Why we need to bring back political theater | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

For those of us who believe that theater has a purpose far greater than mere show, the need for it becomes more urgent in divisive, critical times.

Bertolt Brecht claimed that the primary purpose of theater is to entertain, something which all theater artists might agree upon; but “entertain” meant something different for him.

Many would equate it with mindless diversion, escape or outright denial of what’s happening around us—imagination as essentially a flight from reality. However, a good number of us, following Brecht, equate it with the exact opposite: a striving toward a deeper understanding of our humanity, a major part of which is our political condition; a lie that tells the truth.

To “entertain” means to enlighten us, to jolt us, to question our comfort zones, to unsettle our previously held ideals.

This is why the craft I have chosen to make a career of is inextricably linked to confronting this condition. During the Marcos dictatorship, I embraced this commitment to theater as the inevitable task of any cultural worker striving toward freedom.

To a fault perhaps, didacticism became the benchmark of effective theater for us. We staged agit-prop street plays; we explored the possibilities of people’s theater as “rehearsals” for the impending confrontation between the masses and an oppressive state; we made weapons out of slogans and clenched fists, and danced with banners as symbols of defiance.

Potent form

During the early years of martial law, for example, the dula-tula became the most flexible, potent form of protest theater. From UP Repertory’s “Iskolar ng Bayan” to Boni Ilagan’s Holy Mass structure in “Pagsambang Bayan,” “dramatized poetry” assumed countless variations in other mobile productions by Peta (“Oratoryo ng Bayan”), the Negros Theatre League (“Masaker”), the Kulturang Atin Foundation in Mindanao and Artist, Inc. of Southern Luzon.

These numerous protest theater practices soon coalesced into a national network of artists, which culminated in the first National Festival of People’s Culture in 1983 at Peta’s home fort then, the Rajah Sulayman Theater in Fort Santiago.

Admittedly, in hindsight, many of our exertions may seem amateurish and mediocre, or may even appear as a poor excuse for not honing one’s craft—an urgency to do it the “easy way,” because what mattered more was to “get the message across.”

After the dictator was toppled, we started rethinking what the political in theater would entail in a new era that promised “democratic space.” A new generation of theater artists started redefining what theater with a purpose meant, while some others who have had enough repudiated it.

Political standpoints among peers diverged. A fatigue of political theater, already making itself felt just before the end of the tyrant’s era, opened up a blank slate instead, simmering with uncertainties and possibilities.

All of a sudden, the sureness, the “synchronicity” of the people’s aspirations with the artist’s expression and style needed to be reestablished. We were compelled to confront differently configured—though not necessarily new—political issues.

 Integral part

And while political alliances splintered, so did perceptions of the “truth” as well as who the “enemies” were. Artists with a cause eventually diversified into various “advocacies”—gender/sexuality, feminism, environment, good governance, cultural heritage, indigenous concerns, values, human rights, etc.

With urgency appearing to have dissipated, this became the time, at least for me, to focus on the craft, to pause and reevaluate my own beliefs. What are we to write about, and why? I realized that the critical eye had to be a lot more discerning.

In the new era, even the word “political” would become discredited, the didactic becoming taboo. Some critics began describing depictions of poverty as “porn,” despite its overwhelming and persistent ubiquity. Perceptions of reality became just as diversified; we celebrated all advocacies, and, at times, the political became confined to a “correctness.”

For me, though, habits are hard to break. The political is what I have always sought in theater. As a playwright, I continue to read and write with a conscious political perspective, even if only as backdrop, as layering, as a shift in lenses.

Each advocacy I write about is meant not only to be an integral part of an overview that hopefully allows me to come to grips with the world before me, but also, and more crucially, that my commitment to this responsibility would come through as well in the plays I create.

Many theater people (and critics) hanker for the “universal,” implying that anything political is not. Some playwrights and artists seriously intend to create works that will be “timeless”—“classics” in time, like Shakespeare’s works.

I sigh and shake my head, for these are aspirations that are the stuff of egoistic daydreams. They’re fine, really, as daydreams, the way one hopes to win the lotto.

My political perspective is what arms me to refute this daydream; whatever I write is entirely about a specific, time-bound issue. What I have to say, I can defend today. The issues that affect me, affect me now. The community I have to contend with and help to thrive is the one I live in.

Human, not ‘universal’

And the only reason an artist like me creates is that I am responding to my present reality. I am not even sure if my works will be remembered next year, more so in the future. That is something I leave to the next generation.

If I’m lucky (as I’m sure Shakespeare was!), the future will get what I had to say. And like any playwright, all I can ever write about (skillfully or poorly) may not be “universal,” but it will be, at very least, decidedly human.

And because human, therefore urgent. Especially in times like this, when the specter of a resurrected tyranny through deception, impunity, blind devotion and resentment is seemingly underway.

I feel the pressing need for us to reinvigorate the political in theater. The urgency with which we need to re-state this commitment must defy the lackadaisical character of the apolitical. The times are calling us back to what I believe is the essential function of the stage.

Brecht again: “During dark times, will there be singing?/ Yes, there will be singing about the dark times.” —CONTRIBUTED

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