Democracy and theater

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As we steel ourselves for the final weeks of this seemingly endless election, I’m reminded of the ancient Greeks. Not because Trump keeps making odd debate references to the Trojan horse, but because it’s crucial to remember that the birthplace of democracy was also the birthplace of theater.

If we trace the lineage of our western theatrical tradition to its roots, we go back 2500 years to Greece and the festivals of Dionysus. Ancient Greeks discovered the ineffable magic that happens when fictional characters tackle real problems using the words of a poet as their primary tools. At the same time, the Greeks were birthing a new form of government: democracy.

These two forms, government and theater, were linked for the Greeks. They grew up together; they share a common mother.

We are taught that the ancient Greeks so revered the power of theater that they made attending a theater festival a precondition for sitting in the Senate. In order to be a politician and wield the power of the state, you needed to first experience the catharsis of the theater. You needed to balance out the fate and revelations of Oedipus. You needed to watch Antigone’s core loyalty to her dead brother come into profound conflict with Creon’s rigid loyalty to the state. You needed to see things go terribly, terribly wrong before you tried to make them right. You needed to entrust your soul to a playwright before the people could trust you to govern.

I remember so clearly 21 years ago as a student of Ferdinand Lewis at CalArts, when the profundity of that idea struck me: to be a politician you first needed to see a play.

Whatever we think of the current election, however tragic we might find it, I cannot help but feel like we have strayed from our ideals not only in our politics but also in our theater.

Our discourse is being cheapened, our empathy and awareness shriveled, our notions of civic responsibility eroded.

We could assign blame and try to find solutions in our politics but, as a man of the theater, I keep wondering if we have not replaced the healing catharsis of drama with the coarse, narcissistic fame of reality-TV? What if our fault lies not in our politics but in our artistic selves? Or, said more optimistically, what if the salve for our national wounds is in the heart of our theaters?

I am haunted by the voice of the theater director and visionary Peter Sellars, who warned that our actors have lost the moral authority to be onstage. But I am also buoyed by Steppenwolf Theater Company’s vision of themselves as “the public square where difficult ideas are debated and shared with people who don’t know each other.”

The theater is a public square. Even in our poor theater, we are afforded the bodies, minds and attention of our fellow citizens and the privilege of tackling the inescapable questions of humanity. With that comes a moral responsibility, not to inculcate a rigid code but to share a profound awareness, to give voice to deeper troubles, to teach us all how to listen to those in pain. Can it be an accident that those ancient Greek tragedies include, alongside the suffering men, the voices of so many women, foreigners, and slaves?

How would our theater change if we saw the health of our body politic as the responsibility of the theater? If mending the the civic fabric was our essential charge? Would our plays change? Would our audience change? Would our relevance change?

How would we even begin?

While we can learn a lot about the theater from the ancient pottery at the Getty Villa, those time capsules of drama remain mute on how it all worked, on where to begin.

Maybe we should begin simply? If to be a politician you needed first to see a play, what play would you choose?

(Photo: JCDL/Flickr)