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Are Liberal Politics Hurting Theatre?

Date: Dec 30, 2015


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One playwright worries theatre's leftist bent may stifle challenging ideas


Whether it's being earnestly examined by New York Magazine or wittily skewered by the current season of South Park, the smothering of free expression in the name of progressivism and political correctness is a polarizing topic. It's particularly controversial on college campuses, where students routinely call for the removal of faculty and speakers they find too contrarian. I can't help but feel sorry for these students. As a liberal myself, I'm thankful that my own college experience was enriched by frank discussions with conservative and libertarian thinkers. Universities shouldn't be refuges from tough questions but rather havens of intellectual growth.

It's easy to blame students' missteps on naiveté, but I've noticed the same muzzling of difficult ideas in theatre. Take for example Jonathan Reynolds' abortion drama Girls in Trouble: Theatres passed on the play for years because of its sympathetic portrayal of a pro-life character and the depiction of her beliefs onstage. It's easy to see why: New York City theatregoers are generally a left-leaning bunch. Plays that contest our liberal notions might upset the subscriber base and not sell.

Not that there aren't provocative shows out there. Scenes From a Marriage, The Christians, and Appropriate were certainly jarring to some audiences, but questioning traditional marriage, the concept of Hell, and white privilege isn't exactly cutting-edge for theatre’s intellectual crowd. What made Ibsen's A Doll's House, Kushner's Angels in America, and Hare's Stuff Happens historic was that they swam against the tide. Now we're all floating downriver, preaching loudly to the choir. Yes, it's hard to hear someone present a point of view that contradicts our own, but ideas that aren't challenged can never get stronger.

Of course, the theatre has always embraced the liberal credo so it's difficult to find a conservative thinker in the playwriting realm. We have David Mamet, but it’s tough to pick out any specific rhetoric in his work. He just gives us debates, which may be all a right-leaning author can get away with. Perhaps theatre was more challenging in the past because it was progressive, but nowadays its audiences are, too.

That's why I'm particularly taken with playwrights who practice sly subversion of liberal ideals. Take for example Bruce Norris' Pulitzer Prize winning Clybourne Park, a clever spin off of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. Yes, the play's white characters are racist and the dangers of gentrification are taken to task, but there's an undeniable (and wholly illiberal) mirroring that takes place. Neither the white family nor the black family wants "the others" encroaching. Its message is finespun. If one looks at the play through a liberal lens --- one that so often separates humanity into villains and victims --- it shows we all have the potential to be both.

Another great example is Taylor Mac's Hir, which asks what replaces the patriarchy once progressives topple it? A soldier comes home to find his formerly abusive father impaired, and his mother --- self-indoctrinated with extremist progressive thought --- in charge. Mac does an effective job of showing the toxic intolerance of the new left. The myopic mother demands the world conform to her point of view, which ironically, is the exact same thing her husband had done. Mac has the courage to ask, albeit subtly, are liberals just going to become the next generation of oppressors?

Sound familiar? It's almost ripped from the headlines. We lefties often don't want to listen to the conservative side of things because of its tainted history of repression. And yet, by refusing to hear challenging ideas, aren't we perpetuating the same cycle? Playwrights can't be content to write what's comfortable. Theatre is meant to hold a mirror up to life, even when it's unpleasant.


Sander Gusinow is a freelance writer and playwright based in New York.

Top photo of Clybourne Park by Nathan Johnson

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