Scott Klavan on Political Theater

Zachary Walsh


An Essay by Scott Klavan 

Twenty-one months before his death, in March of 2007, the great British playwright Harold Pinter appeared on Charlie Rose’s PBS interview show. Rose tried to ask Pinter about his plays, but Pinter eagerly pressed to talk about politics. Pinter, a longtime avid leftist, pestered Rose until the host gave in, and Pinter finally voiced his opinions about the (then) current international scene. It soon became apparent that, while Pinter’s work, from The Homecoming to Old Times to Betrayal, was brilliantly observant and incisive, his political views were mundane, as good as yours or mine, and not worth Charlie’s or the viewer’s time. On-air, Pinter regretted that he wasn’t able to write overtly political plays, unlike fellow Briton David Hare. “I can’t make direct statements on a stage,” he said, with sad self-effacement.  

But was Pinter’s dissatisfaction with himself justified? Or does it mean he was a genuinely creative and imaginative playwright, an artist, something special, rather than a polemicist, a mediocrity? Are “direct” political statements on stage worthwhile for theater, and theatergoers? Are explicitly political plays any good? How many of them have lasted through the years? Is theater a proper place for a debate or speech about current events, or is it a bad use of a great art form?

As the Trump administration roils up the media and many artists, we should brace for several years of plays—and books, TV and films—blatantly about current political issues. (Because Trump’s victory was unexpected, it may take a little while for these pieces to appear, but they will.)  Robert Schenkkan, the acclaimed playwright of The Kentucky Cycle and All the Way, recently announced that, with a “white hot fury,” he had written a play, in one week, Building The Wall, about Trump’s deportation policy, and it was bought up and will soon be produced by several regional theaters. Already, in January, 2017, Theater 503 in London presented a festival of new short plays specifically about Trump, including pieces by Neil LaBute and Caryl Churchill. 

Historically, of course, many plays have been written about real-life national and international events. But the manner in which the events were portrayed was often indirect. Although facts are murky about ancient times, the early plays usually presented stories about historical happenings, things in the past, or fantastic versions of them. (It is postulated that theater actually predates the advent of governmental structures, of politics itself.) Aristophanes ridiculed public figures of his time in his comedies, but Greek tragedians tended to write about mythological figures and legends. There may have been discussions of heroism, patriotism, and other meaningful issues on stage, but they were couched in tales of deities, magic, curses, and supernaturalism. While it is suspected that Shakespeare included coded references to current political and religious figures, he literally set his History Plays and other works in the past and/or in other countries and did not refer directly to actual personages of his period. Moliere in the 17th century and Goldoni in the 18th comically skewered the mores and hypocrisies of people of their world, but through ingeniously constructed fictional characters and situations.

Political theater has been much more common in Europe, and elsewhere overseas, than in the United States, then and now.  In the late 19th– early 20th century, George Bernard Shaw merged political commentary with involving and popular, smart social comedy/dramas, but Shaw was a contrarian, with a versatile, less than rigid worldview. German-born Bertolt Brecht’s plays of mostly Marxist protest, such as Mother Courage and Her Children and The Threepenny Opera, are still performed. But again, Brecht’s pieces get his points across through fantasy, as it were. Agit-prop theater was utilized by 1920s Russia to promote Communism; in fact, they coined the phrase—short for Department for Agitation and Propaganda (true!) Those plays have, thankfully, disappeared into history/KGB archives.

In the 1970s, Brazilian Augusto Boal brought his Theatre of the Oppressed to the United States, using theater exercises to explore social injustice. These pieces usually did not employ conventionally written scripts; they were essentially improvised, participatory experiences with audiences. Since then, Boal’s work has generally been used in academic and therapeutic settings, rather than traditional theaters. Italian Dario Fo and his satirical plays, including Accidental Death Of An Anarchist, based on a true incident of political murder, caused a stir in Europe and during Anarchist’s production in New York in 1984. Fo’s death in October, 2016, returned him to public notice, but otherwise, he  has received scant recent attention. The plays of Vaclev Havel, written before his becoming President of Czechoslovakia, have gotten only middling response in this country, and seem too minor to merit new consideration.  

There are differences between European countries about the value of political plays. After participating in an international discussion of theater in 2016, The Guardian theater critic Michael Billington wrote:

For my French colleagues, theatre was primarily an aesthetic discipline and something apart from life. From my entrenched Anglo-Saxon perspective, it was a vital part of life; and that inevitably embraces politics. …among British theatre’s greatest strengths are its readiness to put our society under the microscope and its willingness to speak truth to power.

(Britain’s belief in theater as a vibrant part of the political discussion results in its production of numerous current plays about social issues that are too localized to travel to the U.S.)

The Depression-era Federal Theater Project was influential then, but contemporary productions of its plays are few and far between. (Besides The Cradle Will Rock, can you name one?) The same is true of The Living Theater, founded in 1947, and its pieces dealing forthrightly with socio-political concerns. At times, the United States has presented the opposite of protest plays, what they call hagiography, portraying leaders with admiration, such once popular bios as Dore Schary’s Sunrise At Campobello about FDR, Robert Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln In Illinois, about, uh, Lincoln?, and even Shenkkan’s All The Way, re LBJ. On the other side, 1967’s MacBird by Barbara Garson—produced while he was in office—satirized Johnson, using a modernization of The Scottish play to mischievously implicate him in the Kennedy assassination, a substitute for excoriating LBJ’s handling of the Vietnam War. Controversial then, it’s rarely been seen since.  

One salient example of the relative staying power of political plays comes from Lillian Hellman. Her ardently anti-fascist Watch on the Rhine, admired during WWII, has faded from our canon of American plays, while 1939’s The Little Foxes, set in 1900, using corruption within a southern family—supposedly based on Hellman’s own relatives—as a metaphor for (American? Human?) greed, is still often on today’s boards.

The most commonly cited example of a political play these days is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, first produced in 1953, which used the hysteria surrounding the Salem Witch Trials to symbolize the McCarthy era. It is Miller’s most produced work—still a staple of high schools and colleges, as well as professional theater companies. Reviewing a Lincoln Center revival in 1990 in the New York Times, Mel Gussow noted that “it has also become his most continually relevant work of political theater…a drama that has remained meaningful to succeeding generations.” The Crucible is a demonstration of the positive, efficacious use of political beliefs in playwriting. Theatergoers in 2017, particularly young ones, may have little knowledge of the McCarthy period and yet relate to a compelling story and characters, John Proctor’s and Abigail Williams’s conflicts, and to the enduring underlying themes of Trust, Integrity, and Deceit dramatized so skillfully by Miller.

Playwrights Clifford Odets (Waiting For Lefty, Awake & Sing!), Henrik Ibsen (A Doll’s House, An Enemy Of The People), Anton Chekhov (Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard), and John Guare (Six Degrees Of Separation, House Of Blue Leaves) use known public events in their plays, but only as starting points to write about relationships and inter-personal challenges. Their plays are established parts of theater repertoires, and, although it’s hard to make definitive calls in some cases, look to be produced far into the future. Eugene O’Neill (The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night), Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie), August Wilson (Fences, The Piano Lesson) and, yes, Harold Pinter, stick to the individual/family structure of storytelling, and have had similar longevity, as has Tom Stoppard (Arcadia, The Real Thing) who has written from both angles.  

However, David Hare’s Stuff Happens, about George W. Bush and the Iraq War, and Richard Nelson’s recent The Apple Family Plays, at The Public Theater, a four-play series depicting a fictional upstate New York family, written concurrently with the day’s events and including discussions about them on-stage, are examples of plays that are in danger of being gimmicky curios, fleeting and likely to vanish. Will Schenkkan’s Building The Wall and other Trump-related shows follow this path to obscurity? Hamilton, of course, is a phenomenon, and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda cleverly presented an historical American story in hip-hop and cast it in contemporary multi-cultural terms. The novelty of this approach will surely wear off in the years ahead, but if the score and overall theatricality of the piece hold up, it will become, somewhat like Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun, an uncommon hybrid: an inventive, virtuosic entertainment that is, at heart, a political statement.

Thus, it seems that, the vast majority of the time, dramatizing affairs of the day and using your play as a platform to make a direct political point, doesn’t create mature, enduring theater. One reason is that the playwright’s sensibility is too stridently heard, overriding those of the characters. Peter Burian, professor of classical studies and theater studies at Duke, wrote in 2009:

At its best, drama engages you with different characters reacting and dealing in different ways with the challenges they face. There’s no guiding narrator. You’re invited to step outside yourself and listen to and think with the different voices in the play.

The more characters can exist independently of the author, the more varied and developed they can be, the better and more lasting the play.

A play that highlights a playwright’s personal judgment about a current issue is one that is too tightly held, one that shrinks, becomes narrow, simplistic, and didactic, self-aggrandizing, refusing to give members of the audience their own private, individuated, unique experience. The artist loses his/her biggest artistic weapon, objectivity, is unable to stand back, let go, and observe, and then use that information to tell the unvarnished Truth about a complex, multi-leveled situation.

Granted, there are times when world affairs are so egregious and rough that undisguised political statements are deemed necessary by artists. It’s a free country, go for it; humanism has always been a hallmark of the arts. Okay, and theater people are often seen as fusty and out-of-date. Spouting off about the news can make one feel vital and in-touch with the current scene. But you don’t need a theater to express a knee-jerk opinion; all you need is a dinner party. (Are playwrights going to be more knowledgeable and insightful than CNN’s Fareed Zakaria or the best news shows, or as biting, funny, and topical as Saturday Night Live’s takeoffs on Trump and Co? Probably not. All the more reason to Stay In Your Lane.) 

I call this the MEAN PEOPLE SUCK school of Art. This saying featured on bumper stickers has truth to it. But an audience member can’t be blamed for sitting there, thinking: “Huh. I guess mean people do suck. But, you know? I kind of knew that already. I don’t need to pay $100 to hear it shouted at me from a stage.”

Jean Paul-Sartre, in Sartre On Theater, expresses his agreement with more sophistication: “I don’t think a playwright’s commitment consists simply in stating political ideas. That can be done through public meetings, newspapers, and propaganda. The playwright who usurps their function may perhaps interest the reading public, but he will not have written a play.”

(To piss everyone off, it also might be added that contemporary theater almost always reflects the liberal, or leftist point of view. There are very few directly “conservative” modern era plays. {Shakespeare has been called conservative, for reasons including his support of kingly and royal privilege and his portrayal as villains saboteurs and usurpers, basically anyone threatening or undermining the hierarchical status quo.}  During the Obama administration, there were no mainstream opposition protest plays. That’s a topic for another time, but if you think about it, there’s no good reason why one particular political viewpoint should “own” an art form. And the orthodoxy of the political correctness often associated with the left, at its worst, can be a threat, strangling full free expression, on stage and in other creative endeavors.)

Conclusion: If politics means the interaction of groups and individuals with society and government, then there are political elements in many if not most plays, and that can produce exciting, great work. But it is the presentation of personal, baldly stated one-sided reactions to current events, things happening right now, that can lead to overbearing, thin and preachy, second-rate theater. Plays function best as metaphors, engaging us in dynamic stories and characters but living more fully and deeply as explorations of the wide-ranging timeless conundrums faced by inner human nature, the beauty and darkness of our struggle with Life, Death, Spirituality, and Morality. Ultimately, creating in that way, something more profound is accomplished, more good is done down the line.   

G.B. Shaw wrote: “Never have an ism; never be an ist.” Words to live, and write, by.

Or, to update Samuel Goldwyn, a sentiment taken to heart by the President and his foes: If you want to send a message, use Western Union   Twitter. 

References: New York Times; PBS; Atlantic Magazine; The Guardian; Wikipedia; Shakespeare & Renaissance Politics; BrechtForum; Duke University; Sartre On Theater; George Bernard Shaw: Theory, Language, and Drama in the Nineties, by Paul Lewton;


Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published inBest American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 2014, he starred in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, earning him a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival 2015.  He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, at the United Solo Festival in New York, and a series of staged readings of a new comedy, Sheila & Angelo, at the Dramatist Guild. In 2015, he appeared in the Off-Broadway production of the musical Sayonara, for Pan Asian Rep. Scott directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 NY International Fringe Festival. 


Scott Klavan’s review of The Beauty Queen of Leenane 

Scott Klavan on the New York Fringe Festival 

Scott Klavan on writing for the theatre, a talk at Heartland Theatre Company

Via Basel on Hamilton

More Art by Zachary Walsh 

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