Politics and Theatre

The politics portrayed in theatre has always been directly related to the political climate of the times. It didn’t necessarily agree with that political climate, but politics in theatre has always been influenced by current affairs. There is no time, in the entire history of theatre, where this correlation is better demonstrated than after the Second World War.

Pre-World War theatre was a mishmash of politics, of culture, of entertainment and of ignorance. It was a different era… a different time… and it was populated with a different type of people. Europe may have lost its innocence following the First World War, but it sure didn’t want to be reminded of that fact on the stage. The First World War was incredibly destructive… both in terms of casualties and its impact on the home front. It also had a massive impact on politics… or rather how the population thought of politics. There have been books written on the subject… some even take you there. Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End does a phenomenal job of showing the difference before and after the First World War; Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises gives you insight into the 1920s ex-pat population of Paris and how politics influence class, and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby shows how difficult it was to be footloose and fancy free in the post-WWI climate (all of the above, by the way, have been made into film adaptations… Parade’s Enda miniseries which, I believe, still has a week or two left on BBC2; The Sun Also Rises in 1957 with Tyrone Power, Ava Gardner and Errol Flynn… and a BAD remake in 1984; and The Great Gatsby in 1974 with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, which I’m sure is still shown in English Lit classes). It’s easy to read about the impact of the First World War on society… but until 1945, SEEING that impact on stage was a neglected experience.

Fiction, it seems, has a different impact on the world than theatre. It’s easy to ignore the impact of a war when you read it on paper… seeing, it is said, is believing… and watching a troupe act out emotion and politics and differences on stage is far different than the distance which reading a book allows. In Europe the idea of talking about the war was just simply not done… particularly on stage… and it should be noted that film adaptations of any of the quintessential 1920s literature didn’t happen until after the Second World War. The impact of the First World War was so devastating that all people wanted to do was forget about it…and make sure everything was done to prevent another. It was called The Great War for a reason; no one believed anything like it could ever happen again. American had gone back into it’s own isolationism, and Europe was trying to clean up both physically and psychologically. Between The Two World Wars, patrons wanted to be reminded of yesteryear… they wanted to forget about the fact that a second war was inevitable, and that Prime Minister of England was certainly not helping that any, and that the world was unstable. Instead, patrons wanted to watch a stage production that ALLOWED them to forget everything… they wanted to be entertained, not reminded (which is why productions such as After the Dance did so terribly, while Holiday did so well).

After the Second World War, playwrights, it seems, made a decision to stop catering to fantasy and to deal with reality instead. Arthur Miller and George More O’Ferrall and Barrie Stavis and Terence Rattigan became popular playwrights… simply because they were brave enough to break the mould and deal with reality. It wasn’t until after the Second World War that theatre started to show politics and society as it really was… rather than a convoluted happy version of what they wished it would be.

The thing about theatre is that is has ALWAYS had the ability to force issues such as politics and class and race and various other societal issues. There have been playwrights throughout history who have broken with convention and made their statements… but it wasn’t until after the Second World War, and the beginning of the Cold War, that playwrights started to realise their own power over the masses. Ibsen had known it, and Moliere had known it, and Marlowe had known it… but it wasn’t until after two consecutive wars had changed the face of the earth, and rearranged political lines, and altered opinions on the nature of existence that mainstream theatre began to do what others had done for centuries as outcast playwrights and stage failures… it started to talk about society in real terms… to discuss real issues… and for the first time in history, rather than being outraged, people began to listen; and for one moment in time, the potential for the impact that playwrights and stage players had was noticed… and today we all benefit from that understanding.

Theatre has the immense ability to discuss social and political and cultural issues that no one wants to talk about, and create a conversation… and that conversation has the ability to change the nature of the world. It’s impossible to quantify the impact that theatre has had on various persons, some of whom have the ability to create change. Theatre has always had this ability, and at various times throughout history it’s been noticed. But the conclusion of the Second World War certainly allowed that ability to flourish, and allowed theatre to become a political force of its own.


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