What Makes Political Theater Effective—Or Not

080706 article heilpern What Makes Political Theater  Effective—Or NotThe mortal danger of all the political theater I’ve seen this season is whether it preaches pointlessly to the choir—or takes an imaginative leap to exist in its own dynamic right.

All propaganda plays date quickly—unless the play transcends the propaganda. Who today remembers Tim Robbins’ anti-war docudrama, Embedded? But then, who remembered it two minutes after the curtain came mercifully down? Mr. Robbins’ smug sanctimony was enough to turn a liberal Democrat into a right-wing Republican. Mr. Robbins is no writer, however. Let’s raise the stakes.

George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman gives the Devil his due as much as Don Juan—making the great play, as Eric Bentley said, “not propaganda, but drama.” Brecht’s preachy polemics are out of fashion today, but the secular, universal message of war and suffering in Mother Courage and Her Children still endures—provided it is staged well. (Roundabout Theatre’s recent, ludicrously campy Studio 54 version of Threepenny Opera couldn’t have done better had it set out to kill Brecht’s most popular work and Kurt Weill’s renowned score along with it.) Brecht, the most overtly political playwright and propagandist of the 20th century, didn’t change a thing politically, however. Nor has any play in history. Remember, no Lysistrata ever stopped a war. No play or work of art ever changed the world. They change the way we perceive the world.

An entire generation of leading British playwrights, for example—from Caryl Churchill to David Hare to Howard Brenton—continues to see theater as a catalyst for social justice. But have they been politically effective? Their early conscience plays coincided, in fact, with the triumph of Thatcherite capitalism. Should they quit political drama, then, and leave political reporting to investigative journalists or documentary filmmakers like Michael Moore? Do we, in any case, relish going to the theater to be lectured?

Sir David Hare—a British socialist and egalitarian who manages to see no contradiction in his accepting a knighthood—continues fighting the good fight in his political plays. If only he would stop spinning them for us like Tony Blair selling the necessity of war. In two interviews about Stuff Happens at the Public, he compared himself to Shakespeare and Tolstoy, no less. From his swell London home in literary Hampstead—or Yasnaya Polyana, as we’ve come to think of it—Sir David Hare is obviously concerned. But Stuff Happens, his lengthy account of the march to war in Iraq, is no Shakespearean history play.

It’s basically a straightforward docudrama—a verbatim reconstruction of known events from the public record with a few invented, unsurprising scenes. That we need at this stage of the nightmare game to be informed by Mr. Hare that an inarticulate President Bush sold America a lie, or that Prime Minister Blair is his craven poodle, is itself a reflection of the sorry state of much of U.S. political theater. I am with those critics who believe that Stuff Happens arrived here from England too late. Two years ago—when to oppose the war was unpatriotic and even dangerous—staging the play might have made timely sense. Today, Stuff Happens tells us what we already know. It’s a perfect, prestigious example of preaching to the converted—safe and even comforting, disturbing no one, challenging no one, changing nothing.

It’s why I found Nilaja Sun’s one-woman show of such tender mercies and heart, No Child … (which she also wrote), a priceless achievement. I’m happy to report that Ms. Sun has now transferred to the Barrow Street Theatre off Broadway, where she continues to tell her stories about New York lives that we only imagine we know. Ms. Sun is a smashing actress who worked for eight years as a teacher in the Bronx. No Child … is about the difference that a single human being can make in the kingdom of the damned, and the extraordinary play gives a good name to the theater of social conscience.

So, too, did a brilliant monologue by David Adjmi that I caught recently at an evening of political play readings downtown. Mr. Adjmi’s short piece, Elective Affinities, was blessed by a beguiling performance from America’s First Lady of Theater, Marian Seldes. But the monologue itself stood in its own right—a disturbing, slyly amusing piece about the blithe ignorance (and self-ignorance) of a sophisticated, upper-class American lady who in her civilized, patrician way argues that political torture is reasonable.

She could be Mrs. Barbara Bush, who thought the devastated homeless of post-Katrina New Orleans were better off suffering en masse without food and water in the Superdome. Yet Mr. Adjmi makes his heroine oddly appealing as she rambles on charmingly. “I’ve managed to find spiritual fulfillment in material things,” she confides happily at one point. The great actress’ key to the virtuoso role was to have located a near-infectious, ghostly way of laughing. The hollow sound of the lady’s frequent bursts of laughter told us that ignorance is bliss, and harmless, and very, very dangerous.

So there’s hope for our political theater! Its imaginative possibility and daring—its effective emotional fury and largeness—were best revealed for me by Tom Oppenheim’s excellent revival of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day for the Stella Adler Studio. First produced in 1985 when Mr. Kushner was unknown, his early play takes place during the rubble of history as the Nazis rise to power in the 30’s, transforming the lives of a group of Berlin artists and their friends. It’s a passionate and uneven piece, epic in form, engaged, biased, dark, trivial, lyrical, magical, uncompromising, bursting with ideas, theatrically over the top and overlong. Mr. Kushner, you see, hasn’t changed much.

It’s also a naïve piece that angrily links Hitler’s Final Solution with President Reagan’s morally debased indifference to AIDS. In its desperate, despairing cry for change, compassion and political involvement, A Bright Room Called Day is the path to all of Mr. Kushner’s future work, including Angels in America. In one staggering speech, the case is made against compromise—not of the mutely, passively indifferent, but of decent people who aren’t quite decent enough, of the well-meaning who aren’t well-meaning enough, and those who are tormented by events and afraid. People like us.

A Bright Room Called Day reveals Tony Kushner as a willing disciple of Brecht (with a touch of operatic magic realism). It’s why we look forward so much to his new adaptation of Mother Courage with Meryl Streep, which is about to open in the Public Theatre’s production in the Park. In many ways, it’s perfect casting. Brecht might not have changed the world, but he and Mr. Kushner aren’t about to give up trying.