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Patriotism, Anarchy and Art: Can you enjoy theater you don’t agree with politically?

In The Steadfast, three young men (John Behlmann, Alex Ubokudom, and Dellapina) walk in a cold forest toward the Canadian border to escape being drafted into the Vietnam War. One changes his mind: "I cannot abandon my country"

In Slant Theatre Project’s “The Steadfast,” a play that extols soldiers, three young men (John Behlmann, Alex Ubokudom, and Dellapina) walk in a cold forest toward the Canadian border to escape being drafted into the Vietnam War. One changes his mind: “I cannot abandon my country”

LivingTheatresHereWeAre

In The Living Theater’s “Here We Are,” a theater piece that extols anarchists, Sarah Braenne, John Paul Harkins, Dennis Yueh Yeh Li, Fabian Zarta and Brad Burgess portray evil militarists.

Two plays I just reviewed for Backstage, Mat Smart’s “The Steadfast,” a play about American soldiers through the ages, and Judith Malina’s “Here We Are,” a theater piece about anarchists through the ages, have several things in common, and one big thing at odds – their politics.

They are both well-acted ensemble pieces that present scenes adding up to a sweeping view of history, from very different perspectives.

The performers in the Living Theatre’s “Here We Are” offer a tour of three anarchist collectives in history—the Paris Commune in 1871, the Ukraine in 1918, and Barcelona in 1936— and end with a chant calling forth t”he beautiful nonviolent anarchist revolution.”

The Slant Theater Project’s “The Steadfast” is less pervasive in its underpinning politics.  But at one point, three young men in 1968 are walking through a cold forest towards the Canadian border, intent on crossing over to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. But when they arrive, one of them (played by John Behlmann) changes his mind. Later, he explains why to the ghost of a soldier killed in the Korean War (Ben Kahre):

“When I tried to cross the border, I saw myself. I was sixty years old. I was walking along the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. I read the names – one by one – and I couldn’t breathe I felt so guilty….That cannot be my future. I cannot abandon my country. I have been drafted. I have been called to duty. And I will answer.”

His two friends, the ones who cross the border, are given no such eloquent speeches justifying their actions — just as there are no characters in “Here We Are” who argue persuasively against anarchy. The soldiers in “The Steadfast” are on the whole upright, and without exception villainous in “Here We Are.”

This raises the question: Can you enjoy theater that embodies a political point of view with which you don’t agree? On the basis of my reaction to these two shows, my reaction is a tentative yes. What’s yours?

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

3 Responses to Patriotism, Anarchy and Art: Can you enjoy theater you don’t agree with politically?

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