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Reviews257 Michael Patterson. Strategies of Political Theatre: Post-War British Playwrights. Cambridge Studies in Modern Theatre. Ed. David Bradby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. $85.00. However advanced, every student of contemporary English theater and drama would be weU advised to consult Michael Patterson's study Strategies ofPolitical Theatre: Post-War British Playwrights. In it, he presents a concise but compelling taxonomy of the way some of the leading politically engaged playwrights of the postwar period approached the fraught, tense, and often difficult-tostage social, economic, and political issues that simmered beneath the surface of an apparently placid consensus in English politics. The book examines the historical contexts, political thrust, production backgrounds, and dramaturgy of nine plays by nine playwrights: Arnold Wesker, John Arden, Trevor Griffith, Howard Barker, Howard Brenton, John McGrath, David Hare, Edward Bond, and Caryl Churchill. In doing so, it fruitfully distinguishes between what Patterson caUs the "reflectionist" and the "interventionist" strategies for staging politics. These rubrics are useful to the extent that they argue against thinking of political drama as always taking part in a monolithic, ideologically consistent, dramaturgically undifferentiated theatrical project. Patterson identifies the "reflectionist strain" as an attempt to portray accurately, if not naturalisticaUy, the current state of affairs, and to lay it open to debate and rational inquiry by presenting characters and situations to which the audience might easily relate. The "interventionist strain," by contrast, employs more recognizably Brechtian distancing effects to urge audience members to consider the possibilities of a world unlike the one they inhabit, and often marking that difference by means ofperformance and production choices—such as song, direct address, episodic structure, surrealist design, and external characterization—that disrupt the appearance of verisimilitude. Patterson tempers this apparent binary formulation,however, with the early caveat that "[i]t would be more appropriate to think of the two strains as the ends of a spectrum rather than as mutually exclusive categories," noting that "in practice playwrights will draw on elements from both modes"(24, 23).Thus, though he proceeds to discuss two plays that apparently mark the extremes of that spectrum—Arnold Wekser's reflectionist play Roots and John Arden's interventionist SargeantMusgrave's Dance—as Patterson's study develops, it shows an increasing sensitivity to nuanced deployments ofboth approaches. His analyses of Edward Bond's Lear and Howard Brenton's Churchill Play are especially supple in this regard. 258Comparative Drama In discussing Bond's Lear, Patterson almost immediately notes that the"lack of clarity" that seems to dog Bonds sometimes meandering, dense, epic pieces is "not necessarily a failure" (139). Indeed, he convincingly argues that a theatrical intervention is often aided by its refusal to submit to a society's demand for simple, straightforward answers to vexed and difficult questions. Rather, in circumstances where immediate action is more useful than predictions and pontifications, Patterson demonstrates that Bond's method has been to argue for "immediate and radical change" rather than to theorize and qualify what Patterson sees as Bond's "benevolent version of Marxism" (129). This insight into Bond's dramaturgy, one hopes, may help to dislodge Bond's work from the Brechtian tradition in which it is usually lumped, since, contrary to Brecht, Bond emerges as a writer not of diagnoses and analyses, but of caUs to arms. Choosing Lear as the exemplary work ofthis type aUows Patterson both to emphasize the urgency of Bonds brand ofintervention and to acknowledge its debt to the reflectionist impulse's privileging ofthe present moment as the site for political action. Complementarily, Patterson's choice of Brenton's Churchill Play as one manifestation ofthe reflectionist strain of political theater shows how fluid his apparently binary division can be. At first glance, The Churchill Play seems part surrealist, part absurdist, staging as it apparently does the return of the (repressed) body of the great prime minister from beyond death, and then deflating that return by revealing itself as a staging within the staged play. In devolving formally from surrealist to realist, in exposing the believable situation in which such unbelievable fantasies of speech-in-death could occur, The Churchill Play, according to Patterson, partakes of the reflectionist, rather than interventionist, mode. He notes Brenton's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 257-260
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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