- Political and Protest Theatre after 9/11: Patriotic Dissent ed. by Jenny Spencer
At thirteen years removed, it seems clear that the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent US-led “wars on terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq enacted radical sociopolitical changes. But exactly what changed? How have politically engaged theatre artists and theatrically minded political activists from the United States and the United Kingdom responded to this fundamentally different landscape? Jenny Spencer and her contributors wrestle with these and other complex questions in the edited collection, Political and Protest Theatre after 9/11: Patriotic Dissent. At times, the fourteen authors appear to write with one voice, expressing anger over Bush-era rhetoric and policy decisions that led the United States and its allies into two disastrous wars. Other passages expose debates among the contributors concerning subjectivity, alterity, and trauma in political theatre. For example, Ryan Claycomb deftly criticizes documentary theatre pieces, such as David Hare’s Stuff Happens, for reifying official discourses while purporting to dismantle them. Emily Klein, however, somewhat reductively finds value in staging these Western-focused narratives of defeat, complicity, and responsibility in the post-2001 plays of Eve Ensler and Kathryn Blume. Spencer’s approach of presenting conflicting views side-by-side is likely to attract a varied readership of theatre historians, performance studies scholars, and political theorists.
She organizes the book into two sections according to the sites of performance. The first, “Mainstages,” addresses work by theatre practitioners in purpose-built theatres. The second, “Alternative Spaces,” approaches activist performances in more disparate locations. Though this division appears appropriate for the material, the former section, at times, slides uneasily into the latter and vice versa, prompting the reader to question Spencer’s definitions of “mainstage” and “alternative.” Each chapter, regardless of the section, follows a similar template by examining the political critique of theatrical productions or activist performances. Stacy Wolf provides an innovative methodology for “analyzing the Broadway musical [such as Avenue Q, Wicked, and Caroline, or Change] as a political project” (21). Joshua Abrams studies the “ubiquitous” (38) presence of an orange prison jumpsuit in three British productions: The Children of Herakles, Hair, and Measure for Measure. He convincingly argues that these references to the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs offer “a public sphere not simply oppositional to, nor predicated on the same logical structures as, current governments or police” (51). Amelia Howe Kritzer advances a similarly effective argument regarding Caryl Churchill’s Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?. In Churchill’s allegory, Sam (the United States) and Guy (his lover) converse on a sofa, which [End Page 101] slowly rises above the stage. Kritzer contends that this theatrical device functions like the orange jumpsuit; it imagines an “effective means of confronting hubristic isolation and abuses of power” (61). In her own essay on Mark Ravenhill’s cycle of seventeen plays, Shoot / Get Treasure / Repeat, Jenny Spencer rightly observes that this confrontation with unchecked power shames the plays’ Western audience members; they long to return to an imagined position of moral authority. Marcia Blumberg’s incisive reading of Black Watch by the National Theatre of Scotland also focuses on the feelings of shame and nostalgia engendered by political performance. Through Broadway musicals, orange jumpsuits, floating sofas, and shame-inducing bouts of nostalgia, theatre practitioners from the United States and the United Kingdom staged their dissent.
While the first section of Political and Protest Theatre after 9/11 outlines an unlikely home for politics in commercial theatres (on Broadway, in London’s West End, and at various theatre festivals), the second half, “Alternative Spaces,” finds protest theatre in more likely places (off Broadway, at antiwar rallies, and— in Sara Warner’s persuasive entry—at a feminist music festival). Each chapter in this section tracks how artists and activists apply protest theatre strategies to different effect, exposing the contradictory heart of post-9/11 British and US performance. In conversation with Claycomb and Klein’s pieces (discussed above), Jeanne Colleran clearly demonstrates how the NYC-based...