- Editorial Comment: The Ambit of Politics and Performance1
I write in a moment of circumscribed choices. The defeat of a modern robber baron has brought the United States a historically hawkish new commander in chief, who will undoubtedly be better for those of us concerned with higher education and the arts. However, let us not pretend that we theatre folk, whose profession so often engages the structures of tyranny, cannot wish for and imagine a more just world order than that which spreads before us with the celebratory clamor of “You’re fired!” Trump has indeed left office, but the systems that produced him and what he represents linger. Whither theatre in “the quagmire of the present”?2
Oedipus, the Zhao orphan, and numerous other figures in the world’s dramatic corpus stage the forces that sustain and contest contemporary hierarchies of power just as performance practices from carnival to Augusto Boal’s spect-actors intervene more directly in the political sphere. In this vein, the four essays in this issue showcase a range of intersections between theatre and politics from the mid-twentieth century through today. Although submitted as discrete pieces rather than as a response to a curatorial call for papers, the articles converge in their effort to explore new possibilities not only for representation, but also for the structures that render representations legible in the first place. All of the authors hail from different locations in the United States, a country that has experienced increased divisions among its constituent populations after four years of rule by a would-be tyrant, who has repeatedly attempted to stand outside the law.
Fascist trends have included the vocal return of white supremacists to the public sphere, the scapegoating of vulnerable groups, and unabashed moves to centralize power and quash dissenting opinions. During the Trump administration, pseudoscientific claims drove governmental policy as officials ignored peer-reviewed research. In the face of these developments, the electorate remains deeply divided. Compounding anxieties for those who value democratic processes, the rise of authoritarianism in the nation has parallels in several other countries: China, Poland, and Venezuela to name a few.
Within this geopolitical context, I find reading and teaching theatre and performance theory to provide a necessary breathing space in order to consider transformations of sovereignty and challenges to it. My own scholarly and personal genealogy leads me to the work of Erwin Piscator, whose Das Politische Theater (1929) chronicles the author’s own ruminations on his titular topic moving from his experience in and [End Page vii] observations about World War I through his affiliation with the German Dadaists and the development of his own practice in Weimar Germany. In his narrative, the political inflection of the Dadaists to disrupt the bourgeoisie leads to his own efforts to engage the proletariat. The mobilization of the workers is, of course, a central tenant of Marxist ideology, a necessary part of the transition to a more egalitarian society.
Piscator’s praxis offers one model for thinking about social change through theatre. I find sections of it inspirational even as mobilization along class lines in and of itself seems increasingly far removed from our current reality. I do not only mean that capitalism has accelerated, morphing corporation into person and exploiting the 99 percent, but also that class-based affiliations that do not attend to issues like race and the fragmenting of personhood across media may not be flexible enough to effect positive social transformation. In this regard, I think about the unrealized potentials of, for example, the Occupy movement.
More recent texts have explored the interweaving of performance and politics that engage Marxist and neo-Marxist thought, but also move beyond such frameworks; two that I find exceptionally provocative in this regard configure their interventions at different structural levels. The first, Shirin M. Rai and Janelle Reinelt’s edited collection The Grammar of Politics and Performance, derives its key term from literary theorist Kenneth Burke, whose expansive definition of grammar they explain as “an orderly formal structure of attributes.”3 Rai and Reinelt write broadly of the conditions that enable as well as the enactments and representations of “material and social structures...