“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”William Shakespeare, As You Like It, II, vii
Although it may not seem so at first glance, politics and performance – as areas of both social activity and academic study – have inextricable links between them. As interdisciplinarity grows in importance, it is crucial that we explore the mutual benefits that different perspectives can provide each other. Both politics and performance can be seen through the foundation of storytelling, one of the most influential ways of strengthening human relationships. On the surface, politics and performance have very different aims – to lead and to entertain – but are they both at heart about creating a connection with the ‘audience’? By considering the historical and theoretical links between performance and politics, and exploring how these links have been consolidated here at Warwick in recent years, we seek to show how we can foster a community at the university that values and practices these disciplines together in a spirit of exploration and creativity.
Theatre as we understand and practise it today is not a fixed or universal activity. It is a particular cultural form with a specific history, always open to re-interpretation. This Western notion of theatre emerged across Europe most recognisably during the Renaissance period, although its history can be traced much further back still. Like many aspects of Western culture, a lineage is often traced through Rome to Ancient Greece – where, interestingly enough, performance and politics had a much closer relationship. In other parts of the world, different lineages saw the development of different cultural forms of ‘performance’ which retained closer links to religious, spiritual or social rituals. Greek theatre was in many ways a form of civic ritual, which was seen as serving important and unique functions for the ‘polis’. Indeed, both Plato and Aristotle made use of theatrical metaphors and framings in their discussions of politics. Given that the primary medium of communication and cultural exchange in ancient Greece was still to a significant extent that of oral dialogue, it is easy to see how the activities of politics and philosophy bore an immediate similarity to performance that perhaps is not always present in our textualised society: to ‘do’ politics or philosophy one usually had to stand up in front of people and speak. For this reason, it is no surprise to see Plato’s discussions of rhetoric as an ‘act’, and Aristotle’s conceptualisation of the ‘citizen as spectator’. The ancient Greek word for “doing” was, literally, “drama”; in that etymological fact alone, we can see how political and theatrical ‘action’ have always been twin phenomena.
While there has been a long history of political theorists appealing to notions of performance and performance theorists appealing to politics, it has mostly remained either an exercise in metaphorical comparison or a tangential concern within the respective disciplines of politics and performance studies. Only recently has an exciting new field of study begun to emerge which explicitly considers performance and politics together – and this new academic project has been led in large part by academics here at Warwick. The Warwick Performance and Politics Network is a Warwick-based network of academics and postgraduate researchers from multiple universities set up to foster interdisciplinary study of “the performative in politics and the politics of performance”. In 2015, members of the group published a collection of essays titled The Grammar of Politics and Performance, which begins the work of establishing a common language for the discussion of these two interrelated topics. Through all of this, we can see a framework emerging for analysis of both the performative elements of politics (evident in the ceremonies and rituals of parliamentary and judicial procedures as well as in the aesthetics of protest) and the political stakes of performance. Performances of different kinds have the capacity to visibly (re)produce discourses and imageries which can depict, embody, or question the current political and social reality. They establish public spectacles, providing a space for people to platform the concerns, grievances and passions they wish to communicate to others. By using performance to explore politics, we can engage a wide audience in the problems and opportunities of our society – in this way, performance serves as an important medium for political intervention. Once again, we need look no further than our university campus to see this in action.
Only last month, Warwick Arts Centre was lucky enough to host the very first Change Festival (18th – 20th October), a collection of performances, panel discussions and workshops dedicated to ‘imaging a better future’. By having a varied and exciting schedule, the Change Festival managed to instil a sense of urgency and hope in its audience, inspiring them to think and do better. The upcoming WUDS show ‘Earthquakes in London’, depicting a family dealing with the complications of navigating the contemporary world against a backdrop of political and environmental crisis, is another example of politically minded performance at Warwick. And last week, Breach – a young multi-media performance company started by students at Warwick in 2015 – brought their highly acclaimed production ‘It’s True, It’s True, It’s True’ to the Warwick Arts Centre for the first time. The play enacts a restaging of the 1612 trial of Agostino Tassi for the rape of baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, powerfully portraying how the politics of truth plays out in a courtroom where competing accounts of the truth are pitted against each other amidst a complex structure of gendered power dynamics. It asks us: whose account of the truth do we listen to? Who speaks, and why? And how can we do justice to stories of injustice? In restaging this trial, they enact a kind of resurrection of Artemisia, allowing her to speak through the ages to us and forcing us to contend with her story. The implications for our current political situation are obvious.
The questions around politics, truth and performance raised by ‘It’s True, It’s True, It’s True’ strike at the core of the complex relationship between performance and politics. Of course, performance often has a connotation of fiction and as such, perhaps, of falsity – especially so when applied to politics. To say that a politician or a citizen is performing would seem to suggest that they are in some way lying or presenting themselves unauthentically. We know very well the ways in which the performance of political rhetoric is often used to construct grotesque (if inventive) fictions about our world, and performance often deals in fictional narratives. Although ‘It’s True…’ is a (semi-) verbatim restaging of a real event, its relationship to the ‘objective’ truth is never taken for granted. Nonetheless, the immensely ‘truthful’ quality of the story they present onstage is unmistakable. It seems ‘truer’ than even the strictest and most literal statements of fact. What does it mean, then, for us to perform truthfully when we know that what is being performed is in some sense always a fiction? What does it mean to perform fictions truthfully? What does it mean to perform truth with fiction? And can the medium of performance enable us to enact ‘true fictions’ which challenge the status quo? Asking these questions, a picture begins to emerge of the stage as a liminal space in which imagined, historical, or fictional realities overlap with our world. We start to see the possibility of ‘staging’ performative interventions into the world as we know it – of bringing into embodiment an imagined alternative to the way things are.
It is with this impetus that we are setting up a new society for students at Warwick – the Performance and Politics Society. Borrowing our name from the WPPN, we intend to encourage the continuation of and engagement with this emerging field of study and foster a community of creative practise which embraces performance as an essential medium of political action. Of course, performance is more than just theatre. Performance is music, dance, spoken word poetry, comedy, circus arts, and much more. Our new society will aim to encourage all these modes of performance. They each have their own histories, interlinked in their own ways to each other and to the performance of politics. What ties it all together, perhaps, is simply the act of presenting yourself in front of an audience of people and telling a particular story about yourself and the world. Stories, of course, can be lies. Good art, powerful art, is not simply a matter of story-telling – it’s a matter of truth-telling. Which stories we choose to tell, when and where we decide to tell them, and whether or not they are true – that is up to us to decide.
Header image: Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash