The decline of politically-engaged theatre

Michael Keaney michael.keaney at mbs.fi
Mon Feb 24 07:36:54 MST 2003


Following Lou Proyect's forwarding of Arthur Miller's article:


Goodbye to all that

During the Vietnam war, theatres sprang into action to stage visionary,
engaged work. Would they do the same today, asks Michael Billington

Thursday January 9, 2003
The Guardian

'To use a play to fight a war is taking a taxi to the Marne." So wrote Peter
Brook in his Manifesto for the Sixties. His point initially seems
surprising, since his production of US at the Aldwych in October 1966 is
remembered by many, myself included, as a bold, vivid attempt to raise
public consciousness about the Vietnam War. It was vehemently attacked by
left and right. But it also packed out the Aldwych during its five-month
repertory run and brought the big issue of the day on to a public stage.

Could it, or something like it, happen now? As we sleepwalk towards a
possible war with Iraq, can you imagine the stages of the Royal Shakespeare
Company or the National being cleared for a specially created show that put
the conflict in context? That, I suspect, will be one of the issues debated
at a day-long event, entitled US Revisited, in London on January 19. It will
comprise two films, Peter Whitehead's Benefit of the Doubt and Peter Brook's
Tell Me Lies, both derived from the Aldwych production. It will climax with
a discussion, led by Brook himself and Tony Benn, asking what we can all do
about the war with Iraq and posing the question: "Has nothing moved on in 40
years?"

I can answer one part of that. I would say our theatre has, if anything,
moved relentlessly backwards in 40 years, and is far less likely than it was
in the 1960s to address a major public issue. To be fair, Iraq is not
exactly Vietnam and we are not, as yet, at war. To its credit, a company
called Passion Pit Theatre is also jumping the gun by staging a satire
called The Madness of George Dubya (or Strangelove Revisited) at Theatro
Technis in London. And I suppose you could argue that by adapting Midnight's
Children the RSC is at least addressing postcolonial politics. But it is
still inconceivable that a national company would now, as it did in 1966,
clear the stage for a production about the burning issue of the moment.

There is a whole range of reasons for this. For a start our theatre, like
our society, is much less politically driven: it is worth remembering that
US was presented in 1966 by a company that had already staged Rolf
Hochhuth's The Representative and a reading of Peter Weiss's The
Investigation. In the same year, the National was contemplating a show about
the Cuban missile crisis and the Hampstead Theatre was putting on plays
about Lee Harvey Oswald and the nuclear physicist J Robert Oppenheimer.
There was even a lively debate about what became known as theatre of fact -
a welcome contrast to our own theatre of evasive fiction.

Our national companies were also infinitely more flexible in their
programming, as well as more visionary, than they are today. It is
astonishing to recall that Brook advised Peter Hall, the RSC's artistic
director, that US was an experiment that might not lead to a stageable show.
Brook was given a 14-week rehearsal period with a decision to be taken after
10 weeks as to whether there would be any public performances. It is
impossible to imagine our business-driven, administration-heavy national
companies allowing any artist such licence today.

But Brook himself got to the nub of the issue in an essay he wrote after the
event. "We started US," he wrote, "from what for us was a great need - to
face up to the call, the challenge of this present Vietnamese situation. We
recognised that no finished, formed work of art about Vietnam existed: we
knew you can't go to an author, give him a sum of money and say, 'We order
from you, as from a shop, the following masterpiece about Vietnam.' So
either one does nothing or one says, 'Let's begin.' "

This was the real secret of US. It was a collective response to an immediate
situation masterminded by a director of genius. Admittedly, this produced
its own tensions. The first half, beginning with an act of Buddhist
self-immolation, was a dazzling collage tracing the history of Vietnam and
the impact of American intervention on the conflict between north and south.
Mixing mime, song and speech, it was largely the work of Adrian Mitchell,
Albert Hunt, Geoffrey Reeves and composer Richard Peaslee. The second half,
written by Denis Cannan, dealt with our own reactions to the war and
climaxed in a famous speech, delivered by Glenda Jackson, attacking British
indifference to distant tragedy.

Even today it makes powerful reading: "I would like to see an English dog
playing on an English lawn with part of a burned hand. I would like to see a
gas grenade go off at an English flower show and nice English ladies
crawling in each other's sick. And all this I would like to be photographed
and filmed so that someone a long way off, safe in his chair, could watch us
in our indignity!" Clearly Cannan was doing, through verbal images, what
Sarah Kane sought to do, through visceral representation, 30 years later in
Blasted: shock us into an awareness of the reality of the war. But, at the
time, it led Mitchell and Hunt to contemplate dissociating themselves from
the production on the grounds that it asked the audience to wallow in its
own futility.

What held the show's fissiparous elements together was Brook's diplomatic
skill and theatrical wizardry. US was attacked in parliament by dim-witted
MPs for being "full of poisonous anti-American propaganda" and, for more
rational politcal and aesthetic reasons, by Kenneth Tynan and Charles
Marowitz. But what it did was use a public stage to force us to examine our
own attitudes to Vietnam. It happened because of the questing genius of
Peter Brook ("Let's begin") and the enlightened patronage of Peter Hall.
Where, one wonders, are their successors as we stumble towards war with Iraq
in a state of national narcolepsy?




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