In recent weeks the link between politics and theatre has come to the forefront of discussion, with arguments about politics role in the theatre. Whatever peoples’ thoughts are on politics’ place or appropriateness in theatre, it is simply undeniable that the two are inextricably linked and have been since theatre existed. This is not a simple link either; theatre and politics throughout history have been linked in a variety of ways, whether it be in the play itself, its patrons, its performers and writers or even the physical theatres themselves.
Western theatre is largely based on the theatre of the ancient Greeks. This is also where politics and theatre became intertwined. The venue for theatre and politic discussion during this period were the same; the amphitheatre. This, along with the emphasis placed on rhetoric as civic duty, meant the two often overlapped during this period. While there is no term in ancient Greek for satire, several of the earliest satirists wrote for Greek theatre, such as Aristophanes who was fiercely critical of Cleon, a general and politician, and Menander whose earliest surviving fragment of work was an attack on a politician.
English theatre until the Reformation was mostly restricted to religious plays such as mystery cycles and miracle plays. These plays became unacceptable after the Reformation and secular theatre began to flourish. Theatre companies, to play in public, were required to have a noble patron and many of the companies took their name from their patrons, such as the Lord Chamberlin’s men.
Theatre companies during this period had two audiences: the monarch and court; and the general public. Therefore plays had to straddle a line of appealing to the general public while not offending the court. Sometimes this failed, such as in A Game of Chess which was stopped after several performances for its thinly veiled allegory of the current monarchy.
Even plays that were not about the monarch or court could be dangerous. Shakespeare’s Richard II was paid to be performed shortly before the Essex Rebellion in 1601 by Essex’s supporters in hope that the play, which was deeply critical of Richard II, would encourage people to join the rebellion. Luckily for Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlin’s men they were not punished for their accidental involvement. However such incidents show that theatre was considered to be deeply political.
After the closure of theatres under the Puritan Interregnum rule of Oliver Cromwell, the ascension of Charles II led to a new flourishing age of theatre. Political plays found new popularity in theatres across the country, such as The Country Wife and The Roundheads. This was despite theatres requiring a royal patent and despite the fact that Charles II was known to frequent theatres unlike his predecessors.
The introduction of allowing women on stage was one of the most politically charged acts of the 17th century, directly challenging gender roles. Female actors attracted controversy on and off-stage: on stage the women portrayed characters far from what was considered ‘acceptable’; and off-stage many actresses who had come from lowly means found themselves thrust into the political spheres of court, and able to wield political power via their affairs with nobility or even the king himself.
The Licensing Act of 1737 had a huge impact on English theatre and was introduced because of the political fears of Prime Minster, Robert Walpole. Walpole feared that the popularity and presence of political satire and dissent on stage undermined him and his government. As a result the act allowed government censorship of the stage, which continued until 1968. The act was strengthened in 1848, making it compulsory for all plays to receive government approval before staging. This meant whole plays could be refused, although in most cases plays simply had certain passages censored. This included all plays, even performances of classical plays. This created a two tier theatre system with legitimate theatres who were licensed and those that were not.
With the power of the censor, plays especially in the 19th century began to focus more on social than political issues, which aligned more with the attitude of the government. When politics did enter the theatre, it was not uncommon for it to come after the scripts had been submitted to the censors. Pantomime became one of the most political genres of theatre. Writers such as George Bernard Shaw and J B Priestly courted controversy by inserting their own politics into plays.
At the dawn of the 20th century political groups began to form theatre groups, such as the Workers Theatre Movement and the Pioneer Players. In 1936, the Unity Theatre was formed with distinctly left wing productions, many of which directly challenged censorship.
After the Second World War, political theatre came into its own. Politically charged theatre first found its footing on the fringe theatres as until 1968, theatres were still censored. Plays such as The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter (who would go on to write a number of highly politically charged plays throughout the last half of the 20th century) and Oh, What a Lovely War!, pushed their political messages indirectly.
The lifting of censorship, along with the political atmosphere of the 1960s, allowed an explosion of direct political theatre. Plays such as Saved by Edward Bond, which had previously been severely censored, were allowed in their full political anger. Play writers were no longer restricted to political satire to criticise their government, their monologues could now directly call out those who did not live up to their expectations.
This has continued and expanded through into the 21st century, with even ‘family-friendly’ productions such as the musical Billy Elliot being adamantly anti-Thatcher. Today it seems unimaginable that in living memory that there was not a time where playwrights could not write clear criticism of the current political climate.