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A political movement is a group of people organized for the purpose of attaining a political goal or a change in society. Throughout history, political movements have driven changes in governmental policies, ruling parties, and social norms. In recent times, the anti-war movement, the ecology movement, and the anti-globalization movement have undeniably worked to change opinions and alter policies. Many political movements have aimed to establish or broaden the rights of demographic groups, including abolitionism, the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, feminism, the gay rights movement, the disability rights movement, and the more inclusive human rights movement. Some political movements have represented class interests, such as the labor movement, socialism, and communism. Political movements can also involve struggles to decentralize or centralize control by the state, as in anarchism, fascism, and Nazism.
The power of the establishment, whether it is a political party, the state, official religion, patriarchy, or capitalism, is usually the target of radical media – and often an obstacle to it. (Downing, p.393) Theatre is just one way that is used by political or social movements to question and challenge the establishment.
In this paper I will discuss three different political movements from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and three playwrights whose plays have been used to have an impact on society. The social movements that this paper will focus on are feminism, socialism, and agitprop theatre. These political movements will be examined through the lenses of the playwrights Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and Bertolt Brecht, and their plays Hedda Gabler, Heartbreak House, and The Days of the Commune, respectively.
Henrik Johan Ibsen was a 19th century Norwegian writer who specialized in playwriting, directing and poetry. Ibsen is known as the “Father of Realism.” Realism is the dramatic movement in which stories are more loyal to true-to-life depictions of events, rather than abstract or supernatural interpretations. A lot of Ibsen’s work was not appreciated as it should have been at the time of publication because of the strict European ideals and morals present in Sweden and Norway at the time. His works, of which Hedda Gabler is a good example, lacked conformity to these ideals.
Though Ibsen did not call himself a feminist, he was an enthusiastic supporter of women’s rights. His plays “constitute a remarkable literary contribution to feminist thought.” Many of the seemingly flawed, complex heroines he created throughout his plays were reacting to the restrictive morals and expectations of their situations. Premiering in January of 1891, Hedda Gabler’s impact was huge. Many critics struggled with the concepts of the play and called Hedda “monstrous,” yet some supported Ibsen’s criticism of women’s treatment by society.
Upon my first reading of Hedda Gabler it was hard not to mistake Hedda Gabler as an extremely malicious and vindictive person, but is this really the case? There is evidence against this negative connotation. We have to look into the context to really see if Hedda’s behavior can be defined as unreasonable.
Hedda is a young bride, newly married to George Tesman. Society has pressured her into believing that she should be enormously happy or at least pretend to be. Instead Hedda is dissatisfied and makes no real attempt of hiding it. From the outset, she expresses her feeling of suffocation as a result of society’s expectations of her to be a housewife and a mother, and to be powerless. Therefore, Hedda’s motivation to manipulate people is a result of her incapability to protest.
Feminism, which is the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes, began to gain momentum in Europe and the United States in the mid-19th century. Feminism originated in the US in 1848. The group of women originally organized to emphasize a wide variety of goals, before starting to focus their attention to securing the rights of women. Women demanded legal equality, financial independence, and economic solvency, and above all, suffrage – that is, the right to vote. Ibsen’s views of women were much influenced by the 19th century Scandinavian women’s rights and movements. Women’s issues, and naturalistic issues – that is, the characterization of the individual, as being influenced by their surroundings, were central points in most of his plays.
Hedda’s intentions are fascinating because, through our modern eyes, they could be deemed acceptable, or even justifiable. The strict views imposed on her support the idea that it is a rational decision for her to rebel. Hedda’s life is entirely dictated by men. They say what she should or should not do, and it is this constricting force that has made her manipulative in the first place. This poses the question: Is Hedda’s suicide courageous or cowardly? Her intentions seem clear: she either commits suicide to break free from the societal boundaries that are enforced upon her, or because she is simply unable to live her life as a housewife and would rather die than be forced to conform to the societal demands.
Austrian Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was also practicing in the late 1800’s. One of the theories proposed by Freud was “penis envy,” a notion used to explain the frustrations that women had. The theory was that women secretly wished they were men and that they would compensate by acting rebellious and outspoken, thus adopting traits considered to be masculine, and against societal principles. As applied to Hedda Gabler, the theory suggests that she could be subconsciously projecting her masculine energy, usurping the power of the males in her society through her willful dialogue and actions.
Ibsen wrote Hedda Gabler in his early 60’s, when he appears to have had an infatuation for young women. His success as a playwright may have been going to his head. For example, when Ibsen was vacationing in northern Italy in 1889, a young lady Emily Bardach, who was only 18 at the time, started to fall in love with him. Ibsen appears to have had the same feelings for her, even talking about leaving his wife and son for Emily. But for various reasons, Ibsen’s biographer Michael Mayer explains, his “fear of scandal, sense of duty towards his wife, consciousness of old age, perhaps the consciousness or fear of impotence—he, who had suppressed his feelings for so long, and now had the opportunity to fulfill them, shrank from the test.” Instead, Ibsen returned to Munich and struck up another infatuation, which also went nowhere. The object of his new interest, Helene Raff, wrote later, “Ibsen’s relations with young girls had in them nothing whatever of infidelity in the usual sense of the term, but arose solely from the needs of his imagination.”
It was as this was happening that Ibsen started to write his play Hedda Gabler, saying, “The great tragedy of life is that so many people have nothing to do but yearn for happiness without ever being able to find it.” Whether or not Henrik Ibsen found happiness, his play Hedda Gabler found success as a political statement on the rights of women, and has been performed many times in the succeeding years.
George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1856. His education was not a typical one because he disliked the organized training offered to him. In 1876 Shaw moved to London, England, where he established himself at a theatre critic.
All of George Bernard Shaw’s biographers recognize the importance of Marxism in his intellectual development in the 1880s. During the mid-1880s Shaw’s economic ideals led him to accept the notion of class war as it was understood by contemporary Marxists. His economic theory showed that landlords and capitalists directly exploited the workers by underpaying them. His plays often showcased his criticism of passive upper class European society and their disregard for the working class.
Some intellectual historians downplay Shaw’s Marxism. For example, in the early 1900’s Shaw joined the Fabian Society. The Fabian society was founded in 1884 under the principles of a roman general named Fabius Cunctator. Fabius was known for using patient and elusive tactics in avoiding battles. The early Fabians rejected the revolutionary doctrines of Marxism, recommending instead a gradual transition to a socialist society.
So, while Shaw’s economic theory was basically that of contemporary Marxism, his view on history and politics may be less revolutionary and lean more towards pacifism.
A good example of both is Shaw’s play Heartbreak House. The play, published in 1919, is set in a country house “full of surprises” owned and ruled by the aged Captain Shotover. He is a drunken man who is responsible for running his whole ship – a house that is literally in the shape of a ship. This, he says, requires him to have “the seventh degree of concentration”. His house and its attendants are best described in Lady Utterword’s words: “the luggage lying on the steps, the servants spoilt and impossible, nobody at home to receive anybody, no regular meals, nobody ever hungry because they are always gnawing bread and butter or munching apples, and, what is worse, the same disorder in ideas, in talk, in feeling.”
Written after the First World War, Heartbreak House was inevitably influenced by the war’s impact on Europe. The war had changed almost everything, causing death, destruction, and poverty, and Shaw never wavered in his belief that the world can and should change. George Bernard Shaw was strongly against the war from the very beginning. In fact, in 1914 he wrote a pamphlet entitled Common Sense about the War. This pamphlet chastised the British and their allies as being equally responsible for the war with Germany. Shaw claimed that the solution was socialism, and he also blamed capitalism for the problems on the European continent.
So when Shaw published the play Heartbreak House in 1919, it was a further indictment of British and European society for having contributed to the cause of World War I. Heartbreak House, which was itself influenced by Shaw’s appreciation of the Russian Anton Chekhov’s (1860-1904) plays is set during a dinner party on the eve of World War I. The play functions as an allegory for the oblivious British social classes heading towards the tragedy of the Great War.
The household is a thoroughly confusing and muddled situation, whose lack of arrangement, and disorder of thoughts represent Shaw’s portrayal of the entire society of England at the time. The attendants of the house stand for what Shaw states in his preface, as the “cultured, leisured Europe before the war”.
The plot of the play is very simple as there is almost none at all. The play starts and ends symbolically with Ellie. Ellie is to marry the capitalist Mangan, but admits her love for Hector, the husband of her hostess. She rejects Hector and announces her marriage to Mangan but then rejects him, too. In the long run, she gives up the prospect of both romance and money and pledges herself to the aging captain, who claims he is unavailable. Ellie discovers that all the beliefs on which she builds her principles, and the ways she understands the world, should be altered, or at least modified. She feels she needs to take an action, any action, to stop more losses. Ellie’s indecisiveness and misplaced apprehension of her world symbolize for Shaw the ineffectiveness of the leisured class. Ultimately, however, confusion and bumbling decisions lead at first to casualties as war comes to their front door, and finally a return to boredom.
George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, though not as widely popular as some of his other works, gives great insight into his opinions of this leisure class and their passiveness toward the circumstances in early 20th century Europe, and about the failure of the political processes in effect at the time.
Agitprop is a combination of two separate words: “agitation”, which is to actively support a political ideology through speeches, actions, and demonstrations; and “propaganda”, which is the influence of people’s attitudes which tends to be accomplished by expressing only one side of an argument, or by expressing the argument in an impartial way. Agitprop Theatre, as a medium, appeals to the emotions of an audience by simplifying issues, making them easier to understand. Characters may also be shown as good or bad by introducing them as caricatures representing certain groups or political figures.
Agitprop was a form of political theatre developed in the 1920’s in Soviet Russia. Its aim was to educate and indoctrinate the masses into the communist ideology. In Germany, a 1931 law banned agitprop theatre performances in some localities, and some performers were arrested by the Gestapo. Other performers fled to the Soviet Union, and even to the United States, where they found some sympathy for their ideals.
Certain features are typical of Agitprop Theatre. It is often characterized by traveling troupes playing on the streets or at factories of working people. Also typical of Agitprop is the rejection of make-up, costumes, stage sets, and lighting, which is a rebellion against traditional ideas of theatre. Performers, in fact, often wear shirts of the same color and create different characters by changing hats. The most important feature of Agitprop, however, is a focus on the message itself, since it is put to its best use in crisis situations, where action against a policy or regime is urgent. (Downing, pp. 68-69)
Alternative methods of presenting theatre were being explored in both Soviet Russia and Germany. As an alternative and radical method of presenting theatre, Agitprop had a huge influence on German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Brecht was, in fact, known for attempting to engage his audience in active participation with the action on stage, much as a crowd at a sporting event engages with the activity on the field.
One of Brecht’s plays that is an example of Agitprop theatre is The Days of the Commune. Published in the late 1940’s, this play tells the story of the uprising and the ultimate failure of the Paris Commune in 1871, a city council in France’s capital which based its policies on socialism and proclaimed its right to rule over all of France.
Throughout The Days of the Commune, Brecht avoids using a central protagonist, focusing instead on the Commune as characterized by the people in the street. The play presents a panorama of life in the Commune, an early socialist revolutionary effort which had a great impact on the theories of Karl Marx (C.L.R. James, Labor Action, 1946). With no larger-than-life heroes or sentimental heroines, the play instead brings to life a small group of working-class neighbors in the Rue Pigalle in Paris. They are Papa and Coco, Babette and Geneviève, and Madame Cabet and her son Jean. We watch the characters as they struggle to make ends meet and learn together how to re-imagine life in a truly democratic society.
Even though Brecht and others who were producing this type of radical theatre were successful in influencing culture within Germany and internationally, it was not enough to stop the swell of nationalism that led to the repression of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis (Downing, p. 103). Nevertheless, Brecht and others utilizing the methods of agitprop have left a legacy that has influenced theatre ever since.
Throughout the course of history many people have used their political views in different ways to try and change the minds of their peers.
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