This is the paper I wrote for my Radical Theatre class at Western Washington University, where I’m studying Anthropology and Theatre. I had not idea where I could publish this, so I am just putting it on here. You can read more of my work at La Commedia Politica. If you want to learn more about this topic or theatre in general, just let me know and I’ll be happy to talk about this to a greater extent and provide further reading.

Augusto Boal said in Theatre of the Oppressed, “Perhaps the theatre is not revolutionary in itself; but have no doubts, it is a rehearsal of revolution (Boal, 135)!” In itself, that is quite a strong statement. William Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage…” monologue from As You Like It also referenced theatre within reality, but not quite to the radical extent of Boal. However, it is Shakespeare’s monologue that is practically universally well-known. The performing arts have been utilized in a number of ways throughout history – as a means of ritual, to “frivolous” entertainment, to political and social demonstrations. The 1960s was a “difficult” decade in which the “Establishment” (professional) theatre, radical theatre movements, and street theatre competed with each other in order to make a statement about social institutions (Auslander, 25). Despite the chaotic nature of the kinds of theatre performed during that decade, these tactics which were employed to bring about certain kinds of change and societal awareness have since died out. James Thompson and Richard Schechner have labeled the ‘60s as a “general failure of a revolution (Thompson and Schechner, 12)” – perhaps it applies to the radical theatre of the time, too. With the sudden rise and fall of many alternative forms of theatre, mainstream theatre may be the real agent necessary to induce cultural changes. In that case, by mainstream theatre undertaking aspects of radical theatre, it could combine to create a new engrained mindset within a culture.

The word “radical,” as described by Dictionary.com, has several definitions, including:

  • “Of or going to the root or origin; fundamental
  • Thoroughgoing or extreme, especially as regards change from accepted or traditional forms
  • Favoring drastic political, economic, or social reforms.” (“radical,” Dictionary.com)

Even in these three definitions, two essential ideas are touched upon – as an underlying form and a tactic in order to achieve progress. Together, they could be combined to drastically bring about a significant change in the underlying structure of an institution.

“Mainstream” is defined by Dictionary.com as:

“Belonging to or characteristic of a principal, dominant, or widely accepted group, movement, style, etc.” (“mainstream,” Dictionary.com)

In relation to the theatre, “mainstream” could be applied to shows on Broadway, classics such as Shakespeare and Greek theatre, and other forms of theatre seeking to make a hefty profit. Radical theatre, on the other hand, exists to make a statement about society and the human condition.

Herrmann Bahr pointed out the original meaning of “theatre” derived from the fact of it being a social fame – played by all for all (Fischer-Lichte, 23). To take it further – the function of the theatre is for it to act as the public area for the collective exploration of ideological meaning (Kershaw, 17). According to him, not only were the aspects of the performance (e.g., staging) constructed for alternative theatre, but so was the audience. Like with Happenings (Sandford, 198), there were certain, yet flexible, expectations when it came to the script, environment, etc. The concept of the audience disappeared – everyone was a part of the happening, while there were performers, there were also willing participants and those who cared not to take part (yet in not doing so, would do so). A problem with Happenings, hence other forms of radical theatre, is that passerby will only notice the performances’ superficialities, not the underlying themes. It could be a reason why these forms are not as well-known today.

The performances of alternative forms of theatre may have also been seized by the mainstream, or produced work only for the title of being “radical.” Thompson and Schechner say, “Some avant-garde work is extremely interesting, but these performances no longer trouble or interrogate the status quo, which long ago learned to accommodate an extremely wide range of styles (Thompson and Schechner, 12).” While some performances no longer disrupted the fabric of society like they had originally meant to, others could not see a difference between political reality and “guerilla theatre” – they became indistinguishable (Auslander, 25).

Nevertheless, Philip Auslander mentioned that:

“Deconstruction and apoliticality are often linked in these writings with the concept of post-modernism: deconstruction is seen as a characteristically post-modern aesthetic strategy, apolitically as either a cause or a system of the prevalence of the deconstructive aesthetic.” (Auslander, 21)

A strategic move of the post-modern theatre was to make it viable by means of aestheticism. Thompson and Schechner remarked on the failure of the 1960s to bring about a revolution, and so did Kershaw, while pointing out something important: “As Robert Hewison argues, the possibility that it did contribute significantly to the promotion of egalitarian, libertarian and emancipatory ideologies, and this to some of the more progressive socio-political developments of the last three decades, cannot be dismissed (Kershaw, 18).” A revolution may be what the people want, but the real change comes about when the ideas from the movements are instilled within the culture, rather than trying to shift it.

Out of the 1960’s counterculture sprung up Students for a Democratic Society, which formed out of an older socialist group (Jones, 235). The real-life and theatrical needs for political and cultural shifts fed into each other. The Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and other impactful events both fueled and may have even been influenced by radical theatre. However, even as the more extreme forms of theatre have faltered as time has went on, there have been some productions that still have standing in today’s society, such as Hair and Man of La Mancha. While the setting of the musical Cabaret takes place in Germany while the Nazis rise to power, the story has parallels to the racial tensions that came with the Civil Rights Movement – it was no coincidence that the nightclub was named the Kit Kat Klub (KKK) (Jones, 242). With themes that are relevant to today and content that is, for the most part, acceptable to mainstream society, these three musicals prove that productions with a purposefully long-lasting format (for example, stage productions vs. Happenings) can shape and become a part of the culture. (While Hair, as well as other shows throughout history, had certainly shocked audiences when it first emerged, the context of the production would make it eventually agreeable – the content can be forgiven.)

Radical theatre became popular during a time when restlessness was abundant and many ideological forms of thought clashed with the existing social and political establishments. The 1960s will always be remembered as a time of a revolutionary culture, and the art of its time reflects it. As radically outspoken ideas died down, so did the radical art forms. However, the ideas did not simply disappear – they became a part of the culture, as seen by the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Alternative theatre did not simply disappear either – they became embedded into the mainstream theatre. Mainstream theatre does not necessarily stray from society’s expectations to the points of superficial understandings and making outright political statements. Holding onto the context of what people already know, as well as with content that invokes a deeper understanding of how the world works, mainstream theatre provides society with an impactful, though subtle, means of bringing about change. The minds of those who produce radical theatre come up with the ideas that influence the establishment, while mainstream theatre carries those ideas through the years.

Bibliography

  1. Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. London: Pluto Press, 1979 and 2000.
  2. Auslander, Philip. “Toward a Concept of the Political in Postmodern Theatre.” Theatre Journal1 (1987).
  3. “radical.”com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 09 Dec. 2014. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/radical>.
  4. “mainstream.”com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 09 Dec. 2014. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/mainstream>.
  5. Thompson, James and Richard Schechner. “Why “Social Theatre”?.” The Drama Review. 48.3 (2004).
  6. Fischer-Lichte, Erika. Theatre, Sacrifice, Ritual: Exploring Forms of Political Theatre. USA and Canada: Routledge, 2007.
  7. Kershaw, Baz. The Politics of Performance: Radical Theatre as Cultural Intervention. London: Routledge, 1992.
  8. Sandford, Mariellen R. Happenings and Other Acts. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
  9. Auslander, Philip. “Toward a Concept of the Political in Postmodern Theatre.” Theatre Journal1 (1987).
  10. Jones, John Bush. Our Musicals, Ourselves: A Social History of the American Musical Theatre. Lebanon: UPNE, 2004.