Political commentary is possible through "variety" theatre, this volume contends. Compiled from the April 2000 Theatre Symposium held on the campus of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, this collection of essays
presents a compelling mix of theoretical and practical viewpoints from a broad diversity of scholars from around the country.
What remains to be learned about the political objectives of Brecht's Lehrstriucke? What political power is resident in the satirical humor of Dario Fo's drama? What can we learn from Mordecai Gorelik's political/artistic philosophy that might inform contemporary practice? What was the impact of political theatre on Broadway between the wars? Is Thornton Wilder's Our Town the play we've always imagined it to be, or does it challenge the politics of its time? What is the role of theatre activism in raising consciousness about gender politics? These are only some of the questions addressed by this lively, informative discussion.
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Theatre and Politics in the Twentieth Century
By Carol Burbank, Jonathan Chambers, Steve Earnest, Kurt Eisen, James Fisher, Anne Fletcher, Christopher Herr, Susan Kattwinkel, John O'Connor, Mary Trotter, Jeff Turner
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2016 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Ladies Against Women
Theatre Activism and Satirical Gender Play in the 1980s
In The Bone Won't Break John McGrath proposes that political theatre contributes to
a definition, a revaluation of the cultural identity of a people or a section of society. ... Secondly, it ... can, by allowing [threatened communities] to speak, help them to survive. Thirdly, it can mount an attack on the standardization of culture and consciousness which is a function of late industrial/early technological "consumerist" societies everywhere. Fourthly, it can be and often is linked to a wider political struggle for the right of a people or a section of a society to control its own destiny. ... Fifthly, it can make a challenge to the values imposed on it from a dominant group — it can help to stop ruling class, or ruling race, or male, or multinational capitalist values being "universalised" as common sense, or self-evident truth. (142)
These guidelines offer an international perspective to illuminate the power of theatre as a political force.
Theatre and theatrical protest were central to the direct action movement in the United States. Yet, although activists created a remarkable range of performances and plays, theatrical activism has too often been under theorized and undocumented, perceived as somehow less relevant to social change than speeches, sit-ins, and manifestos. When theatre is considered as serious activism, historians tend to focus on the most well-known, professional companies like the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Important as the plays and players of long-lived community-based companies are as exemplars of political theatre, theatrical activism was more deeply integrated into the direct action movements of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s than the study of scripted political theatre might suggest. Protest theatre offered nonprofessional performers a creative forum for presenting arguments in the streets and onstage, attracting media attention and galvanizing community identities in the conservative backlash that followed the cultural transformations of the 1960s in a practice I have called "intra-gender drag" (Burbank).
I am particularly interested in the ways countercultural parody and theatrical protest, in street interventions, rally entertainments, and cabaret performances, were used to counter the potent right-wing backlash that gathered national momentum during Ronald Reagan's presidency. Despite the early successes of antinuclear and environmental movements and other forms of social activism, the growing wave of right-wing activism based in Protestant moralism and global capitalism challenged or uprooted liberal and radical reforms and reasserted a nationalist ideology celebrating the nuclear family and its most conservative gender norms and economic policies. As a result, activists used the theatricality of momentary disruptions and entertainments to upstage the homogeneous naturalized spectacle of reasserted conservative normativity, expressing disrespect as a form of self-respect to create visible ongoing resistance. This self-conscious spectacle helped construct a strategic movement identity, which, along with other confrontational, lobbying, and educational aspects of social-change activities, represented a complex negotiation of escalating cultural conflict (Jasper). In particular, parody became a public performance of oppositional identity, a vital strategy to maintain what Nancy Fraser has called a "subaltern counterpublic" presence.
Cultural historian Joel Schechter argues persuasively that political satire is a powerful way of claiming agency by asserting comic irreverence against the political, rhetorical, and economic domination of the state. "The democratic impulse behind [a clown's] insistence on 'the right to make a joke' preserves at least a token of what the barbarians would destroy, even if it does not defeat them" (62). The collective experience of laughter results in a moment when "the individual feels that he is an indissoluble part of this collectivity ... the people's mass body. The crowd in a theatre becomes a democratic assembly, with a clown rather than a king or president as its chief representative" (Schechter 17). The national protest theatre movement created by the feminist parody troupe Ladies Against Women (LAW) is a case in point, with the clown/satirists re-representing diverse leaders through the lens of gendered moralism in the face of an increasingly dominant conservative capitalism.
LAW began as an offshoot of an antinuclear agitprop group, the Plutonium Players, in 1977; their work spans 1977 to 1993, beginning with the year the Players started performing in Berkeley, California, and ending with their last performances on record. LAW was more than timely comedy and entertainment for progressives, although that in itself would have been an accomplishment because the collective combined so many issues in its feminist performance practice. The original troupe won awards for its stage work and performed all over the country in support of various progressive causes, simultaneously training and supporting a network of feminist protesters and performers who used their techniques to confront right-wing protests and presentations by groups such as Phyllis Schlafly's influential Stop-ERA movement and Jerry Falwell's Christian Coalition. LAW used stage and street activist reframing to present a fun house–mirror representation of conservative gender rhetoric, playing with oppressive gender stereotypes much as gay subcultures use drag and camp to articulate a space where alternative personal and collective identities can be explored (Burbank). This essay will describe the origins and street interventions of Ladies Against Women, introducing readers to the troupe's beginnings and the practices most imitated by feminist auxiliary troupes across the country between 1981 and 1986.
The Plutonium Players/Ladies Against Women developed in a very specific theatre community, built on progressive ideas about interrelated issues, cultural loyalty, identity, and activist citizenship based in the ideals and social experiments of the 1960s and the early protests of the direct action community of the 1970s. Although troupe members were initially more committed to environmental activism than feminist activism, the group was a diverse collective that started as conventional agitprop but developed its own style as time went on. It expanded from an amateur protest arm of People Against Nuclear Power into a much imitated professional improvisational parody troupe that was a staple of the political comedy circuit in the Bay Area and eventually in the national political scene. The supportive progressive communities of the Bay Area welcomed and nurtured LAW, and the creative mix of improvisational work and political activism shaped an aesthetic that seemed unique to San Francisco theatre workers, although activist theatrical satire ultimately became a part of national feminist vocabulary throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The power of LAW's serious-minded whimsy was its combination of agitprop, subversive gender performance, and entertainment. Through tours and auxiliary troupes the group extended a Bay Area aesthetic into the national sphere, feeding a need within feminist communities for an easily replicated, satisfyingly disruptive, and playful form of protest theatre that is still practiced by activists.
The improvisational performance of Ladies Against Women expressed the experiential friction between the real and ideal. The overt performance of the relationships among corporate capital, militarism, and gender roles articulated gender as the primary currency of capitalist identity, a radical idea even in feminist circles. The men and women of the Plutonium Players created ongoing, complicated parodic characters who became an intriguing hybrid of contemporary public figures, stock characters from popular entertainment, and prisms of the performers' own political and personal experiences and psyches. Men played hyper-masculine men, women hyper-feminine women, and all shaped their characters to criticize and explore the complacencies and shortcomings of progressive movements, as well as conservative activists and organizations. Their primary mise-en-scène was costume, reclaimed from the racks of thrift stores and supplemented by emblematic accessories, such as fur stoles with visible club marks and pillbox hats. Ladies Against Women reframed conservative ideology, as well as environmentalist and leftist political issues, within feminist ideology. This performative stance, coupled with their intragender adaptation of camp and drag techniques, created a cast of characters that modeled and dismantled patriarchal assumptions on many levels. Audiences who approved of their parody of conservative politicians, activists, and ideologies were also exposed to an entertaining feminist consciousness-raising strategy designed to offend opponents and challenge supporters. In its critique of public figures like Ronald Reagan, Phyllis Schlafly, Jerry Falwell, and their followers, LAW implicated the performance of gender stereotypes themselves as complicity with cultural and personal oppressions.
In a way Ladies Against Women used self-conscious feminist resistance as an exorcising process against totalizing ideologies submerged in conservative ideals of masculinity and femininity, arguably the religious right's most potent protection against social change. They used improvisational satire as a democratizing, media-grabbing strategy to maintain a resilient and easily reproduced public presence, invoking laughter to encourage a sense of toughness and persistence in the overlapping yet polarized and struggling movements of the left in the USA.
History and Performance Practices
The Plutonium Players developed from amateur comic relief and educational humor, beginning their cultural work at rallies and protests against nuclear power and nuclear armament in the Bay Area. Nuclear issues were, arguably, the central struggle for California's environmentally aware progressive community. In the 1970s and 1980s energy companies aggressively marketed nuclear power as the next viable source of energy, responding to fears of oil and coal scarcity and the need to develop a local and long-term source of energy that did not depend on foreign trade negotiations. Unless challenged, pronuclear advocates were unwilling to discuss issues of waste disposal or radiation poisoning. When pressured, they performed a confidence meant to reassure politicians, voters, and media representatives. One Pacific Gas and Electric spokesman, public relations representative Dick Davin, announced on San Jose's KXRX radio debate, "Plutonium — you could hold. You could put it on your breakfast cereal. Literally you could. And you could eat it" (UC & Nuclear Arms 1). In addition to pivotal proposed nuclear power sites like Diablo Canyon, where PG&E succeeded in building a plant despite concerns about fault lines and plant safety, the primary targets of the most vehement protests were Lawrence Livermore Labs and its affiliate Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. These laboratories were managed by University of California researchers and administrators and were major sources of funding for energy research at the Berkeley campus (UC & Nuclear Arms 1). The labs designed and developed virtually all of the nation's nuclear weapons and were central in research on the neutron bomb (Freedman 8).
Bay Area antinuclear activists consciously used multiple strategies, including theatre, to raise awareness of the interrelated issues of military and environmental threats raised by nuclear proliferation, concerns about plant safety and efficiency, and waste disposal (Thompson; Hunter). Within the overlapping Bay Area movements the theatrical activism of groups like the Plutonium Players, and other troupes that became a regular part of public rallies, was part of a strategy of political embodiment as well as entertainment.
The Plutonium Players began working in 1977 as the "Information Through Theatre Working Collective" of People Against Nuclear Power of San Francisco. In the first year the troupe held no auditions, instead accepting all applicants, and insisted that all members cocreate what an official troupe history calls "informational pieces with intentional and unintentional comic elements" ("Plutonium Players" 1). Gail Williams describes the group's primary work as "microphone routines" and notes that everyone was expected to perform in, write for, and organize events (Williams 1). Although there were many models for rally performance, the Plutonium Players took their initial inspiration from the increasingly popular skit comedy cabaret. Satires of commercials or quick skits served as entertaining filler between speakers at rallies, in a format modeled on the then cutting-edge late night TV show Saturday Night Live (Williams 1).
Although the group performed in cabarets and Bay Area parks, producing several plays that were well received in the alternative press (see Donnelly), the most enduring performance practice became Ladies Against Women. LAW originated as a strategy the Plutonium Players improvised to advertise a "Stop the War Teach-in" on 8 April 1980 to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. In exchange for a promise to publicize the event beforehand, the progressive radio station KPFA let the Plutonium Players perform in the teach-in, which included heavy-hitting Nobel Laureate speakers, as well as bands and folksingers. Gail Williams had done non-theatrical PR for antinuclear rallies and used her press list to advertise their protest "against" the teach-in, a "Rally to Stop the Peace" at Sproul Plaza, a historic site at UC Berkeley for protests. "I drew this weird drawing of people with top hats and jewels marching with their fists clenched, a parody of some sectarian socialist poster ... printed on bright red, so you looked at it first" (Williams 5). The Reagan for Shah Committee was the central endorsing group, the result of a group brainstorm that combined California governor Ronald Reagan's bid for U.S. president with the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran's 1979 exile in New York. The Daily Californian reported that the planned rally was a response to the teach-in, noting that "speakers at this rally will include representatives from Mutants for Radioactive Environment, Berkeley Students for War, the Hexxon Research Fellowship, the Peace Resisters League, and Another Mother for World Domination" (Rodriguez 1). The imaginary antipeace activist groups built on existing groups like Students for Nuclear Disarmament, Berkeley Students for Peace, and the War Resisters League, clearly signaling the parodic nature of the event. They used their teach-in slot the next day by marching through the auditorium, masquerading as a group called Reagan for Shah Committee, chanting, "We want nukes, we want war, we think oil's worth fighting for!" ("Teach-in" 3).
The antipeace advertising rally was a more interesting event than their performance at KPFA's event, both in terms of entertaining parody and in terms of innovative political theatre. Establishing a tactic that would amuse and attract audiences and the press throughout the next decade, they kept their actor identities secret and represented themselves with great seriousness as representatives of their unlikely conservative groups. Williams reports that her LAW character was created during an early morning phone call from the national press, which called asking to talk with someone from the Reagan for Shah Campaign. "I said, 'Just a second,' put the phone down and ... invented Virginia Cholesterol. I just answered questions and ... improvised. ... We had a few ... weird slogans like, 'We want to give up elections because they pre-empt too much valuable television time,' and 'Climb into the coupe [coup] with the power under the hood: the Reagan for Shah Campaign.'" (Williams 6).
After their initial appearance the Reagan for Shah Committee, and eventually characters representing various other subcommittees, began appearing regularly in the street theatre scene of the Bay Area and the parks. By 1981, after Reagan's successful campaign, Mother Jones had picked up on the story and featured coverage of their satirical movement. "Activity continues," reported Zina Klapper, "despite internal debate over the question of whether Reagan for Shah (R4S) should now be known as Reagan Is Shah" (Klapper 10). The membership list had grown by then to include Science in the Corporate Interest, Union of Concerned Capitalists, the National Grenade Owners Association, the Future Dictators of America Club, the National Association for the Advancement of Rich People, and the John Wayne Peace Institute. Klapper noted that R4S "probably made its biggest splash at its own on-site  Democratic and Republican convention rallies. Members distributed fliers that, right down to the tiny 'Slave Labor' [logo] at the bottom, urged attendees to 'Unleash the Fury of the Ruling Class.' ... The 'toxic comedy and satire' street theater company, which ranges in size from four to nine members, then performed its 'song and dance show-and-tellathon' — the presentation of the R4S platform" (10).
Excerpted from Theatre and Politics in the Twentieth Century by Carol Burbank, Jonathan Chambers, Steve Earnest, Kurt Eisen, James Fisher, Anne Fletcher, Christopher Herr, Susan Kattwinkel, John O'Connor, Mary Trotter, Jeff Turner. Copyright © 2016 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents
Ladies Against Women: Theatre Activism and Satirical Gender Play in the 1980s Carol Burbank,
At "Cross-Purposes": John Howard Lawson's The International Jonathan Chambers,
Surpassing Representation: The Changing Character of the Collective in Lehrstücke by Brecht and Müller Steve Earnest,
Circulating Power: National Theatre as Public Utility in the Federal Theatre Project Kurt Eisen,
The Finger in the Eye: Politics and Literature in the Theatre of Dario Fo James Fisher,
When Theatre Was a Weapon (or He Wanted It to Be): The Theory and Practice of Mordecai Gorelik Anne Fletcher,
Writing the People: Political Theatre on Broadway in Interwar America Christopher Herr,
A Relationship in Flux: Variety Theatre and Government in the Twentieth Century Susan Kattwinkel,
Disrupting the Spectacle: French Situationist Political Theory and the Plays of Howard Brenton John O'Connor,
A Sort of Nationcoming: Invasion, Exile, and the Politics of Home in Modern Irish Drama Mary Trotter,
No Curtain. No Scenery: Thornton Wilder's Our Town and the Politics of Whiteness Jeff Turner,
There Shall Be No Night and the Politics of Isolationism Barry B. Witham,