With mediums such as television having audiences of millions and sparking instant mass debate, Erin Cobby questions whether theatre is still a tool for revolutionary thought.
What makes a play revolutionary? This was discussed during an event I attended recently in which two female playwrights analysed their work considering this concept. It made me question why so many artists turn to theatre to explore revolutionary ideas and, in a modern context, is theatre still the best form in which to explore these ideas? Many of those involved in more ‘fringe’ theatre bewail institutions that repress agitational creative thought, and yet still highlight the potential of theatre to act as a space which champions diversity in all its forms. This sparks an interesting paradox: can theatre be an ideal tool for revolutionary thought, while still being largely controlled by stoic institutions?
Often connected with Bolshevism, revolutionary theatre was first introduced to Europe via Buchner’s play Woyzeck, the first play to famously link self-determination and social/economic opportunity. The genre has since moved away from easily identifiable, nationalistic themes and now is used more abstractly to describe theatre which in some way challenges mainstream media and champions those not protected by the state, whether this be a case of sex, class or race.
While the concept of what constitutes a revolutionary play has widened, the potential impact of these plays is still rather limited due to their small audience number. In contrast, television is succeeding as a platform for subversive programming as it eliminates the problem of ‘preaching to the converted’ due to its wide reach. Revolutionary television sparks instant national debate – Bodyguard, which challenged ideas about racial stereotypes and the war on terror reached the homes of 11 million people, in turn provoking widespread discussion surrounding its central themes.
However, the burgeoning success of revolutionary television is not necessarily reductive for theatre. In fact, the opposite may be true: the merging of multiple art forms can increase accessibility. For instance, BBC 1Xtra now programmes radio plays, entering an arena which was previously dominated by Radio 4, allowing theatre to reach a whole new audience. The inverse is also occurring: theatre is currently incorporating different art forms, widening its appeal. This is exemplified by many recent productions, including Poet in da Corner, a play based around Dizzee Rascals first album, which reviewers had to accept was ‘less cringey than it sounds’. What makes this poignant is its awareness of the problems of exploring Grime in a theatrical context, of placing a story which deals with race and class in a privileged atmosphere. A character states: “it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been a white girl’s inspiring anecdote”. Therefore, as this revolutionary theme hasn’t been artificially inserted into theatre, the form itself encourages further reflection. This important distinction is also addressed in the West End production of Misty. This play uses music to question the point of having a lived experience on stage. It highlights the irony of performing to an audience that ‘doesn’t look like us’ while making fun of theatre’s use of the word ‘urban’ as a selling point. By incorporating a more accessible art form, theatre escapes false representation, allowing it to become more accessible and potentially more revolutionary.
This multi-media format is potentially exacerbated by the proliferation of artists using a DIY approach when it comes to putting on plays. If a concept is rejected by an institution for being ‘too fringe’, due to the rise of social media, people are now more able than ever to find the support they need through collaborations. Sites like Bossy, a platform for female artists to connect with one another, enable more subversive theatre to be made as there is increased potential for self-direction. Roles are blurred between director, actor and producer which enables plays to ‘leave the theatre’, taking on a more entrepreneurial feeling.
There is also a sense of urgency occurring in the theatre which is unable to be recreated by television. Theatre is one of the only mediums which offers the potential for audience interaction on this scale. The riots after Cliffard Odet’s Waiting for Lefty, provide one amongst hundreds of historical examples of theatre causing political action. While this direct action may not be common place in London’s theatres, there is a subtler sense of inspiration which can lead to the proliferation of revolutionary thought. Many playwrights can pinpoint the experience that made them want to write theatre, with most of these having occurred while watching a play. Penelope Skinner, writer of Fucked, states that it was seeing part of her own life on stage, something she had previously thought would be shunned by the public eye, that grew in to a desire to add to the narrative. Many writers echo this, stating that whether it was an accent, or a theme in their lives, there was something about seeing it expressed on stage which left a lasting impression. This is especially true when your own story is so often excluded from mainstream media, the drive to see it represented as you perceive to be ‘correct’, is extremely strong. This visceral reaction can spark the creation of more theatre, in turn making the form revolutionary.
Although theatre is limited in the number of people it can reach, it is a form which is unique in its ability to inspire. For Simon Stephens, this transgressive element was simply coming to a London theatre on a school night, for others, it was the life changing experience of seeing a part of yourself on stage. In any case, there is an undeniable subversive experience which can occur when seeing theatre. Seemingly, especially with the inclusive bounds that theatre is making and the technological developments which aid the rise of ‘fringe’ theatre, it’s future as a revolutionary form is secure.