Thursday, November 13, 2008

Conservative Theatre?

So there has been much ballyhoo recently about the relative lack about conservative voices in theatre. The New York Times had an article about the issue. Terry Teachout, of the Wall Street Journal, published his conservative perspective on his blog, and my good friend Leonard Jacobs wrote a typically spirited response on his blog.

The issue being questioned is why so few contemporary playwrights are conservative, and why so few plays express a conservative point of view. While I agree that it would be good to have a greater ideological diversity on stage, I feel that there may be more variation in the canon that we might recognize. What follows are a few pieces that seem to have a definite conservative ideas--I'm sure more can be found.

The first that came to mind immediately was Lerner and Loewe's Camelot. This is the story, essentially, of a man who tries to create a Utopia, but fatally ignores the inherent violence and lust in people. By refusing to recognize either the evil of Mordred or the affair of Lancelot and Guenevere, the terminally naive Arthur dooms his fool's paradise. Not quite the classical liberal perspective--that humans are essentially perfectible and good.

Mark Ravenhill's wonderfully titled Shopping and Fucking, a British play from the 1990's, might seem liberal in its unflinching portrayal of sex, drugs and hedonism. The bizarre thing, though, is that it uses this setting to make a shrilly conservative point--that a permissive society has divorced people completely from their true values, replacing them with utter emptiness. No paean to open sexual mores to be found here.

Even Lorraine Hansberry's landmark A Raisin in the Sun, though hugely progressive in its portrayal of race, has some elements in the plot that might please conservatives more than liberals. One is its uncompromisingly pro-life characters: the threat of Ruth aborting her pregnancy, due to the family's poverty, is a major plot point, and a decision which is portrayed as a horrible betrayal of her values. Another, trickier, point is the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" element to the Younger's story. These are people who get where they get without government help of any kind. I can imagine contemporary conservatives pointing to the Youngers as models--and perhaps arguments for cutting welfare and affirmative action.

Go further back, and the argument gets even harder--like with the Greeks. Aeschylus' Oresteia ends with the case being made that killing your mother to avenge your father is permissible. After all men are more important than women, because men are the seed and women merely the vessel. (Don't blame me for that ripe bit of misogyny, blame Aeschylus.) 

And what of Sophocles' Antigone? It is frequently held up by liberals as a story of someone whose principles force her to defy a repressive government--many contemporary adaptations stress this. But couldn't it just as easily be seen as a story of a woman whose religious convictions are so strong that they place her beyond the rule of law?

So am I totally off-base on these interpretations? Are there other plays similarly sympathetic to conservative philosophies, if not specific policies? I bet with a little digging we can find a lot more ideological diversity than we thought.


Mr. K said...

I'd need to take another look at Aeschylus' play, but I thought part of the point was that we need a code of law and can't just trust the gods to provide justice. That's why Euripides' Orestes is so scathing, because it takes place in a world where a justice system exists, and yet Orestes and company go ahead with their revenge anyway.

Also, how about Neil LaBute's work in general? It seems like he's making conservative points about art being divorced from tradition/Judeo-Christian humanism (Shape of Things), or the manipulativeness of modern relationships (Some Girls). From what I've heard about Wicker Man, it seems like he's definitely got some issues with feminism and paganism.

Mr. K said...

Don't forget Stoppard either. He's not only strongly anti-Communist, but he's continually showing the limitations of intellectualism, post-modernism and the utopian impulse.

I think the real problem with current theatre is that it tends to hew to a general bourgeois liberalism that makes middle and upper class people feel good about themselves (the "Crash" school of politics, where the mere act of recognizing we're all connected ends our problems).

I don't like didacticism in my plays, but I'd rather that the author puts forward their political ideas than stay in some polite, vaguely tolerant middle ground. Just make sure to put some believable characters on both sides and give them both convincing arguments.

Leonard Jacobs said...

Zev, this is one of the best pieces you've written. Bravo!!

Kevin said...

A lot of this depends on how you define conservativism. Taken as the defense of the current system - perhaps the broadest view - there are some plays that would fill the bill. It's not theatre, but the Battlestar Galactica series has a clearly conservative core message. Aeschylus was generally conservative, because his plays depict a departure from societal norms and a return. Many of Shakespeare's tragedies and histories do the same thing. Richard III takes power, upsetting the social norm, and is smacked back down. But interesting characters, usually, are those who seek change, because that's active. It's harder to make defense of an existing system active. that's why Richard III or MacB are so much more interesting than the protagonists in their plays.

Zev Valancy said...

Robby--you are invaluable, as always, for your comments. Aeschylus does absolutely talk about the need for laws (and I haven't read it in two years either, so I'm also rusty) but what I find important is what the jury decides and how they justify it.

As for LaBute, I'm not sure what his politics are--his attitudes always seemed more like shrill misogyny and misanthropy than any actual ideology. I'd be interested for anyone to tell me *what* he actually believes.

Stoppard is a slippery character--I think he's tough to pin down. I don't think you could identify any of his work as strictly conservative, but he's definitely a man who is always turning ideas upside-down and inside-out to figure out what makes them tick. He's definitely suspicious of some of the left's ideas, though, but he's always restlessly exploring.

And I'd certainly agree that a stronger point of view and a little more rigor would be welcome in playwrights today. I'm not even against didacticism, as long as it's entertaining!

Leonard--thanks for the kind words. I'd love to hear anything more specific you have to say about the piece.

Kevin--first off, welcome, I don't think I know you. Second, you make an excellent point about Shakespeare. The plays often end with a restoration of the social order, but I think they rarely say that it's an unmitigated good. The social order has so little positive to recommend it that it's hard not to identify with the people who are wrecking it!

Jack said...

As art, theatre reflects its times. The conservative themes you describe were part of society when theatre began. In each generation, plays incorporate conservative themes within a contemporary narrative of the times.

KD said...

Excellent post, and an excellent question!

I agree with lots of the examples mentioned. Which makes me wonder why, then, theater gets branded as an agent of the left? How much of theater's liberal reputation is a result of history? Correct me if I'm wrong here (probably theater skills are rusty), but during the "culture wars" in the 60s and 70s, theater was (a)a much more visible part of American culture and (b)usually on the liberal side of things. So perhaps people (especially people in the age range of the articles you cited) are just sorta used to thinking of theater as inherently pro-liberal...

Jacob said...

I have two thoughts, for what they're worth. The first is about Antigone. All of the interpretations on this site make Antigone the main character - and so do most contemporary interpretations. However, look at the play again and remember the Greeks were skeptical about whether women even had souls or not. Antigone's argument does not win the day, and, in fact, she contradicts herself when she tells Creon, "Who can know the will of the gods?" She makes a terrible case for herself. The person whose argument should be listened to is Creon's son, Haimon, who argues that Creon is a tyrant and should listen to the will of the city. Surely this was a convincing position for a play in Athens, and one that is liberal in the sense of being pro-democracy, but not particularly arguing for change in the contemporaneous Athenian setting. The main conflict in the play is not between Antigone and Creon, it's between Haimon and Creon. Antigone is simply the catalyst. Though women may be more memorable characters in Greek (and Shakespearean) drama, they are rarely, if ever, the protagonists.

And isn't that in itself conservative?

But if your question is held more to the contemporary era, and it asks why are most playwrights liberal in the sense of probably voting Democrat rather than Republican, it may be due to a simple sociological fact. Presumably playwrights get their start as audience members; and studies of contemporary theatre audience members show that they have one thing in common. Not wealth, not race, not age, but high levels of education. The higher your education level, the more likely it is you see theatre, regardless of any other factor. Similarly, the higher your education level, the more likely it is you vote Democrat. I won't hazard a guess about why education makes people see theatre and vote for Democrats, but it is, so I've read, true. Perhaps, then, the "leftist" nature of theatre is more about the education level of audiences - and hence theatre artists who began as audiences - than anything else? Though I think you're right, Zev, to point out that there are many facets of conservatism in supposedly "liberal" democrats. Someone who voted for Obama but drives an SUV, for instance.

Nice post. Reminds me of a conversation you and I had with about 11 other people a few years back...