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Interview with Augusto Boal, founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed

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Augusto Boal is a pioneering Brazilian director and playwright who founded the Theatre of the Oppressed, a form of theatre that encourages the audience to be an active participant in the drama.
Issue 2101
Augusto Boal
Augusto Boal

Augusto Boal is a pioneering Brazilian director and playwright who founded the Theatre of the Oppressed, a form of theatre that encourages the audience to be an active participant in the drama.

Boal’s experiments with new forms of theatre began in the 1930s. Inspired by the educational ideas of Paulo Freire, author of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and outraged at widespread social injustice, he started producing theatre with a radical political message in Brazil’s poorest districts.

Boal’s political agitation brought him to the attention of the military dictatorship that ran Brazil at the time. He was arrested and tortured by the junta in 1971, before being sent into exile in Argentina.

The Brazilian dictatorship was overthrown 1985 and Boal returned to his home city of Rio de Janeiro shortly afterwards. Today he works on a variety of projects with Brazil’s ministry of culture, and is a supporter of the centre left government of president Lula da Silva.

Augusto Boal and his son Julian, who is based in France, were in Dublin recently to participate in a theatre seminar. While they were there they spoke to Paul O’Brien from Socialist Worker’s Irish sister paper.

How do you respond to those who say political theatre is dead?

Augusto: Julian has written a very beautiful book in which he analyses the popular theatre movement in Brazil. This movement was extraordinary in that it politicised a large part of the population, but at the same time it was from the top down. In other words, it told people what they should write or paint – the movement came with orders.

Today, we do not do that. That is why I changed to the Theatre of the Oppressed, which is much more political than what went before, because it stimulates people to think and act, rather than simply receive a message, become an automaton and do things because that’s the way to do it.

So I believe that political theatre and culture is much more alive than it was before. Before it was acceptable to go to the proletariat and say ‘do this’, or to the peasants and say ‘do that’. Now we try and stimulate people to do what they are able to do and what they want to do.

Julian: The fact is that many people celebrate the ‘death of political theatre’ because they think political theatre isn’t good enough, or that it is too dogmatic.

But you cannot understand history without knowing that playwrights like Bertolt Brecht, Vsevolod Meyerhold or Vladimir Mayakovsky had completely reinvented theatre – and that they were also political activists. So you cannot make a sharp separation between political theatre and mainstream theatre.

The question we have to ask ourselves is the one raised by film-maker Jean-Luc Godard: ‘If we are activists – for who? against who? for what? against what?’ If you don’t have an answer to these questions, then the political orientation you have is too vague for you to be able to claim that you are really political.

Playwrights such as David Hare have developed the idea of documentary drama, where theatre steps in to substitute for the failure of journalism, such as over the Iraq war.

Augusto: I am not familiar with that type of theatre, but I can tell you that the Theatre of the Oppressed started as a forum called the Newspaper Theatre at a time when we had repression, imprisonment and torture in Brazil.

We started using techniques to transform the news in the newspaper into a theatrical scene, to show how newspapers are a form of fiction like any other. So sometimes they say some truths, or parts of the truth, but you don’t understand what is really happening.

I always say that semantics is a battlefield. You have a word and you say that word means such a thing, but it does not. They call the US a ‘democratic’ country, but that is an absurdity. How can you say it’s democratic if you need money to buy space in the newspaper, or time on television? We need to demystify newspapers as well as television.

Julian: I’ve not seen Hare’s documentary drama either. But the question arises – what is the political orientation of the drama? Is it just reproducing the news, or is it challenging the news? I am not against or in favour of any kind of theatre – it’s just I have to see where it is going to politically.

There is one thing we see very clearly right now. When we go back to the Vietnam War, everyone remembers the image of the little girl running, burnt with napalm. Now we have the image of the Abu Ghraib tortures – but no one remembers that.

The images presented on the news, no matter how terrible, are no longer involving us or touching us. We have to look at different ways of getting the people involved.

A number of artists are worried that state promotion and financing of the arts have compromised their ability to speak truthfully. You are currently working with Gilberto Gil, Brazil’s minister of culture. Is there a danger in this?

Augusto: No, not at all. I support Lula’s government – and it’s the first time in my professional life, perhaps 60 years, that I have supported the government.

Some of the governments in the past were not so bad, but they were weak and undecided. But this is the first time the government has had a very clear cultural programme.

Gilberto Gil has said that he was inspired by the work we had been doing before against the old government. And we do not follow the government’s direction. In many of these cultural projects, we question the government politically.

But in matters of culture we agree totally. Lula came to talk to us and spoke about how culture comes from the people and is not imposed on the people – things we have been saying for 30 years or more.

There are things that I do not agree with. I think Lula should have made a more extensive agrarian reform. But Brazil has never been so democratic as it is now. It is the best government we have ever had, although it is not the best to which we can aspire.

This interview was originally published in the Irish edition of Socialist Worker. Go to »

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