Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Dic Edwards, Pip Utton and Jean Anouilh

Political theatre and propaganda are very different animals. We look at the controversy stirred up by Dic Edward's Franco's Bastard at Cardiff;s Chapt

There's a great big fuss going on in Welsh theatre circles at the moment about Dic Edwards' new play Franco's Bastard. The play has offended many Welsh nationalists because of its portrayal of the central character. Edwards, says reviewer Rebecca Nesvet, "does not seem to care if he makes his listeners uneasy, and that no ideology escapes his criticism, which is about as subtle as an electric shock. In fact, ideology in general and nationalist/nativist/cultural separatist ideologies in particular are under attack in this play."

So intense has been the reaction of the nationalists, that at one performance stink bombs were thrown in protest.

I have to confess that I haven't seen the play - Cardiff is a bit too far to travel for an evening out! - but it appears to me from all the discussion that has gone on and the reviews I've read that the reaction to his play is typical of the reaction to any true political theatre, as distinct from propagandist theatre: the way in which sections of the audience assume that the opinions of a character are the opinions of the writer. Not only that, but that somehow the ending of a play represents the desires and aspirations of the author.

But that is altogether too simplistic. Characters in a play are not just mouthpieces for the author, they are individuals in their own right. Or, at least, they should be, otherwise the play becomes as imple one-dimensional parable.

Take Anouilh's Antigone. Today our sympathies lie with Antigone, but when the play was first produced in Paris during the Second World War, the Nazi occupation forces allowed the performance because the state won in the end. Antigone's rebellion is crushed and Creon's rule continues.

But it's not as simple as that: both are right, Antigone for fighting against the ban on burying Polyneices and Creon for ordering it. Antigone, driven by family duty and love, cannot but fight against Creon's decision. And Creon is not a distant tyrant but an uncle, the father of Antigone's fiancÚ. Even Ismene, too timid initially to go against Creon's will, gathers her courage at the end and vows to fight on.

On the other hand, Creon is faced with establishing order after a dreadful war which pitted brother against brother, citizen against citizen. Something has to be done to restore order and security, to settle the diferences and re-unite the city. His duty is not to his family - for Antigone, Ismene, Polyneices, Eteocles - but to the city and its people. And the terrible thing is, he doesn't want this power. He would rather Oedipus had not given in to his despair and guilt: for him Antigone is "little Oedipus", putting personal emotion before duty to the wider community.

Who is right? Anouilh doesn't really tell us: he presents the situation, the dilemmas faced by the protagonists.

When a man walked out of Pip Utton's Adolf last Wednesday evening (see my review) shouting "You're not a fair man!", when Pip Utton was punched in the face by an audience member at another performance, when the three protesters hurled their stink bombs in Cardiff's Chapter Arts Centre, they were misunderstanding the whole nature of political theatre. Real political theatre confronts us with a situation and looks closely at the imperfect human beings who are involved: propaganda puts a black hat on one side and a white hat on the other and has the white hat win (celebration!) or the black hat emerge victorious (disaster!).

Real political theatre assumes a maturity and an ability to think in its audience: propaganda seeks to beatify the side it supports and demonise the other. Real political theatre promotes understanding: propaganda stirs up hatred. Real Political theatre make us examine our feelings: propaganda intensifies them. Real political theatre is difficult, hard and uncomfortable: propaganda is easy and self-indulgent. The place for propagnda is the hustings, not the theatre.

author:Peter Lathan

original source: Brirtish Theatre web site
05 May 2002


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