- Political and Protest Theatre After 9/11: Patriotic Dissent Edited by Jenny Spencer
This anthology analyzes theatrical works, street performances, and popular entertainments created in the United States and Britain in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and war in Iraq. The book’s subtitle points to the challenges of creating political performance during a period of heightened nationalism: as these fourteen essays demonstrate, US and British artists negotiated critiques of government policy while also sharing responsibility for the war, and employed patriotic discourse while also disrupting nationalist rhetoric. Offering a wealth of examples of performance reactions to the global War on Terror, Political and Protest Theatre after 9/11 acknowledges the limits of political performance while also arguing forcefully for performance’s disruptive and subversive potential in uncertain times.
Editor Jenny Spencer argues that political theatre “can only be meaningfully discussed and understood within the sociohistorical context that provides the targets of protest and makes the politics legible” (1). For example, her piece on Mark Raven-hill’s 2007 play cycle Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat and Marcia Blumberg’s chapter on 2006’s Black Watch both situate the performances within a cultural context of anger, frustration, and shame. To support Spencer’s claim about context, other essays analyze reception. Stacy Wolf’s deft dramaturgical analysis demonstrates how Broadway musicals during the 2003–04 season offered audiences sharp metaphorical and allegorical critiques of US politics. In his [End Page 487] analysis of productions of Euripides’ The Children of Herakles (2002), Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (2004), and Hair (2005), Joshua Abrams persuasively argues that the repeated use of an orange jumpsuit costume, suddenly iconic from photographic images of Camp X-Ray at Guantánamo Bay, shaped audience responses and changed the plays’ original political messages into critiques of contemporary policy. Other essays compare close readings with performances’ critical receptions: Amelia Howe Kritzer demonstrates how the simple polemic of Caryl Churchill’s Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? also works as an indictment of politics; Katy Ryan refutes critical responses to the Living Theatre’s 2007 revival of The Brig, which argued that the play’s brutal depiction of a military prison did not usefully connect audiences with abuses at Abu Ghraib; and Emily Klein analyzes Kathryn Blume’s guilt in The Accidental Activist from the perspective of a traumatized survivor who reminds audiences that “no one escapes unscathed by the trauma of war” (124).
The book’s emphasis on the complex political and emotional context of the post-9/11 years hails the Western reader as complicit in and traumatized by the War on Terror, making discussion of these performances necessary and urgent. Only a few essays, however, take up representations of non-Western viewpoints. In her chapter on Arab American responses to 9/11, Dalia Basiouny demonstrates how a once-invisible minority used performance to transcend their newly precarious position. Her compelling analysis of Rania Khalil’s solo performance Flag Piece explores how the US flag distills the tensions of patriotic dissent when placed in relationship to a woman’s headscarf. As Ryan Claycomb examines British documentary plays that attempt to foster dialogue by representing the Other, including David Hare’s Stuff Happens, Robin Soans’s Talking to Terrorists, and Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo’s Guantanamo: “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom,” he argues that despite the use of oral histories and personal testimonies that offer a sense of authenticity, the authors ultimately fell back on colonialist representation and imperialist discourse. Finally, Jeanne Colleran explores George Packer’s 2008 Betrayed and how it not only critiques the US government’s failures in Iraq, but also “rejects simplistic assessments and acknowledges the complexities of Iraqi society” (136). These three contributions offer a welcome reminder of the diversity of opinions about the War on Terror, and their presence points to the absence of Arab voices in other political performances of the period.
In his analysis of playful patriotic dissent in street protests that satirize structures of power...