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  • Writer's pictureBreanna Crossman

What is political theatre, and why do we need it? By Blanka Pillár


“Cable Street review – dazzling musical portrait of a community against fascism” (Lawson, 2024), “Rewind review – ingenious portrait of oppression and dissent in Latin America” (Akbar, 2024), and “James Corden to return to London stage in political drama The Constituent” (Wiegand, 2024). What do these The Guardian headlines have in common? They are all about a highly complex and multi-dimensional notion, commonly referred to as political theatre. But what is political theatre exactly, and why is it so substantial? In order to understand it thoroughly, defining political theatre is essential but also challenging since it does not only include one kind of intellectual product - it is a topic that contains Antigone, Hamlet, The Crucible, Cloud 9, Look Back in Anger, Stuff Happens, The Island, and Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, to name just a few. This theatrical category comprises political dramas, political grandstanding (a rather one-dimensional theatrical act or series of speeches intended to appeal to emotions and to gain political support), guerrilla theatre (a form of street theatre that aims to question various social norms), and, more broadly, political stunts; therefore, we can state that the conscious use of theatre in order to make political statements may be interpreted as political theatre (Hartnoll and Found, 2003). Generally, political theater employs political ideas and themes, usually in order to criticize or support a specific political perspective; therefore, it can be used for both government propaganda and protests against the government. As an excellent example of this duality, we can consider the plays of the Angry Young Men movement as political theatre, which are essentially disillusioned critiques of modern society, the state and conventional governmental structures, but also the agitprop theatre of Soviet Russia, which served exclusively state propaganda purposes, and is thus clearly a strongly pro-state initiative (Filewod, 2016).


Photo via The University of Melbourne 


Political theatre falls under the category of literary theatre, but not because it is necessarily distinguished by the use of words or scripts but by the fact that all political theatre works serve to support and reinforce symbolic ideas. The political meaning is "read" by the viewer; therefore, their political knowledge heavily influences how much the spectator perceives the play as political (Kirby, 1975). This fact, of course, begs the question - aren't all plays political then? I believe this notion can be understood as a scale. For a play to be successfully political, two sides are essentially needed: the author must incorporate conscious political elements into their work, but it is also crucial that the recipient interprets it politically (but not necessarily in the way the author meant it to be political). The importance of interpretation is also reflected in one of the main characteristics and effects of political theatre: one of the reasons this genre is so significant is that it offers the possibility of parallel interpretation for the reader (Taylor, 2013). Political dramas place their characters in an elaborate socio-economic and political context, thus presenting us with a scenario in which we can observe their reactions to universal problems that may occur in our own lives. If we consider relatability to be an essential aspect of political drama, it naturally presupposes a specific circular understanding of history, according to which political situations and people's reactions to them are repeated to a certain extent; otherwise, there would be no proper connection between the reader and the characters in the drama. For this reason, political dramas tend to deal with more general political themes, such as power, influence, compromise, rebellion, change, and so on (Freebody and Finneran, 2021). In this way, we can observe systems and reactions as outsiders that we can use and then interpret for our present time to form complex analogies. So political dramas give us the space to explore universal concepts by taking a step back and using the natural workings of the brain to look for patterns and similarities between what we read (or see) and our lived day. Taking this role into account, political theatre can be understood as a kind of reflective surface, a mirror, held up to us by the playwright (even from another time and another life situation), which both speaks to us about ourselves by giving us the space to ask ourselves what we would do in the situation the play is depicting, and talks about our own society from a perspective that allows for an unusual double role where we are both actors or characters and readers, or recipients. Moreover, political theatre can also function as a pedagogical tool for raising awareness and cultivating social consciousness since it educates and inspires audiences to be change agents in their communities by presenting complex political themes in simple and compelling settings (Taylor, 2013). 


However, we do not just need political theatre to make connections with our lives or educate us by showcasing social problems; it is also crucial from a scientific research point of view (especially political science). Politics and theatre have been intertwined since ancient Greece (Hellas), where playwrights such as Aristophanes used the stage to mock political leaders, criticize societal standards, and spark public debate on urgent topics of the day (Greenblatt, 2018), and this link has remained in the modern age (Belcher, 2022). Even non-political theatre has significant similarities with politics (some even venture that politics is theatre [Apter, 2006]): both theatre and politics seek to persuade and mold people's opinions, relying on the performer's ability to captivate the audience and the political actor's ability to establish trust and authority. This relationship emphasizes theatre's ability to function as a political tool, exposing existing power structures and pushing for change. Therefore, examining diverse theatrical movements throughout the history of political theatre through the perspective of political theory allows us to recognize shifts in power dynamics and establish a foundation for a new type of political theater (Leahy, 2008). 


In addition, political theatre is an outstanding outlet for particular social and demographic groups that were previously oppressed in the entertainment industry (as authors or playwrights) during the struggles for equality in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, which saw a

growing demand for the emergence of women authors and the representation of women's issues on stage. Thus, feminist theatre, in which plays are written and directed, also fell under the category of political theatre, was born. Caryl Churchill, Michelene Wandor, Martha Boesing, and Pam Gems are some of the defining authors of this movement, and from the contemporary scene, Alice Birch, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Winsome Pinnock, and Martyna Majok are prominent figures, to name a few. The staging of these plays has given jobs to many previously marginalized excellent female professionals, increasing the number of female lighting designers, actors, producers, and stage managers (Wandor, 1984). However, other subgenres of political theatre approach their goals differently; for instance, guerrilla theatre is another unique approach to political theatre, blurring the barriers between performance art and activism. This type of theatre emerged in the 1960s in response to social and political upheaval, and it aimed to break conventional narratives and challenge societal conventions through spontaneous, often subversive performances in public locations (Kershaw, 1992). Guerrilla theatre strives to strengthen marginalized voices and foster conversation about urgent social issues by reclaiming public places as sites of political expression. 

In this way, this type of political art also contributes to the transformative power of political theatre: both guerrilla theatre and more traditional political plays have the ability to catalyze social change, inspire collective action, and envision alternative concepts of the future. By creating imaginative spaces for dialogue, dissent, and solidarity, the genre, in general, challenges dominant narratives, disrupts conventional wisdom, and fosters a culture of critical inquiry and civic engagement (Auslander, 1997). Through techniques such as Brechtian alienation (methods intended to separate the audience from the emotional connection in the play by jolting reminders of the artificiality of the theatrical performance [Britannica, no date]) and guerrilla theatre interventions, political theatre empowers audiences to become active participants in creating their own reality, thereby transcending the passive spectator role of traditional theatre forms (Brecht, 1964). 


In conclusion, political theater is a distinct and complex form that includes a diverse range of styles, approaches, subgenres, subjects, and goals. At its core, it seeks to stimulate critical thinking, challenge conventions, and inspire radical change. As previously discussed, this theatrical genre usually exploits essential social and political archetypes (such as oppressor-oppressed, compliant-rebellious, or traditional-innovative), making it a more universal and even accessible art form. One of the most remarkable aspects of political theater is its ability to educate and transform society: sociology, social analysis, political activism, writing, cultural reflection, theater, and history are all effectively combined into an understandable and highly thought-provoking artistic blend in this genre. Political theater has become even more relevant in today's world, where political and social issues are becoming increasingly complex and polarized (University of Wyoming, 2021) since it allows artists to express their opinions and comment on pressing issues and audiences to engage with those opinions and the situations presented on stage, both actively and passively. I believe that this type of theater can truly help build a more informed and involved society by providing a forum for conversation and reflection, which is crucial for a healthy democracy as well as an arts-loving community.



Bibliography

Lawson, M. (2024) Cable Street review – dazzling musical portrait of a community against fascism | Theatre | The Guardian. Available at: 


Akbar, A. (2024) Rewind review – ingenious portrait of oppression and dissent in Latin America | Theatre | The Guardian. Available at: 


Wiegand, C. (2024) ‘James Corden to return to London stage in political drama The Constituent’, The Guardian, 20 March. Available at: 


Hartnoll, P. and Found, P. (eds) (2003) ‘The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre’, in The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Oxford University Press. Available at: https://www.oxfordreference.com/display/10.1093/acref/9780192825742.001.0001/acref-978 0192825742 


Kirby, M. (1975) ‘On Political Theatre’, The Drama Review: TDR, 19(2), pp. 129–135. Available at: https://doi.org/10.2307/1144954


Filewod, A. (2016) ‘Agitprop Theatre,’ in Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. 1st ed. London: Routledge. Available at: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781135000356-REM1672-1


Taylor, H. (2013) ‘You, Me and Society: Political Theatre and Its Impacts.’ Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection. 1592. 


Freebody, K. and Finneran, M. (2021) Critical Themes in Drama: Social, Cultural and Political Analysis. Available at: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003154792. 

Belcher, D. (2022) ‘For Early Democracy, Theater Was a Catalyst,’ The New York Times, 6 October. Available at: 


Leahy, R.A. (2008) ‘The theatre as an examination of power: Combining political theory and’ by Richard A. Leahy. Available at: https://digitalworks.union.edu/theses/1576/ 


Apter, D.E. (2006) ‘Politics as theatre: an alternative view of the rationalities of power,’ in B. Giesen, J.L. Mast, and J.C. Alexander (eds) Social Performance: Symbolic Action, Cultural Pragmatics, and Ritual. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (Cambridge Cultural Social Studies), pp. 218–256. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511616839.008


Wandor, M. (1984) ‘The Impact of Feminism on the Theatre,’ Feminist Review, (18), pp. 76–92. Available at: https://doi.org/10.2307/1394862. 


Kershaw, B. (1992) The Politics of Performance: Radical Theatre as Cultural Intervention. Routledge. 

Auslander, P. (1997) From Acting to Performance: Essays in Modernism and Postmodernism. London: Routledge. Available at: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203444269. 


Brecht, B. (1964) Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

Alienation effect | Definition, Examples, & Facts | Britannica (no date). Available at: https://www.britannica.com/art/alienation-effect 

Shakespearean Negotiations by Stephen Greenblatt - Paperback - University of California Press (no date). Available at: 


Researchers Find Broad Impacts from Political Polarization | News | University of Wyoming (2021). Available at: 



Blanka Pillár (she/her) is a sixteen-year-old writer from Budapest, Hungary. She has a never-ending love for creating and an ever-lasting passion for learning. She has won several national competitions and has been a columnist for her high school’s prestigious newspaper, Eötvös Diák. Today, she is not throwing away her shot. 

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