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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the April 7, 2004

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Simon Saltzman

(The following is an overview of a panel discussion on "Political Theater" presented by and for The Drama Desk, an organization of critics, writers and editors who cover the New York theatre scene that met at Dillons Restaurant and Cabaret in New York City on February 18, 2004)

One view of what political theater is was voiced early on by renowned theater anarchist/activist Judith Malina with the statement, "All theater is political." Malina, co-founder with Julian Beck (who died in 1985)of the "Living Theater" in 1947, was one of the celebrated participants gathered to tackle the subject. In addition to Malina, the panelists included playwright John Patrick Shanley, author of the political allegory "Dirty Story;" Peter Meineck, Artistic Director of the touring Aquila Theatre Company and advocate of classical political theater (we’re talking "The Greeks"); and Thomas Meehan, co-author of "Annie," "Hairspray," and "The Producers," whose forte is the inclusion of political issues in mainstream musicals. The panel was presided over by Lucy Komisar, a free- lance theater critic for "The American Reporter," and "New York Theater Wire."

Gloriously free from censorship and restraints (so far), the theater remains an oasis and a platform for theatrical non-conformists, renegades and risk takers. Or as Komisar puts it: "Free from advertising, the theater is the best place to express political views." One of the best and most recent examples of this is Shanley’s "The Dirty Story," in which the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is satirically dramatized by protagonists who are obliged to share a small apartment and therein reflect the discord of two cultures with tragic-comical results.

While Komisar cites such admired playwrights as Jules Pfeiffer, Lanford Wilson, Theresa Rebeck, August Wilson, Athol Fugard, Tony Kushner, and Richard Greenberg as having been active voices this past year, one has only to look at the selected listing below to see the encouraging number of plays currently dealing directly with politics and politically-propelled issues.

An exceptional opportunity was afforded those in attendance to hear a still remarkably feisty Malina continue to express and stand behind her philosophy and her creation, "The Living Theater," that produced shows that are now considered milestones in the genre of renegade political theater during the 1960s, including "The Brig" and "The Connection." Malina, a protege of legendary German theater innovator Irwin Piscator, says she still values what she learned as a student of Piscator at the Dramatic Workshop, principally to "examine our motives in what we choose to do in the theater." She has every right to be proud of a company that, over the past decades, influenced by the works of Bertolt Brecht, Antonio Artaud and Samuel Beckett, and famously known for its confrontational approach to theater, has performed in the streets, produced and presented over 80 productions, and performed in eight languages in 25 countries. One of the company’s more sensational productions was "Not In My Name," performed to coincide with an actual execution.

Malina has the distinction of having been jailed with members of her company in various countries for the company’s anarchist-pacifist principles. Malina, who was reportedly inspired by the political theory of the "Situationist International" (an intentionally obscure but highly influential group of avant gardists and ultra leftist political extremists formed in 1957 that folded in 1971 when the membership began to achieve celebrity), is currently inspired by Hanon Reznikov, her new partner in life and in the theater. She announced that she and Reznikov have recently opened a new performing space at 428 West 49th Street where they undoubtedly will keep their political and social vision alive. Unlike other theater artists, Malina says she is concerned that her roaming company, which has never had any money, will be pressured by conformity now that they have a real theater. "Now I am worried that we have something that can be taken away from us."

In contrast to Malina, who has a flair for putting theater in the street, Shanley was introduced by Komisar, as a playwright who prefers "putting political theater in your face." Although the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of "Moonstruck" and the HBO film "Live from Baghdad," is primarily known in the theater community as the author of such biting satires as "Four Dogs and a Bone," Danny and the Deep Blue Sea," and "Italian American Reconciliation," he is also well known for his off-the-cuff wit and erudition: "I don’t believe all theater is political. But I try and figure out just what the hell is going on and what my immediate reaction is to the two major sources of conflict in the world, the separation of church and state and contested national boundaries." With regard to his recent play "Dirty Story," which he hoped would be a starting point for a conversation, he also admits that "there is no justice that I can envision that would reorganize that particular situation (Arab-Israeli) that would be fair."

The white-haired and distinguished looking Meehan, who might seem, at first, an unlikely representative of political theater, has been a long time contributor to the New Yorker Magazine. Moderator Komisar, who admits to having spent a couple of days in jail in Maryland during her college days for demonstrably exercising her right to protest, points out how moved she was by Meehan’s adaptation of "Hairspray," with its focus on the civil rights movement in Baltimore in the 1960s. Putting in a plug for the new musical "Bombay Dreams," which he co-authored, that deals with the caste system of India, Meehan concedes that while Broadway’s politics, particularly with musicals, may be "sugar coated," it is still politics.

No one expected Meineck, whose touring company recently presented Aeschylus’ "Agamemnon" in New York, to offer such a bright and succinct refresher course, as he blithely traced our political theater roots to the Greeks starting with Homer’s "The Iliad.". Would that every professor could have his gift for story telling as he relates how the entire city would virtually shut down to enable its 35,000 citizens to attend the three day Festival (of plays) at the temple. "Imagine," he speculates, "what it must have been like to have all the voters in attendance." That "the rich men of Athens were given a choice to either produce a play or build a warship is like the American government spending as much money on the arts as it does on defense," he says. British-born but now an American, Meineck says he loves doing theater in America because it is inherently political, angry and able to create controversy."

Meineck’s awareness that theater in Europe is primarily concerned with artistic interpretation is, however, challenged by Malina who says that "Europeans care more for political theater (Malina’s company has spent more than 30 years performing in Europe) than do Americans," whom she claims have a disdain for it. Malina says, "Europe has always been kind to us, whereas we have always suffered economically in the United States." It is Shanley’s contention that, "you can do the most outrageous things on stage in America." Does Malina stand alone in her proposed mission for political theater "to make the world a better place?" Not necessarily so says Shanley: "It is sometimes better to make the world seem worse and more dangerous for the audience over the course of the evening." That things have to get worse before they get better is not shared by Meehan, who says he prefers sending the audience out happy with the "message."

One of the more provocative questions was posed from a member of the audience: "Why is virtually all political theater on the left?" Someone else asked if anyone could think of the last play influenced by Republican ideology. Someone shouted out "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," which got a hearty laugh. Malina also got a laugh when she responded by apparently drawing no distinction between Republicans and Fascists. Her unwittingly revealing comment prompted Meineck to remind everyone that in Athens where an open and inclusive society was revered, "Socrates was put to death when he claimed that religion was man-made."

The growing presence of non-commercial right-wing Christian theater presented in churches throughout the heartland of American was given passing consideration, as is Meineck’s contention that the reason for little or no right wing theater is that it is already so deeply embedded (not necessarily a plug for the play) in our culture.

Since the panel convened, an unprecedented number of plays with political themes have opened (and some have closed), including:

Embedded – Hollywood actor/playwright/director/activist Tim Robbins’ satiric review tackles the Bush cabinet, its lies, deceptions and excuses for the war on Iraq. Public Theater, 125 Lafayette Street. 212-239-6200 (through April 25)

Hannah & Martin – Kate Fodor’s play about the complex relationship between the Jewish intellectual Hannah Arendt and Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger (played by David Strathhairn). Manhattan Ensemble Theater, 155 Mercer Sreet. 212-279-4200 (through April 18).

A Thought About Raya – Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen’s play inspired by the work of Danill Kharms in which a writer is imprisoned during one of Stalin’s purges. Red Room, 85 E. 4th Street. 212-352-3101 (through April 19).

The Journals of Mihail Sebastian – The journals of the Jewish-Romanian playwright that reveal his ordeal surviving both the Nazi and Russian occupations. Theater at 45th Street, 354 West 45th St. (through April 4 with a possible extension).

King Lear – Politics provokes a family feud in Shakespeare’s immortal drama with Christopher Plummer. Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th St. 212-239-6200 (through April 18).

Roar – A new play by Betty Shamieh about a Palestinian-American family living in Detroit. Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street (through May 8).

Ears on a Beatle – Mark St. Germain’s play about government surveillance of John Lennon during the early 1970s. DR2 Theater, 103 E. 15 Street. 212 – 239 – 6200.

Mrs. Farnsworth – A.R. Gurney’s political comedy about a politically-minded Connecticut housewife (Sigourney Weaver) and her writing teacher (John Lithgow). Flea Theater, 41 White Street. 212- 352-3101 (through May 8).


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