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Are Liberal Politics Hurting Theatre?
By SANDER GUSINOW
Wednesday, December 30, 2015  •  
Wed Dec 30, 2015  •  
Playwriting  •   19 comments Share This
Are liberals just going to become the next generation of oppressors?

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

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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.

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

Top photo of Clybourne Park by Nathan Johnson

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19 Comments:
Susan Gusinow said:
Interesting. Thanks for giving me something intriguing to think about.
Posted on 12/31/2015 at 3:11 PM
alyssa said:
Ridiculous. There's a difference between stifling freedom of expression (in which creatives are imprisoned for voicing their ideas) and plays not getting coverage because the higher-ups decide they're not worth portraying. Neocons have gotten ahold of this crazy idea that if their words and thoughts face criticism, then their "freedom of speech" is being threatened. They've got to face the music.
Posted on 1/5/2016 at 12:12 AM
Sander said:
Alyssa, I'm sure you can understand the distinction between a voice criticized and a voice unheard! Your belief that the 'higher-ups' know best is exactly the wrong idea since producers are often more concerned with profit than challenging their audience. (this truism rears it's head in plenty of instances, as I'm sure you're aware) A stagnant theatre is an ill theatre.
Posted on 1/5/2016 at 12:26 PM
AJ said:
Good points. But I believe the best plays are ones that transcend the political. Plays that prattle about politics will never be classics, or even remembered. It's no wonder Brecht's only hit is about a mother and her kids. Yes, today's liberals are allergic to other points of view [are they really liberals anymore? who knows?] but then answer is good plays, not more of the same.
Posted on 1/5/2016 at 10:09 PM
Bob Baker said:
Thank you for having the courage to say what I was thinking. I love a good debate where one's neurons light up and one sees things with a different nuance. It is what makes us human rather than an animal reacting to a stimulus that we think might hurt us.
Posted on 1/9/2016 at 11:51 AM
Lance Spodek said:
the field of human drama is vast. To limit productions only to the PC victim de jure is too limiting. See the world through a wider lens, and welcome a larger audience.
Posted on 1/9/2016 at 11:22 PM
David said:
I agree (and Hollywood is even worse), but if Angels had truly been antiPC, the Rosenbergs' guilt would be shown. Profit motives and PC social motives are also intertwined. New Yorkers skew very left, but tourists and other patrons much less so. But if Dreamgirls can lose a Tony for being nonPC on a real estate issue, imagine what would befall a producer with a Fox News POV.
Posted on 1/10/2016 at 10:39 AM
AJ said:
I do agree that theatre should challenge concepts we accept without question. The left is undergoing a major division right now between feminism and multiculturalism. I would really love to see a play about that.
Posted on 1/12/2016 at 8:53 AM
Kiki said:
Maybe these unproduced plays just aren't very good.
Posted on 1/20/2016 at 11:03 PM
Sander said:
Kiki, the point is, 'Girl In Trouble' *was* a good play. It was just passed on for political reasons. Also, so many bad plays get produced already, I can't take that line of thought very seriously.
Posted on 1/21/2016 at 12:34 PM
Nancy McClernan said:
"Good" of course is subjective - but what reviews make clear is that the play was over-the top and strident. "The gruesome conclusion, which takes the discussion about control of one’s body to a literal extreme, will polarize..." http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/11/theater/reviews/11trouble.html What strident pro-abortion plays are being produced that this one was meant to balance?
Posted on 4/30/2016 at 12:50 PM
Sander said:
This is a straw-man argument. The issue is theaters were afraid to produce a play that went against the preconceived bias of their audience. No matter what a critic may have said about my *example* of this kind of thinking (and by the way, critics judge the performance, not necessarily the play as-written) the aforementioned kind of thinking is intrinsically anti-intellectual.
Posted on 6/2/2016 at 11:11 AM
Nancy McClernan said:
You've provided exactly zero evidence that producers were "afraid" to produce GIRLS IN TROUBLE because of a presumed audience bias. I am suggesting it's likely the real issue is that the play was extreme and strident. I haven't seen any PRO-abortion plays much less strident ones on off-Broadway. If the audience has a pro-abortion bias, why would this be the case? Not for politics, obviously.
Posted on 6/3/2016 at 8:16 AM
Nancy said:
A 400 character limit makes it difficult to address all points here. So you can read my blog post: http://mcclernan.blogspot.com/2016/06/what-is-straw-man.html
Posted on 6/3/2016 at 9:10 AM
Nancy said:
One final note - to get a sense of exactly how strident GIRLS IN TROUBLE is, the Variety review said: "...we get a potentially thoughtful discussion of abortion hobbled by throwaway potshots. Communism is for idiots; vegetarianism is for idiots; opposing the death penalty - also for idiots..." http://variety.com/2010/legit/reviews/girls-in-trouble-1117942338/
Posted on 6/3/2016 at 12:53 PM
AJ said:
I think the discussion about the quality of this anti-abortion play is not relevant to the discussion of heard versus unheard voices, which is the point. this if this election taught us anything, it's that people apart from the PC culture feel unheard. We need moderate voices more than ever. Also, there are mountains of pro-choice plays out there: 'Out of Silence,' 'Dry Land,' 'Roe v Wade' etc.
Posted on 1/5/2017 at 1:06 PM
Nancy said:
Dry Land as the review explicitly says, is not an abortion play. Every play I've ever heard of about abortion is full of ambivalence and does not focus on abortion the way GIRLS IN TROUBLE so clearly does. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/13/theater/dry-land-a-drama-on-abortion-by-ruby-rae-spiegel.html
Posted on 3/21/2017 at 9:22 PM
Nancy said:
And too bad for Jonathan Reynolds that there wasn't any kind of organized protest agains his play - he clearly thought he was being provocative and brave, and nobody cared. And the Catholic Church or some other misogynist organization could afford to put on an anti-abortion play every year if they wanted to - nobody is stopping them. They just want LIBERALS to be forced to pay for it.
Posted on 3/21/2017 at 9:26 PM
Nancy said:
And FYI - things are so stacked against women honestly talking about abortion that there's this trope. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/GoodGirlsAvoidAbortion Our society still tries to make women feel guilty for abortion - and right-wingers like Reynolds would like to see women charged with murder too.
Posted on 3/21/2017 at 9:29 PM
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