by Carrie Kaplan, Adjunct Professor, Literary Manager, Department of Drama

Shamshow, grandstanding, devolving into theater, playing to the crowd, play-acting, mere theater, just for show, histrionics. When politics is “behaving badly,” there is an almost universal knee jerk reaction to capture this deviation using the language of theater and theatricality. Corrupt or insincere politicians/institutions–who place their own personal gain or the maintenance of their own power over public good and will–are “acting” in bad faith, or are simply bad actors. Yet, typically these criticisms arise when politics is actually failing at its most theatrical tennant, in a break from mimesis, a shared lineage from Ancient Greece (the birthplace of both theater and democracy). Mimesis is the representation of one thing for another, as an actor stands in for a character, and by extension, the audience. Bad politics is a mimetic issue, a failure of elected officials to truly represent their audience (those who have elected them), and it is under these circumstances that protest (a form of political action that revels in spectacle, pageantry and theatrical excess) erupts.

I entered this FLC with a vague sense that I wanted to extend this focus in my current introduction to theater classes to a global perspective. Currently, my class most strongly examines how theater has run ahead of politics and legislation from a largely U.S. perspective. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which fomented abolitionist sentiments to the point that Lincoln called author Harriet Beecher Stowe “the little lady who started the big war.” Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, based on her family’s real life court case ten years before the Civil Rights Movement, and was cited as precedent in no less than Brown vs. Board of Ed. Or even American burlesque, which portrayed women in men’s roles ahead of the suffrage movement and before they could even hold the “positions” (whether occupational or sexual) in real life that they portrayed on stage.

I was incredibly inspired by the speakers we had the privilege to listen to and who were incredibly gracious in answering questions and providing follow up resources. The scope of their impact on their academic and activist communities was almost daunting. In balance, I was helped immensely by my cohort to hone my ideas down into a manageable and well thought out plan for implementation in my own classroom. I look forward to teaching the new unit I have created on international protest, from The Salt March to contemporary Indian Street theater and the Indian Farmer’s Protest, Greta Thurnberg to Puerto Rican and Argentinian teatro, puppetry and protest performances, to Tiananmen Square, to the Berlin Wall, to 1968 France and so on. My aim is to use performance as a way in to politics, but to use the well won analytical skills born of theatrical study to explore and evaluate the efficacy of politics that are “just for show.”