have also been staged to project the message that war is wrong.

So many of these plays appear, and such is their level of popularity, that some right wing critics have been sent into a spin. “Where are the voices of the right in theatre?” was the theme of a recent Financial Times article. They are still there, as any glance at West End theatre bills will show. But something new has happened.

In part it is a reaction to years of safe theatre, reliant on big corporations for finance. But there is something much more fundamental going on. The war in Iraq highlighted the lack of real democracy in Britain and the US.

There was no political outcome to the debate over war because a tiny number of people in and around government went ahead and did what they wanted. Alternative politics was dammed up.

And when there is no official outlet for political protest and dissent it takes all sorts of different forms. People take to the streets, as they have done in their millions in the past two years.

But they also look to other forms of expression through art. Theatre is one of its most immediate, direct and compelling forms.

It has long had a radical tradition. In the 1930s theatre was a major form of protest. The Great Depression, the rise of fascism and the ever-present threat of war meant art was increasingly touched by politics.

The German playwright Bertolt Brecht used popular songs and stories plus techniques of involving the audience to connect theatre to people’s lives rather than it being seen as remote or elitist. He used his plays to attack capitalists—“What’s robbing a bank compared to owning one?” he wrote.

In the US radical theatre led to plays like Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets and Cradle will Rock, whose story was made into a film by Tim Robbins.

When a new generation became radicalised in the 1960s and 1970s theatre changed dramatically, with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in east London and agitprop theatre groups like CAST. Art and politics fused—and the result was often some of the most powerful theatre of its generation.

Stuff Happens has been criticised for being too political and because it might not be accurate. On this count you would never watch one of Shakespeare’s history plays. Anyway, it’s a bit rich coming from supporters of this government who took us into a war based on lies.

Maybe we should suggest that parliament should be turned into one big stage for producing topical plays. It would certainly be more interesting—and maybe more truthful as well.

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Sat 18 Sep 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1919
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