there are no meanings inherent in works of art except those which ‘interpretive communities’ in any particular era foster or allow, while disallowing and discouraging others
To a certain extent there is reason for disagreement with Fish’s theory, for if there are no inherent meanings then how can a text such as Butcher’s Scaramouche Jones be read by an audience so that they gain the ideological implications which are placed into the text by the author, those meaning which are inherent to the text. Butcher looks at the identity of man as one of his themes, although this theme does not send out a message to effect change in society, it looks at the ways that racial prejudices are impacting upon one man which reflects upon a society. Although Fish’s theory does make some disagreeable comments there is also an important notion highlighted in his theory. Fish looks at ‘interpretive communities’ and how this can allow or disagree with certain meanings within a given text. This is an important aspect when considering whether a political play in either given sense can effect change in society. The interpretive community of the 1930’s when Brecht was at a peak during the demise of the German economy, was more willing to accept the meanings that Brecht highlighted through his didactic approach and were willing to react forcibly so to effect change within the given society, whereas a presentation of the Presnyakov Brothers Playing the Victim or indeed Justin Butcher’s Scaramouche Jones may not cause such a effect of change as the economic and political context in which we live is very different to ones seen in both of the given texts.
Overall when considering the given statement that the prime purpose of a political play is to effect change in society I feel that this is the very nature of political plays. As in John Willets, 1977 book The theatre of Bertolt Brecht the one of the most resounding features of Brecht’s work is ‘its reflection of a consistent social and political point of view’ (Willet, 1977:187). Brecht did this through his Verfremdungseffekt, and the didactic method of approach to his plays. The spectator then not only was distanced from the performance, therefore allowing detached judgement, but the didactic method of approach meant that the spectator’s understanding of the themes, whether political or social could be enhanced. This would then go some way to allowing the audience members to look at the portrayal of society and think about the themes and try and resolve them for themselves rather than becoming emotionally involved with the performance and therefore not taking away anything other than self satisfaction. In some ways this is very similar to the style in which the Presnyakov Brothers text Playing the Victim is written, the text itself seems to incorporate many of the Brechtian techniques, although not directly didactic in form the use Valya’s ‘voice’ the voice conveys a meaning that and is used to get across that meaning to an audience.
Voice. Actually I use chopsticks so I don’t have to do the washing up. They do it all whilst I’m still eating. No one’s got the patience to see dirty dishes and me still chewing calmly. Chopsticks are really annoying to eat with –
Valya’s voice seems to talk directly to the reader, although seeming to talk about what could be considered nonsense, although through what may be considered nonsensical an in-depth message is placed into the text which is part of the Presnyakov Brothers way of didacticism in so much that they are subconsciously informing the audience that we should not have to become the norm of our society to become a part of it, and showing an individual’s way of fighting the norm, through apparently doing nothing or very little to alter his life where in fact he is changing it all the time and bettering himself continuously although it would seem that society and the system do not an him to. Playing the Victim can also be considered not only in terms of Brecht and the use of his own conventions but also as a piece of agit-prop theatre and ‘should be used to put across a revolutionary political message’ (Bradby,1980;169). Another influential practitioner in terms of political plays was Piscator, he used agitational propaganda theatre to influence the masses in Weimar Germany, this style has perceptibly influenced the play by the Presnyakov Brothers, although again like Brechtian influences not wholly.
Again this does not have to be looked at in terms of the overtly political but can also be considered in terms of receiving a message from the author, such as in Scaramouche Jones, throughout the course of his lifetime, Scaramouche suffers a incomprehensible amount of prejudice, but when examining the play as a whole it seems that it is clear that although Butcher’s intentions were not to highlight a political climate but a social one through which it was shown the prejudice like laughter is universal. The last consideration in terms of given statement, the prime purpose of a political play is to effect change, is the audience. Marvin Carlson states
The complexity and openness of signification on the stage create in the audience a ‘psychic polyphony’ which allows individual audience members to focus their attention in any number of ways, allowing the theatrical spectator ‘an unique and individual ‘synchronic’ reading as the play moves forward diachronically.’ Thus, no two spectators see exactly the same play.
This is an imperative consideration when examining the prime purpose of a political play, although it may indeed be to effect change in society, but the readings of a performance or text can be extremely varying and therefore no playwright can guarantee to effect change, although they can hope to achieve it.
The given statement makes an assumption upon both plays, that they are indeed political in nature, in so much that each play sends out a message for its audience to receive, whether visually or textually, this is true. It seems that the Presnyakov Brothers Playing the Victim is more overtly political in so much that it seems to be revealing a message more overtly linked to the political ideology of Capitalism, and the way that society can rebel against the structure imposed upon it. The Capitalist society presented through the characters of the many characters such as the mother, the father, the police sergeant and swimming pool official to name but a few, and the rebel of society being Valya and the Voice. Whereas Butcher’s Scaramouche Jones although sends a message to it audience seems less explicit in doing so. The narration or storytelling method of approach makes the audience identify more closely with the character drawing them into the story rather than the ostensibly less important aspect of the message.
In conclusion the statement itself does predominantly suggest that both the plays studied are political plays. This is true in consideration of Richard Drain’s interpretation of political plays.
‘They have entailed an attempt to rethink the nature and function of theatre in the light of the dynamics of society outside it, and of audience involvement within it’
Drain explains that it is not the overtly political which makes a political play but the thinking behind the play in how it is constructed to create meaning and involvement for the audience. It is fair to say in this light that both plays are political, albeit in very different ways. The Presnyakov Brother’s Playing the Victim uses atypical examples of overtly political conventions in the text, it uses Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt to make the audience regard the play more as a piece of didactic theatre rather then becoming overly involved in the emotions and characterisation, as well as using what could be considered agit-prop theatre, a piece of agitational propaganda which makes the audience become agitated or aggravated in some way so they want to make some kind of change within society. Whereas Justin Butcher’s Scaramouche Jones, tends to incorporate a very different aspect to creating a political play, Butcher uses a storytelling technique which draws the audience in and makes them feel for the character and the ills which he faces in society as wrong, or unjust. Therefore it is possible to highlight that all plays are indeed political whether it be overtly using Political ideology, or whether it simply be a message which is presented to an audience.
- Bradby, David & Louis James & Bernard Jharratt (1980) Performance and Politics in Popular Drama. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
- Butcher, Justin (2002) Scaramouche Jones. Methuen: London.
- Carlson, Marvin (1984) Theories of the Theatre: A historical and critical survey, form the Greeks to the present. Cornell University Press: London.
- Dobson, Warwick and Jonothan Neelands (2000) Drama and Theatre Studies: at AS/A Level. Hodder & Stoughton: Oxon.
- Drain, Richard Editor (1995) Twentieth Century Theatre: A sourcebook. Routledge: London.
- Esslin, Martin (1987) The Field of Drama: How the signs of drama create meaning on stage and screen. Methuen: London.
- Fortier, Mark (1997) Theory / Theatre: an Introduction. Routledge: London.
- Pelias, Ronald.J (1999) Writing Performance: Poeticizing the Researchers Body. Southern Illinois University Press: USA
- Presnyakov (2003) Playing the Victim. Nick Hern Books Limited: London.
- Wiles, David (1997) Tragedy in Athens: Performance space and Theatrical meaning. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
- Willet, John (1977) The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht. Methuen Drama: London.