The Play’s the Thing

One of the unique aspects of Class, Race, and Gender – both on this blog and in the classroom – has been the fact that our discussions have been as much about how we talk about the most controversial bits of our society as they have been about the history of these meaty topics in twentieth century America. For us museum-leaning folks, this is an incredibly important approach to the material. How do we talk about tough issues to an already lukewarm audience? How do we explore the good and the bad of human history without allowing one to drown out the other? How do we engage with pain and suffering without making people run for the hills?

These questions aren’t so different from what playwrights, producers, and actors ask themselves every day, so it’s no surprise that this semester has also included so many examples of class, race, and gender in theater. The plays we have read and discussed act as primary and secondary source historical documents, depicting moments in time and cultural mindsets. They also allow us to explore the very different ways that theater artists challenge people to think about their privileges, assumptions, and actions. And so we have the detailed realism of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the post-modern emotional rollercoster of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and the part-Brechtian analysis, part-documentary style theater adaption of Nickel and Dimed. Each affected us in different ways, each provoked discussion, and each, I like to think, changed us just a little.

But, I hear people say, what can theater really do? It’s just entertainment, right? And that’s what people want; it’s not like anyone riots at theater these days. [1] Sure, there’s some truth to that. The top three grossing Broadway productions as of 2012 were, respectively, The Lion King, Phantom of the Opera, and Wicked, none of them exactly critical in their analysis of, well… anything (she says while ducking to avoid blows from fans). [2] More than once in class, we’ve had a strange gut reaction: that’s just too serious for theater.

But I still stand with theater (and, by extension, with museums, which I have long held are a sort of theatrical production) as a venue for discussing difficult ideas – as, perhaps, one of the best venues we have. Aristotle famously described theater as an opportunity for collective catharsis, a chance to examine our, and society’s, foibles on a gut level. [3] That is still true today. Plenty of people flocked to see the film version of Les Miserables last December, and while many of them probably assumed that its lessons about poverty and violence against women have nothing to do with today, I found it incredibly significant that during Anne Hathaway’s acceptance speech for her role in the film, she reminded those watching, “Here’s hoping someday in the not-too-distant future the misfortunes of Fantine will be only found in fiction and not in real life.” [4] Can such a nod in the direction of social justice seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things? Sure. But can emotions and empathy also lead to change? Absolutely.

Not all theater can be cathartic. Not all museum exhibits and programs can ask hard questions. And that is certainly all right. Sometimes we do just want to have fun. But people are creatures of passion and emotion. If museums can find a way to tap into that the way that good theater (or any good art) can, then we can become part of the difficult but necessary conversations about our history and culture.

[1] Paul Ketchum, “Off-Broadway Shows: A Brief Guide to Understanding Curious Plays (and Starting Riots),” PolicyMic. Accessed 13 May, 2013.

[2] “5 Top-Grossing Broadway Musicals,” Investopedia. Accessed 13 May, 2013.

[3] Aristotle, Poetics.

[4] “Anne Hathaway’s Oscars Speech: Actress Wins ‘Best Supporting Actress’ for Les Miserables,” Huffington Post. Accessed 13 May, 2013.

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