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The Product of Community

Stages of Resistance
Stephen Sewell headshot. Black and white. He wears a black turtleneck and hold his hand halfway to his mouth.

This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series!

The rise of the extreme Right, not only in peripheral parts of the globalised economy, like Turkey, but in the metropolitan powers themselves, most notably the United States, points to the deep crisis gripping the neoliberal world order which promised so much at its outset almost fifty years ago, and delivered us to the one we inhabit today, with inequality at levels not seen since the French Revolution, wages and salaries stagnating for decades, a steady and persistent decline in long term GDP growth and all the other symptoms  indicating the world economy led by the US since the Second World War is now in steep and irreversible decline, with the leader of the free world more or less conceding the point that  it’s every man for himself as he launched himself at the Presidency on the slogan to “Make America Great Again” with the implicit afterthought “And Devil Take the Hindmost” clear, perhaps, only to the rest of the world.

The Right, in its various manifestations, has reacted to this crisis in the way it always does, by stripping people of their rights, making them work harder and attempting to disrupt and destroy the organisations they have set up to attempt to defend themselves. These attacks   are now so transparently aimed at securing the wealth and power of the bankers, hedge fund managers, and the one percent who profit from the present system that justification seems redundant, but at least in the United States, this justification is still promoted ad nauseum in the myth of the individual. According to this narrative, the individual fends for themself, accepting no help and taking care of their own needs in a frontier world of absolute opportunity; a proud independent, master of their own destiny, who owes no one anything and is someone who thrives or fails according to their own effort, determination, hard work, and moral fortitude. This myth, along with the idea America itself is a land promised to the white man with a special mission from God, making it exceptional and above the moral judgments appropriate to other nations, is the sustaining narrative of the American Right, endlessly foisted on its people and hysterically repeated in more or less explicit forms through every available channel, from the mass media to the Arts. But while the mass media – at least in its cable news variety – is a happy conduit of this sort of happy prattle, at least we in the Arts have subjected it to some degree of scrutiny, making us suspect in the eyes of the illiberal Right, and appropriately so, for was it not that celebrated playwright, Arthur Miller, who wrote the most devastating exposé of the myth of the individual in that classic of American theater, Death of a Salesman?  And is not our practice as theater makers the complete opposite of the extreme individualism which the Right promotes as its ideal?

Theater is the product of community, a community of artists and artisans serving and helping to create another community, the community of our audience, forged in the encounter with our artistic product, and this has been so from the very beginning.  The theater of Aristophanes and Euripides, the Ancient Greek theater, was funded by the state to serve the citizens of Athens when Athenian democracy was at its zenith, and nor was this theater the bread and circuses of the later, decaying Roman Empire, but rather a vital part of the democratic process itself, where issues and concerns of the day were presented for the audiences’ consideration and deliberation. Indeed, it was such an important part of the polity that an Athenian citizen could be stripped of their citizenship if they didn’t attend.  This political aspect of theater is frequently overlooked or deliberately obscured by those who would like to restrict its role to the relatively safe arena of light entertainment, but we don’t have to reach for the recent example of Brecht or the theories of Augusto Boal to see that politics and community are deeply embedded in our history, indeed are part of our DNA as theater makers, and that we are nothing if not defenders of both.

Our practice is one of coming together, relying and depending on one another in order to produce something  which only has meaning when finally a group of other people come together to receive it. Ayn Rand’s Promethean hero, Howard Roark, the rapist-architect driving the action of The Fountainhead, wouldn’t stand a chance in theater, and I doubt very much he would stand much of a chance in architecture or engineering either before being quickly shown to the door, or jail, which is probably where he belongs. His dictatorial narcissism and obsession with his own bleak vision would wreak havoc on the delicate interplay of creativity and loyalty that is the texture of theatrical practice, and the promotion of the myth of the great man and individual genius he encapsulates seems closer now to the worlds of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China than any lived reality I am familiar with. Theater is first and foremost a social experience, both in its production and reception, and as such is a clear refutation of the individualism of the neoliberal Right, which has gone out of its way to destroy community in all its manifestations. “There is no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher boldly asserted in 1987, in the midst of her campaign to weaken and destroy Britain’s trade union movement, and as she dismantled the unions and co-ops, shaking working people out of the institutions and practices where solidarity had shielded them from the excesses of a profit-based system, she tried to ensure that this was no mere slogan. Broken, atomized, and at the mercy of multinational corporations whose powers she was simultaneously increasing, Britain’s workers joined their American cousins in facing a resurgent Right whose previous historic failures to build a system fit for all gave them no pause as they promised to do it all over again.

With the results we are experiencing today.

The world is certainly at its most dangerous point for many decades, with environmental catastrophe and the threat of nuclear war only two of the many crises currently breaking over our heads. Theater will not solve these problems, but it would be irresponsible of us not to reflect them and reflect them in a way that at least makes us part of the solution, and not the problem. If our practice is rooted in community, it is to community we must now turn. Against those whose politics is about destroying community and promoting the withering ideal of the Hobbesian individual at war with the world, we must promote our own ideals of care, generosity, respect, and solidarity, of justice for all, and of our acknowledgment of our connectedness with the natural world whose health is the foundation of our own health and happiness. We must promote our practice of democratic action which at the same time recognizes difference and expertise.  And we must, most of all, stay true to our belief that there are more important values than money, and that art is a practice aimed at discovering the truth.

This is a crucially important time, when we will all be tested to our limits, but we trace our history to the ancients, to Sophocles, Aeschylus, and the others, all down through the ages to the great actors, directors, and theater makers alive today, all struggling to make something sustaining and worthwhile,  and I have no doubt we will prevail. Because love is stronger than hate; and hope is stronger than fear.