Political plays are hardly a predominant form in American theater, but you wouldn't know that from recent area offerings. Not only has there been a spate of political dramas, but the majority has been by American playwrights - an even rarer phenomenon in this sub-genre, which has always been more popular abroad.
Last month, the Kennedy Center revived Frank D. Gilroy's The Subject Was Roses, about a World War II soldier returning home to a dysfunctional family. This month, the Theatre Project presented the world premiere of Julius X, Al Letson Jr.'s amalgam of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and the murder of Malcolm X. Still running are Center Stage's American premiere of The Murder of Isaac, Motti Lerner's retelling of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and in Washington, Arena Stage's revival of Clifford Odets' Depression-era drama, Awake and Sing!
Although three of these plays are American, Zelda Fichandler - co-founder of Arena Stage and director of Awake and Sing! - has a theory about why political plays have historically been the domain of foreign playwrights. "In Europe, and I imagine other countries, politics and life are just aspects of each other, more than here," she says. "You seldom find in America that a politician is also an artist, but you find that, I've noticed, in Europe all the time."
In Israel, notes native playwright Lerner, "The theater tradition is young, but the necessity for political theater in Israel is much bigger than in other countries." The charged subject matter of Lerner's plays ranges from West Bank settlers' resistance to an Israel-Jordan peace treaty in Pangs of the Messiah to an account of a Hungarian Jew accused of Nazi collaboration in Kastner.
Lerner also teaches political playwriting at Tel Aviv University; it's a course that probably isn't offered in most American playwriting programs. Political plays, he believes, emerge from political necessity, and day-to-day life in Israel is inseparable from politics.
The Murder of Isaac takes place in a rehabilitation center for sufferers of post-traumatic-stress disorder, who re-enact Rabin's assassination as part of their therapy. Awake and Sing! is set in a Bronx apartment where a family grapples with the pressures of the Depression.
These settings exemplify an important distinction between many foreign political plays and their American counterparts. The foreign plays are often more experimental and cover a wider terrain - consider the work of Germany's Bertolt Brecht, France's Jean Genet, or Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel (whose life and art became so inextricably connected that he became president of the Czech Republic).
In contrast, like Awake and Sing! or The Subject Was Roses - or even such standard bearers as Arthur Miller's All My Sons or Death of a Salesman - American political plays have traditionally been domestic dramas. The politics are couched in a family setting.
For Fichandler, who left her post at Arena in 1991 and is now head of the graduate acting program at New York University, a domestic setting can be an asset. "I actually believe that the family is a wonderful unit through which to see the political air of the day, to experience the air of that culture at that time, because you see all of the relationships - who gets educated, who has to marry whom, who dominates," she explains.
The accessibility of familial relationships can also help a play that seems rooted in a particular time - the 1930s, in the case of Awake and Sing! - speak to modern audiences, who may be dealing with similar issues. "I read Awake and Sing! and said, 'Oh, my God, I must direct this play. I get it. I get it. I get the corrosive effect of poverty. I get the convention of this woman who sticks to these bourgeois inherited homilies about how her children must live, and [the grandfather's] bewildered dream of a vague socialist society,' " Fichandler says.
Furthermore, building a play around a family helps humanize a subject that can easily slip into agitprop and, as Fichandler puts it, "become schematic. The characters are mouthpieces. They become papier-mache."
Turning to metaphor
In his own work and in his teaching, Lerner stresses that, first and foremost, "a political play is a play. It has to contain dramatic elements which are developed as in every other play. It must have a plot. It must have characters. It must have relationships. It would never work if these elements were not in a political play just as they are in any other play. The big problem in a political play is how do you create a political agenda through this play? How do you create political impact by the play that has characters and relationships and plot? This is not an easy task."
Lerner feels that he and other non-American playwrights frequently turn to metaphor and experimentation because "realistic plays, domestic plays, which can be very powerful, are probably not enough, not an accepted enough device to deal with current political issues in a way which will be satisfactory." In The Murder of Isaac, for example, the rehabilitation hospital serves as a metaphor for ills in Israeli society.
The use of metaphor is not unlike the use of songs in a musical, in which characters sing when their emotions become too strong for mere speech. "It's like the difference between prose and poetry. What prose cannot do, poetry can. That's why we have to keep searching for a theatrical style that will allow us to deal with the horrors of the 20th and 21st century," Lerner says.
And, more and more in this country, playwrights are trying less conventional forms. In Angels in America, for instance, Tony Kushner takes wild leaps of imagination that allow him to examine everything from homosexuality to Mormonism in the Reagan era. In The America Play, Suzan-Lori Parks has a character digging into the earth in an effort to disinter the country's history. And, on a more modest level, in Julius X, playwright Letson combines the stories of Malcolm X and Julius Caesar to illuminate the nature of power.
The appeal of these plays may grow out of the same needs that Lerner recognizes in Israeli audiences. "Because of the political pressures and constant doubts, people need reassurance. They need an opportunity to explore themselves and their lives," he says.
Lerner alsosays, "There's a linkage between political theater and political opposition. They influence one another. They inspire one another. The political theater can inspire the political opposition and vice versa."
With that in mind, Fichandler suggests that the increase in political theater in this country stems from a sense of increased turmoil in the population in general, and in the artistic community, specifically.
"I think our political plays are growing out of ... the changes in race relationships, the changes in capitalist domination, the status of women, the increasing economic divide between poor and rich. It's really overwhelming," Fichandler says.
"Since playwriting is a natural form of speaking truth to power, this is a good time to do that. I think the young playwrights surely are."