Conservative theater-an oxymoron?

November 11, 2008
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An interesting Wall Street Journal piece (read it here) asks why we don't see conservative political theater. Apart from Tom Stoppard and David Mamet, the writer of the piece "can't think of a single well-known American or British playwright whose political views are even slightly to the right of center."

In it, the writer references "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You"--currently on stage at our own Phoenix Theatre--as one of many plays in which "we are presented with a black-and-white universe of victims and villains, a place where every deck is stacked and never is heard a surprising word."

"...the problem with today's political theater," the story states, "is that its practitioners see their plays not as works of art but as means to an end."

Is it possible that conservative-minded playwrights just need time to emerge? Is the deck stacked against them by theater producers? Or is the audience inherently both left of center and unlikely to go see anything outside of its comfort zone?

Or do conservative playwrights simply not exist--or write for other media because theater won't have them?

Or is the WSJ just looking in the wrong place. (Aren't most musicals inherently traditional-minded? They do seem to get behind the traditional definition of marriage.)

Finally, if artists tend to react against the status quo, can we expect a different kind of theater to emerge from after the results from last week's election settle in?

Your thoughts?
  • There are many more people who know much more about Broadway musicals than I, but it seems like the majority of the biggest ones of the last 10-20 years have avoided making any kind of overt political statement - at least not one that can be linked in any direct way to current events.

    There's the occasional show like RENT that will catch on and do well, despite ruffling feathers. (I remember seeing people walk out of it at Clowes when it first came through town here in '97.) But for every RENT there's a Disney offering, a revival of a tried-and-true chestnut (Okay, SOUTH PACIFIC does have some interesting things to say about race, but it's safe now), and an adaptation of a hit movie.

    Perhaps one can't qualify that as conservative in a political sense, but it is certainly conservative from a producer's point of view. Offending half of your potential audience destroys potential for revenue, and it's so bloody expensive to mount a Broadway show that you definitely don't want to do that.

    I'm admittedly hauling out my broad brush here, but what about this hypothesis: Political conservatives tend historically to have a more skeptical and less cozy relationship with the arts than do liberals, since so many artists do lean left of center. Many American conservatives especailly seem to have a suspicious view of the arts - especially when phrased that way, The Arts, because it brings to mind the offensive stuff that gets embroiled in lawsuits and trotted out to the media (Maplethorpe, Piss Christ, etc.), and the notion of government subsidies, which they generally do not like either. So, in that sense, maybe it's no big surprise that conservatives avoid the field - at least when it comes to the Fine Arts. You'll find a lot more in popular arts, like commercial music (country music seems pretty conservative-heavy these days) and even plenty of films.

    As for Caryl Churchill, I'm in agreement with the WSJ writer here. Her strident leftism leaves little to the imagination (politically speaking anyway), and as such is a failure as art - which relies on the imagination.
  • I find it extremely odd that most Americans are center to right in their political beliefs, but left of center in their choice of theater. One could easily think that both would match. I am liberal in my political beliefs and I also enjoy plays with a liberal bent. Of course, when almost all theater is left of center, perhaps that's what I've grown accustomed to that's what attracts me.
  • Could the leftward turn in theater account for its diminishing audiences and its declining impact on American culture? Perhaps a conservative revival would do wonders for theater in America. It has been interesting for me to watch the growth of Christian oriented literature in the big box bookstores. Just go to these stores, or check out the best selling lists (the ones that do not censure religious publishers) and you will find more people reading so-called religious friendly novels than the mostly left-leaning stuff put out by more urbane writers. This is why John Updike has not received more academic acclaim than he has: he is too close to the pulse of the average American, and too religious. I thought this was a brilliant piece Lou!
  • I'm not sure I agree that musicals are mostly conservative. Avenue Q certainly has things to say that are heavily left-leaning. Hairspray deals with the civil rights movements of the 60s, etc. Putnam County Spelling Bee deals with a girl with two fathers, racism and its effects on raising children, etc.

    As for the 1997 tour of Rent - it was so freaking loudly amplified in Clowes Hall (even where I sat in the terraces) that I'd have walked out if I weren't so cheap that I had to get my money's worth.

    I do think that many writers write plays to make a point or a statement, and it's been a pretty conservative time for the past 8 years, leading to statements against status quo.
  • First of all, thanks, Lou, for linking to an article that quotes Oskar Eustis. I had forgotten about him, but he was a keynote speaker at the National Storytelling Network conference a few years ago. That was before I had developed an obsessive theatre habit (or a theatre blog, for that matter) but I remember being fascinated by how what he had to say about theatrical storytelling did and did not apply to oral tradition storytelling.

    Hmm. I wonder if I can still find the tape I bought of that speech.

    In the meantime, Mr. Teachout (what a great name!) ends his article with That's what great playwrights do: They put a piece of the world on stage, then step out of the way and leave the rest to you.

    Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? is not going to make my list of top ten favorite plays of all time, but I think it is more artistic than Teachout or Brian, above, give it credit for. Maybe it's just the Phoenix' production of it, but I do think it has more than one entrance, more than one layer of message or meaning or whatever.

    I think it has things to say about relationships and human patterns in general, for example, not just about a specific political situation. I do get to use my imagination in how I interpret it or let it resonate in my life.

    But also, maybe I'm confused about what conservative means, especially in terms of politics. I thought it meant something different from Republican or right-of-center. If conservatives believe that government should stick to doing only what it can do well and stay out of people's lives otherwise, isn't that what Churchhill's play ultimately implies, too?

    I mean, when you come right down to it, the guys in the play just get off on meddling.

    Hope Baugh
  • Leonard Jacobs, on his blog ( has some addition thoughts on the matter, well worth reading.

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