Robert Myers, an associate professor of English and creative writing at the American University of Beirut, delivered his lecture, “Playing with History: Political Theatre in Europe, the U.S., and the Middle East,” in the Richard Rauh Theater in the Purnell Center last Thursday. “This afternoon, what I’d like to talk about is contemporary political and historical theater,” Myers said. “It’s broad and I’m trying to trace the contours, so bear with me if it seems a bit general or if I stumble into an area I don’t know that much about.”
Political theater is a type of epic theater, a kind of drama that does not preserve the illusion that a play is real. Epic plays often break the fourth wall, the invisible barrier separating the reality of the play from its audience. Like epic theater, political theater also allows its actors to break the fourth wall. In political theater, political issues are added to the elements of epic theater.
Political theater began with works emphasizing political issues, including those by playwrights Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht. The authors’ work remains popular today; Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera was nominated for a Tony in 2006 with a bid for Best Revival. In his lecture, Myers recalled an event from playwright and theater critic Eric Bentley’s book The Playwright as Thinker, when Piscator directed the opening of Ernst Toller’s German play Hoppla, wir leber (Hoppla, we’re alive): “When one of the characters, the mother, says, ‘There’s only one thing to do: Either hang one’s self [sic] or change the world,’ the youthful audience bursts spontaneously into the [French socialist anthem] ‘Internationale’ and kept it up til the end of the play,” he said. “This is one of those unplanned meta-theatrical moments that defines a play as political.”
Most of Myers’s lecture dissected political theater, beginning with the ancient Greek writers like Sophocles, and continuing through more current writers like Henrik Ibsen and the aforementioned Piscator and Brecht. For example, Myers cited Ibsen’s masterpiece A Doll’s House as an update on Sophocles’ Antigone, dealing with the same issues of societal roles and hierarchy. Many believe that the majority of political theater is “left wing,” he explained, with a few notable exceptions, including Tom Stoppard’s Tony Award-winning play The Coast of Utopia. “It is, therefore, more than a little ironic that the innovations of radical theater artists ... are now regularly used to add levels of complexity to otherwise straightforward dramas and films ... and to inspire salespeople to sell more products, and consumers to buy them.” In other words, the stylistic elements associated with political theater are now used to stylize dramas in other mediums, like television or the movie industry; elementslong associated with socialist works by Brecht and Piscator are now used for capitalism by studios and corporations.
Though Myers focused his lecture on the works of other authors, he has written several successful plays in the political theater genre. Myers’s Atwater: Fixin’ to Die, which premiered in New York in 1997, followed the campaign days of Republican strategist Lee Atwater, exploring what drove Atwater, who was known for his underhanded techniques, to campaign. Following Atwater, Myers wrote The Lynching of Leo Frank, about the sanctioned death of an innocent man in 1915, and The Execution of Fred Hampton, about the death of a Black Panthers leader at the hands of police.