Archive for the ‘Three Blind Mice’ Category

Posted: June 18, 2013 in Three Blind Mice

Theatre has served diverse purposes throughout the ages. Although providing entertainment is undoubtedly its main function, there has been a strong political element to playwriting going all the way back to its origins in Ancient Greece. But how significant is the role of theatre in criticizing society and can it make an actual difference? To try to answer this question lets us first take a brief look at the history of theatre and consider some of the plays which have sought to challenge the norms of their time.

In Ancient Athens and Rome, theatre had an important political function and often aimed to educate and create debate among citizens. However, this element disappeared almost completely from Western theatre in the following millennium with medieval drama being for the most part very religious and moral in its theme. Evolving attitudes and the effect of the Renaissance however meant that by Elizabethan times playwrights often used the stage more creatively and occasionally even broadcasted personal opinion. Shakespeare for instance wrote many works that were politically charged, with many of his tragedies and histories focusing on the fall of over-ambitious monarchs. Despite this, the role of theatre in criticizing society and bringing about actual change during this era was actually very limited due to the obligation of playwrights to emulate the views of their wealthy benefactors. Furthermore, this ‘golden age’ of theatre was also to be short-lived – as well as plays being heavily censored by parliament, the rising Puritan movement was hostile toward theatre as they felt that “entertainment” was sinful and in 1642 succeeded in closing all London theatres down for eighteen years.

Fortunately, this blanket ban was not to last, and the eighteenth century saw the flourishing of theatre as a popular pastime. Political satire in particular developed as a genre, although this alarmed the government so much that they passed ‘The Licensing Act of 1737’ which allowed to them vet any script before a performance was allowed. Satire during this time used both wit and reason to expose society’s flaws, ridicule the accepted standards of thought and uncover hypocrisy in the ruling classes. The fact that the government so strongly believed that views put forward in the theatre could undermine their authority was a testament itself to the power of the stage, and it was not until 1965 that the act was revoked.  

Theatre was a popular pastime in the 18th century (The Drury Lane Theatre, London, watercolor by Edward Dayes, 1795)

Despite this trend towards increasing politicisation, it was probably not until the late 19th century that plays were produced which openly explored more controversial topics such as women’s rights, racism, homosexuality and the horrors of war. Whilst most theatre productions at this time were not in this category – the most popular genres were still melodramas, light comedies, operas and Shakespeare – there were several notable exceptions which broke the mould. Probably the most famous of these is Henrik Ibsens ‘A Dolls House’, first shown in 1879, which tells the story of a woman who decides to leave her husband and children in order to find her own purpose in life and escape the expectations of men. The subject matter of the play, which strongly criticizes the traditional roles of husband and wife, was so scandalous to audiences that the lead actress in Germany refused to play the role unless the ending was changed for that particular performance. Despite (or perhaps spurred on by) this intense criticism and condemnation of his ideas, Ibsen went on to write further plays which realistically portrayed women and their struggles in modern society, with Ghosts (1882) and Hedda Gabler (1890) being the most prolific.

Gillian Anderson as Nora in ‘A Doll’s House’ (Donmar Warehouse, London, 2009)

Going in to the twentieth century, playwrights become bolder in addressing topics which had in preceding centuries either been ignored or classed as taboo. ‘The Emperor Jones’, written by the American playwright Eugene O’Neill in 1920, openly criticized the oppression of black Americans and the effects of slavery at a time when openly racist minstrel shows were still enjoyed by many. Whilst the protagonist Brutus, an oppressed black man who escapes jail, is deeply flawed and hardly portrayed in a sympathetic light, the play succeeded in casting a critical light on the racist thinking which pervaded in America at the time, particularly in the South. Brutus’ flaws are seen almost as a reflection of the corrupt values of the society in which he lives. Today, views on how progressive the play really was differ, with some even considering it quite backwards due to its stereotypical depictions of black Americans. However, whilst the effect of the content of the play is debateable, the fact that it was the first American play to have a racially integrated cast and feature a black actor in its leading role means that its historical significance in the struggle for racial equality is indisputable. Another play of note during this period was the controversial ‘Mother Courage and her children’ written by Bertolt Brecht in 1939. This play, which is set during the Thirty Years War, refused to find any heroism in war, and instead paints a disturbing and horrific vision of it through the eyes of a woman who loses 3 of her children whilst selling supplies to soldiers on the battlefield. Politically, the play was significant as it broke with the theatrical tradition of portraying war as a noble and glorious pursuit, and instead pushed a strong anti-war message which had a profound effect on its audiences.

Paul Robeson as Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones, circa 1933.

Today, audiences are generally less easily outraged and the gradual liberalisation of society means that most of the plays referenced above would hardly be considered controversial anymore. However, theatre’s role in political debate has never been greater – plays are being produced every day which question and criticize the world in which we live, aiming to intellectually engage with their audience as well as entertain. There are countless examples of plays shown in recent times which could be seen as fitting this mould. One example is ‘Angels in America’ (Tony Kushner, 1993) which tells the story of a man diagnosed with HIV, and which ultimately won much praise for its frank exploration of the AIDS epidemic despite the opposition it received from conservative and religious groups. Another recent example of an important play with a strong political message is David Hares’ ‘Stuff Happens’ (2004) which chronicles the years leading up to the Iraq War, imagining what the dynamics of power behind the scenes might have been and expressing distrust of politician’s motives. Hare later said “I describe it as a play about how a supposedly stupid man, George W. Bush, gets everything he wants — and a supposedly clever man, Tony Blair, ends up with nothing he wants.”

Present day theatre has continued in this tradition and today a wider range of both social and political topics than ever before are explored on stage, with a great emphasis put on freedom of expression and the prevention of censorship. Major theatre institutions are now more willing to put on material that may have offended in the recent past. However, whilst most of the plays mentioned in this article were put on by relatively large companies and achieved much fame and recognition, perhaps even being considered ground-breaking in their day, many of the most diverse and interesting plays showing currently are in fact produced by smaller independent theatre companies.

A good example of one play which meets this criteria is ‘Three Blind Mice’, written by Marisa Freyer and Ciara Allen of the Scrawny Cat theatre company. This play, set in a dystopian future, revolves around the lives of two women imprisoned under the orders of an oppressive political regime. The environment of the prison camp creates a dark and claustrophobic atmosphere where the truth is constantly manipulated and both prisoners and guards regularly turn on each other for personal gain. The play has been written with an awareness of similar oppressive regimes which exist in the world today, most notably that of North Korea, and immerses its audience in a secretive world in which propaganda rules and the individual is powerless. This production is a reminder of the importance of the civil liberties and freedom which we often take for granted, and also gives us pause to think of the many people in the world today who are in fact living this nightmare as their reality.

Theatre does have an important role in criticizing society, and the examples of plays mentioned here are proof that particularly ground breaking productions can still have relevance many years after they were written. Whilst it would certainly be a tough call for a play to ‘change the world’, especially as most plays reach only a limited audience, it still remains an important form of expression, which in recent times has become mostly uncensored. Theatre has proved time and time again the ability to evolve and push boundaries, and whilst nowadays films and television will always reach a larger audience, the intimacy and impact of a good theatre production cannot be rivalled. – Helen Goddard