The term “Political theatre” refers to three different things: any action by politicians (and God knows there are so many) that is intended to make a point rather than accomplish something substantive, any political action or protest that has a theatrical quality to it, and any theatre that comments on political issues. I agree with Webster’s definitions of “political” that stresses active intent. Theatre is political if it is concerned with the state or takes sides in politics. This allows us to define “political theatre” in a way that distinguishes it from other kinds of theatre: it is a performance that is intentionally concerned with government, or a performance that is intentionally engaged in or consciously takes sides in politics. Although intentionality is a subjective state, there is no problem in using it as a defining factor. Communication is, of course, imperfect. An artist may not achieve all of his/her specific, subtle, and half-conscious goals, but his/her intent is not apt to be misunderstood. If a theatre piece is intended to be political and the intent is not perceived, there is no need to categorize it as “political theatre.” Thus, if a presentation does not attempt to be political, it is not political. Besides, it is foolhardy to label any theatre Political Theatre – why would you want to draw such obvious attention to the work? Even then, these definitions of Political Theatre are insufficient.
If you note, the definitions above only apply to statehood or public affairs – politics does not only happen in public. So, to these definitions we must add, any play that deals with any individual’s attempt to use his/her status to make another person uncomfortable: be that person a foreigner (Foreign Affairs), be that person a woman (bedroom/domestic politics) be that person a tenant (rental politics) (Ten Trouble … One God), be that person a co-worker (Nousrheum), or be that person from a different tribe (Snapshots). If you note, politics can occur in private spaces where there is a battle between the superior and the inferior.
If we then include these categories I have just mentioned can we then say “All theatre is political?” Mind you, this statement has a double meaning: Some people claim that it is not. To some extent, this view is based upon a misunderstanding of the word “political.” Webster defines “political” as: 1. of or concerned with government, the state, or politics. 2. having a definite governmental organization. 3. engaged in or taking sides in politics; as political parties. 4. of or characteristic of political parties or politicians: as political pressure. These definitions may help us to understand the nature of political theatre, but they do not apply to all theatrical activity. On the other hand, some of the people who claim that all theatre is political seem to confuse “political,” “social,” and “economic.” Of course, all theatre exists in a certain socio-economic context. By definition, it involves an audience; it is not a solitary activity. But this does not mean that it necessarily is concerned with government or that it must take sides in politics. The psychological elements and interpersonal relationships of, Snapshots may be magnified into social statements. Margaret may become in someone’s mind the representative of a social class. But this does not give us a play “Of or concerned with government.” But wait, let’s look beneath the surface. A social system recognized by law has made Margaret, a Mosarwa, a citizen of some status to which Kegoletile reacts. Although government and politics may be useful to a man (like Kegoletile) as a social animal, they are not inevitable or always necessary. Let’s look some more. Many activities – a man choosing to marry one woman instead of another, relatives marrying off a sibling they consider rude, a group of women taking over the running of a marriage ceremony, etc. – are not inherently related to politics. There is no reason why theatre should be. But all of these activities have in them “gender politics” hence the title Political Affairs.
Another reason for naming this volume Political Affairs is the fact that some people, however, are able to relate any performance to the government or the state in their own minds. They interpret theatre politically. Such interpretation depends upon the person doing the interpretation even when it is not inherent in the work. They project some kind of belief system – a religion, a social or psychological schema on the work. Now, if we go by Freud’s concepts that anything created by man can be interpreted as a revelation of the unconscious, would it be helpful or useful, then, if we referred to all drama as “psychoanalytical theatre”? In one of the most definitive and, hopefully, seminal essays of our time, “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag points out the limitations and dangers of this type of thought. Because something may somehow and to some extent be interpreted as being political does not mean that it is political. In the Rorschach tests even an inkblot formed by chance produces many interpretations. Political concern and engagement must be in the work, not in the mind of the observer. As with any interpretive system, the political interpretation of performance depends upon the political knowledge of the interpreter. For instance, in Foreign Affairs the position of the Nigerians in Zimbabwe was made critical by the government’s reaction to Zambia’s choice/nomination of a Nigerian representative for the post of the Secretary General of the UN over the Zimbabwean candidate. This is not mentioned in the play, but the effects are. But political knowledge is not theatre knowledge. Many interpreters of theatre know a lot about their own area of intellectual concern but little about performance. They relate everything they perceive to intellectual standards and structures that exist entirely apart from theatre. If all theatre ceased to exist, these political patterns of thought would be unchanged.
David Ian Rabey (1986) in his introduction to British and Irish Political Drama in the 20th Century devoted several pages to discussing the term, emphasizing that “all theatre is political,” but that overtly “Political drama (like A Simple Twist of Fate) emphasizes the directness of its address to problematic social matters, and its attempt to interpret these problems in political terms [. . . .]Political drama communicates its sense of these problems’ avoidability, with implicit or explicit condemnation of the political circumstances that have allowed them to arise and continue to exist” (1-2). There are two things worth noting here – the slippage between political and social that renders them almost but not quite interchangeable; the repetition and lack of clarification in the formulation that “political drama [. . .] interprets problems in political terms,” this volume brings both together. So, enjoy the volume and don’t go looking for politics where I haven’t intended politics to be, but if you do look and find politics in any of the plays, know that you are the one who interpreted it as such – I only gave you plays dealing with political affairs.