One would think that anarchy in a live theatre setting would be the perfect place to start a political movement or to make sea changes against the current societal norm but history proves few audiences are moved into immediate action based on a live interaction with stage performers.
The theatre can change minds, but not move people from their seats.
The most famous try at an American Revolt in the theatre aisle recalls Clifford Odets’ 1935 play, “Waiting for Lefty.”
Clifford Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty” is a vigorous, confrontational work, based on a 1934 strike of unionized New York cab drivers. Explicit political messages dominate the play, whose ultimate goal was nothing less than the promotion of a communist revolution in America. Appearing at the height of the Great Depression, the play’s original 1935 production was a critical and popular sensation. Waiting for Lefty was widely staged throughout the country and brought Odets sudden fame. While its dramatic style has long since fallen out of fashion (along with the idealistic politics that inspired it), it is considered a prime example of a genre known as “revolutionary” or “agit-prop” theatre. (The latter term is a combination of “agitation” and “propaganda.”) The idealistic practitioners of agit-prop sought to harness the power of drama to a specific political cause and create a “people’s theatre” for the new world that would follow the revolution.
The idea behind “Lefty” is that audience would be so inspired by the play that they would rush into the streets from theatre aisles across the nation to protest.
It didn’t happen.
Many have tried to revive “Lefty” to inspire new generations to rise up and revolt.
The efforts failed.
Watching “Lefty” in a modern re-imagining of the original play is not a pleasant experience. The play is forced, pushy and melodramatic.
We also do not like the direct and obvious manipulation of our emotions at the risk of not thinking clearly; and if you don’t go along with the premise of revolt, then “Lefty” is left to cloying dangle dead in the air before your wet eyes.
Agit-Prop theatre and anarchy and revolt do not belong in the live theatre space if the expectation of the performance is to immediately entice an emotional reaction beyond the satiety of the four walls of the theatre.
To hope for revolution in performance — when only a suspension of disbelief is required — is to wholly misunderstand the memeing and the core purpose of the cathartic experience.
I wonder if the one woman show featured in the play Rent would qualify as agit prop? (They were rioting at the end of it…)
Of course, that’s in a fake fantasy world where anything could happen.
The idea of Agit-Prop theatre is to get the audience to riot because of what they’re seeing on stage. I can’t think of a successful iteration of that sort of theatre anywhere.