Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Finding the Marxist in Boal: A Counter-Argument for the Sceptics

Image taken from Havard School of Education

Note: This was my Final Essay for my Drama Course on Political Theatre and Social Reform. I received a Credit for it.




This essay will argue that the works of Augusto Boal are Marxist. It is difficult to understand why anyone would want to question this, considering that Boal himself acknowledged Marxism as part of the origins of his theatre (O'Sullivan 86). However, some scholars have sargued that his Theatre of the Oppressed strays away from original Marxist philosophy. While these arguments appear valid, a deeper analysis reveals that this is not the case. This essay will attempt to refute some of these arguments, and will demonstrate how Boal's concept of Marxism is one of the many different conceptions of Marxism that have developed during this past century (Göran 84 - 90 and Woodfin 129 - 70). The two particular articles I wish to concentrate on are Carol O'Sullivan's Searching for the Marxist in Boal and Paul Dwyer's Making Bodies Talk in Forum Theatre. O'Sullivans' article analyses the particular aspects of Forum Theatre which supposedly contradict "true" Marxist concepts (85). Dwyer implicitly examines the Marxist notion of freedom in TO, focusing on the amount of "control" the JOker has over discourse in a Forum Theatre workshop (199).

O'Sullivan argues firstly that TO supports Hegels' theories of idealism (86 - 89). She addresses this argument by quoting Marx's philosophy about "human thought (being) a response to the problems posed by the material and social conditions in which people live", rather than human thought determining those social conditions, as Hegel proposed (87, italics added). She believes that the interventions demonstrated in a typical forum play or Rainbow of Desire exercise supports the idea that is "thought that determines social being, (and not) social being that determines thought", and therefore supports Hegels' idealist philosophy (87 - 88, See Boal, "Games for Actors and Non-Actors", 18 - 21). I am unable to agree with this statement, seeing as the stage in Forum Theatre represents the social environment of the oppressor and the oppressed (Boal, "Games for Actors and Non-Actors," 18 - 19). The new strategies the spect-actors present (Boal, "Games for Actors and Non-Actors," 20 - 21), are stimuli resulting from their exposure to the material world of the performance. It is naive to assume that people who are exposed to the same material environment would generate the exact same ideas, or w2ould react to it in the exact same way the protagonist would do. Therefore, it is my opinion that hte intervention of the spect-actors is not the introduction of new ideas into the material world, but rather the presentation of ideas that have generated from it. It is therefore more aligned with Marx's theory of materialism over idealism.

The second argument O'Sullivan raies is that his works focus more on the individual, and less on the collective body (92, 94 - 95). She reminds her readers of Marx's conviction that "only a social revolution.. (can) offer "human emancipation"" (94, italics added), and argues that TO pays too much attention to the protagonists' individual experience, which is "isolated from the 'actual life-process' of (the) participants" (92). This is a more difficult argument to refute. However, looking at the role of the protagonist in a broader sense, it can be counter-argued that the individual protagonist represents a collective body of individuals who are struggling with the same or similar oppression(s). This argument is supported by Forum Theatre practitioners such as David Diamond, who sees Forum Theatre as beneficial for both the protagonist and the community in which he/she lives in (35). Scholars such as Frances Babbage further support this by explaining how "the established method of Forum Theatre require(s) a concrete oppression (that is) familiar to the whole audience" (26, italics added). My own brief exposure to Forum Theatre in class re-emphasises Babbage's statement. After hearing some experiences from class members about the social oppressions they were facing, the lecturer asked members of the class which of them felt they could "identify" in some way with the oppressions that had been narrated (Pensalfini). Our answers determined which of us would work with the protagonists to create a Forum Theatre piece based on that individual's oppression. A collective body of individuals, all of whom felt connected in some way to the same oppression, could now use one individuals' story to work out a "social revolution" against an individual oppression shared by teh collected body. These three examples demonstrate that TO focuses just as much on the collective body as it does on the individual, and therefore agrees with Marxist principles.

Lastly, O'Sullivan states that TO fails to depict the socialist Marxist relations between proletariat and capitalist society (94), despite, Boal's insistence on the contrary ("Theatre of the Oppressed," vi, 159). She does not provide any concrete examples to validate her statement, but I assume the rationale behind it stems partly from her second argument (92), and from Boal's recount of his revised approach to TO whilst living in Europe (Babbage 23 - 24 and "Rainbow of Desire," 7 - 9). It is here that I believe that O'Sullivan fails to see the roles of protagonist and antagonist in their much broader applications. The relationship between protagonist and antagonist in Forum Theatre can be seen as representative of the larger social order, naemely the establishment of proletariat society (a.k.a. the oppressed) and the capitalist regime (a.k.a. the oppressors). The internal feelings expressed in the Rainbow of Desire (Boal, "Rainbow of Desire," 7 - 8) could be viewed as a reflection of the internal effects of capitalist society. it is important to analyse TO in a much broader, abstract light, in order to "see" the Marxist concepts found within it. Unfortunately, O'Sullivan seems to have analysed TO from a more literal perspective, inadvertently making her blind to the Marxist philosophy that is definitely embedded in Boal's theatre.

I now move on to discuss Dwyer's article. Using the example of a Forum Theatre session about sexual harassment, Dwyer implicitly examines the Marxist concept of freedom in terms of freedom of expression. Throughout the workshop, interventions were performed to counteract various forms of sexual harassment, one of which included a scenario of being raped at an off-campus party (202). The jokers in charge were being trained by "facilitators" (203) who advised them to promote more "intervention" and less "discussion" from the spect-actors (203 - 05). Towards the end of the workshop, the jokers gave the opportunity for two "rape crisis counsellors" to express their opinions on what they had witnessed. They were unprepared for the negative feedback provided by these counsellors, who were somewhat unnerved by the fact that it was the protagonist - the rape victim - who had to change her strategy in the performance, and would have liked to have had the opportunity to voice this while the workshop was still running (206). Dwyer uses this example to argue that the "carefully regulated" conditions created by the jokers and facilitators deprived the counsellors of being able to speak out sooner (207).

Dwyer does not explain the circumstances behind why the counsellors were unable to participate until the end. However, I would have assumed that they, as spect-actors, would have been given ample opportunity to voice their concerns sooner via an intervention strategy. Whatever the reasons were, the central argument of the article implicitly critiques Marx's definition of "freedom". Although Marx never provided any explicit descriptions to define what "freedom" meant for him (O'Rourke 12), we do know that he rejected the liberal concept of the term, which dictates that people should be allowed to do what they please, without imposing upon other people's pursuit of the same course (O'Rourke 19). He acknowledged the necessity of "laws" as a means of bringing societies together and to ensure that freedom is shared by all (O'Rourke 20). From this perspective, it can be understood that the function of the joker is not to control what is being shared in a Forum Theatre workshop. Rather, he/she is there to make sure that the "rules" of the session - designed to allow freedom of expression for all - are played fairly (Boal, "Games for Actors and Non-Actors," 18, 21). Furthermore, Miek Macnair concludes in his article on Marxism and the freedom of communication, that if there are no regulations to restrict the flow of communication, dialogue cannot be achieved (577). Seeing as one of the main goals in TO is to achieve dialogue (Boal, "Theatre of the Oppressed," 142), TO allows freedom of expression to occur within its established boundaries, therefore supporting the Marxist concept of "freedom."

Before concluding, I would like to mention that Marxism has been left open to interpretation by many people in recent years. From the Frankfurt School of the 1960s (Göran 82 - 84 and Woodfin 129), to philosophers such as Althusser, Derrida (Woodfin 138 - 41, 144, 154 - 57), and the totalitarian approaches from Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Zizek (Göran 168 - 72 and Woodfin 86 117), Marxism has taken on many different interpretations. Boals' approach to Marxism is no different to the approach other philosophers have taken, in that he has adapted traditional Marxist theories to suit his own theatre practice. His own approach to Marxism should not be deemed any less "valid" than the other "brands" of Marxism that have surfaced in the past century.

In conclusion, TO is still a developing art (Boal, "Games for Actors and Non-Actors, 224). It might not yet be as "Marxist" as what O'Sullivan and Dwyer might prefer it to be, but it is indeed Marxist, in that its broader applications agree with traditional Marxist philosophy. It is designed to assist people in waging "social revolutions" against both internal and external oppressions, and helps us to look at Marxism in a different way.


Works Cited
Babbage, Frances. Routledge Performance Practitioners: Augusto Boal. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Boal, Augusto. Games for Actors and Non-Actors. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.
__________. Theatre of the Oppressed. London: Pluto Press, 1979. Print.
__________. The Rainbow of Desire. London: Routledge, 1995. Print.
Diamond, David. "Out of Sillence: Headlines Theatre and Power Plays." Playing Boal: Theatre, Therapy, Activism. Eds. Mady Schutzman and Jan Cohen-Cruz. London: Routledge, 1994. 35 - 52. Print.
Dwyer, Paul. "Making Bodies Talk in Forum Theatre." Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Pplied Theatre and Performance 9.2 (2004): 199 - 210. Web. 30 Sept. 2010.
Göran, Therborn. From Marxism to Post-Marxism? London: Verso, 2008. Print.
Macnair, Mike. "Marxism and Freedom of Communication." Critique 37.4 (2009): 565 - 77. Web. 14 Oct. 2010.
O'Rourke, James J. The Problem of Freedom in Marxist Thought. Boston: Reidel Publishing Company, 1974. Print.
O'Sullivan, Carol. "Searching fo rthe Marxist in Boal." Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance 6.1 (2001): 85 - 97. Web. 14 Setp. 2010.
Pensalfini, Rob. "Forum Theatre - The Allegory (Workshop.)." University of Queensland, St. Lucia Campus. 1 Sept. 2010. Lecture.
Woodfin, Rupert and Oscar Zarate. Introducing Marxism. UK: Icon Books, 2004. Print.

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