An A to Z of Theory | Augusto Boal: Aesthetics and Human Becoming

The Brazilian playwright, director and political activist Augusto Boal is credited with formulating one of the most radical forms of theatre ever devised, the Theatre of the Oppressed. In the first of a seven-part series of essays, Andrew Robinson surveys Boal's view of the central role of art in human life.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, January 28, 2016 11:52 - 12 Comments



AugustoBoal-1975-Teatrodooprimido - ceasefireAugusto Boal is credited with formulating one of the most radical forms of theatre ever devised. In his Theatre of the Oppressed, members of the audience are invited to “invade” the stage and become protagonists in drama – and their own lives. In this first of a 7-part series of essays, I attempt to summarise Boal’s view of the central role of art in human life.

Brazilian playwright and radical activist Augusto Boal is the founder of a number of experiments in radical theatre. The most widely known terms for his overlapping contributions are Forum Theatre and Theatre of the Oppressed. These approaches were originally designed for use in Brazil during the era of the struggle against the dictatorship. They went hand-in-hand with radical organising in this period. Boal’s methods have also been used in diverse settings marked by oppression, and today, Theatre of the Oppressed is performed all over the world. An International Festival of Theatre of the Oppressed was held in Palestine in 2013, and there are groups in the UK too.

Boal’s work emerged amidst the vibrant culture of fledgling unorthodox Marxisms in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. It can be likened to other pedagogical, spiritual and aesthetic movements of the period, such as Paulo Freire’s Critical Pedagogy, Roberto Freire’s Somatherapy, Enrique Dussel’s Liberation Philosophy, and the religious movement of Liberation Theology. Boal’s work can also be situated in Brazil’s particular culture of protest – which has been highly influenced by the traditions of carnival. Politically, it is connected to Marxist and anti-imperialist movements of the era, inspired by dependency theory and global decolonisation movements. Adrian Jackson, Boal’s translator, summarises Boal’s orientation in terms of an earthy national pride, an almost academic interest in the roots of philosophy, and anger against American imperialism.

The Role of Theatre

Boal situates his theatrical work in relation to a particular politics of knowledge. He contrasts a desirable, human state of creative freedom with various oppressive social realities. Oppression goes hand in hand with voicelessness and the inability to act on one’s own desires. As such, Boal insists that ‘to speak is to take power’. Theatre is one of the domains of the resultant struggle. Theatre is necessarily political, because all human action is political. Theatre is about power, human relationships, and who gets to speak. In his earlier works, Boal writes of theatre as a weapon to be fought for. The ruling class will seek to hold onto it. The oppressed need to wrest it from their hands. It is clear from such statements that Boal is both a conflict theorist and a believer in an underlying human potential for creative becoming.

The underlying worldview informing Boal’s position is a view of human beings as active producers of reality. Boal embraces a humanist position in which humanity has an essence, and this essence has overwhelming value (relative to particularities, “inhuman” aspects of human beings, and non-human entities). Hence, Boal aims to relate to participants as human beings, rather than specific groups or types. This results in the expected rejection, both of “inhuman” aspects of humanity, and of nature – a ‘cruel’ other we need to transform to survive. Boal’s view of the human essence, akin to Marxian species-being, is also specifically aesthertic. Humanity is the greatest masterpiece of nature. What sets us apart from animals is the ability to invent (rather than await) the future. Humanity has five basic properties: sensitivity, emotion, rationality, sex/gender, and movement. The first three of these – sensation, emotion, reason – are specifically mental.

Culture of all forms (not only theatre) emerges from this aesthetic nature. We are all cultural producers, in that we produce our own lives, and produce things we need to live. Culture is necessarily diverse, because it is a set of ‘ways of doing’, which in turn are ways to reach different dreams. Hence, while the essence is in a sense common, it manifests in ways which produce diversity and difference. This is because the essence is a creative force, rather than a fixed type of being.

All culture is involved in aesthetic production. However, theatre has a special significance, in that it embodies the capacity for self-observation. Theatre stems from humans’ ability to observe ourselves – not only to see, but to see ourselves seeing. At root, theatre is the uniquely human capacity to observe oneself in action. By seeing ourselves seeing, we can see ourselves in situ – in the situations we’re in. And we can imagine what we can become. We can split ourselves into the person in situ; the observer; and the “not-I”, the person we are not. The doubling or splitting of the self into observer and observed is crucial here. It allows reflexivity. The role of theatre is to enact this split. Hence, theatre is change and creation. It does not simply represent realities.

In particular, theatre expresses the human capacity for creativity. There are many different “languages”, or forms of expression. All of these are irreplaceable and valuable. They are different ways of knowing the world. The multiplication of languages, or learning of new languages, help us get closer to the real, because they give more and more perspectives on it. The particular “language” of theatre is the human body. To act is to know and control one’s body, to make it expressive. The body, not theatrical technique, is the proper focus of learning. In his later works, Boal claims that ‘theatre is the human language par excellence’. Humans are most human when doing theatre. This is because theatre emphasises the capacity to observe oneself in action. This reflexive structure of self-observation is for Boal central to humanity.

It’s not clear if this argument of Boal’s requires a position of transcendence. Critics might argue that the splitting of the self will lead to an alienated relationship between the observing and acting parts of the self, subordinating the latter to the former. But this seems to go against the spirit of Boal’s work – which is deeply embodied and aims to dis-alienate. The capacity to split into observer and actor is not reified but, rather, re-united in the “spect-actor” (see part 2). The split produces a line of flight to a future, which is created as something distinct from the present – to which thought and life are often reduced. This is arguably a radically immanent form of practice, despite its transcendental theoretical underpinnings.

There are different phases to Boal’s work. In his own writings, Boal suggests that his early work is mostly about theatre in the conventional sense. His later work is more focused on ‘human beings as theatre’, or theatre as the ‘true nature of humanity’. He increasingly sees social life, in itself, as theatrical. Theatre is a microcosm – a reproduction on a smaller scale – of the whole of social life.

Theatre, and art more broadly, is fundamentally utopian. The purpose of life is to become what one has the potential to be. Theatre helps in this goal by showing reality as it could be. People should invent themselves from infinite possibilities, instead of accepting social roles. For Boal, the potential to oppress or be oppressed is in everyone. Whether it is actualised is a matter of will and responsibility. Hence, reality is fundamentally incomplete, and open to creative action. In one article, Boal suggests that God’s plan is imperfectly realised because of limited means. Artists exist to give the finishing touches to the plan.

Boal theorises theatre as necessarily conflictual and processual. In Rainbow of Desire, Boal claims that theatre has three elements: it is a passionate combat of two humans on a platform. It performs the conflicts and contradictions of social life in a special, aesthetic space which allows them to be observed. Anything can be an aesthetic space, provided it is designated apart from the wider, observational space. For an aesthetic space to exist, there needs to be a split between actor and spectator, even if they are the same person. The aesthetic space “is” but does not “exist”: it is a represented space.

This space is plastic and malleable, like dreams. This is what gives it creative power. It allows the creation of concrete dreams. And it allows for things to be in two spaces, through representation. Both signified and signifier are real. For example, a photo of a person is a real object, even though the person it represents is also real. This means we can exist in two different worlds at once (metaxis). While such representation has oppressive possibilities (see part 3), it can also be used in emancipatory ways.  Theatre is conceived as a form of reflexivity. Whereas ‘in real life we live, in theatre we re-live and observe ourselves better’. Theatre can enhance knowledge because of three aspects. Firstly, its plasticity, allowing free expression. Secondly, its doubling or splitting of the self into observer and observed. Thirdly, its magnification of the event on which it focuses.

Theatre makes a special contribution in enabling dialogue. For Boal, all human relations, especially those across difference, should be dialogues. Real dialogue is not simply a set of overlapping monologues. It requires listening, and respect for difference. Boal also draws a recurring contrast between really seeing or hearing, and simply watching or being silent. This is exemplified in his critique of mass media. Television encourages watching, but not seeing. In contrast, art and science help us to see or hear. Boal shows what he means by this distinction with various examples. Newton really saw the apple fall to earth, where others had simply watched it. Beethoven makes us hear silence, a psychoanalyst hears what is not said. The implication in each case is that to really see or hear is to perceive or intuit an underlying, inner or qualitative dimension which is obscured in the surface appearance. Too often, we only watch or absorb sounds, without really seeing and hearing in this sense.

This deeper form of seeing/hearing is crucial to Boal’s view of dialogue. Effective dialogue really listens, whereas overlapping monologues simply switch between speech and silence. This is similar to the idea of ‘active listening’. Dialogue, like in theatre, is fundamental to democracy. Dictatorial systems are monological. Atomisation is also a threat to dialogue. People cannot live in isolation. Each self can learn by recognising itself in otherness, or by incorporating and absorbing others.

The idea that people rarely see or hear reality – but simply watch it or are silent – has political implications. In one of his essays, Boal writes of three social problems common in Brazil – begging, child sex work, and inhuman prison conditions. Of all three, he writes, the problem has become so familiar that people cannot see or hear it. In other words, the outrage at inhumanity which the problem should evoke has been dulled by familiarity. On the other hand, it is a ‘lie’, albeit a ‘truthful lie’, to say that the majority support a proposal, when they do not fully understand it. There cannot be effective democracy without genuine “hearing”.

This theory of hearing/seeing is central to the concept of oppression. Oppression entails an absence of dialogue. It involves a monological relation in which only one of the terms can speak. It also implies a basically conflictual relation in which both sides, but especially the oppressed, are victims. Dialogue is impossible until people recognise each other as different.

Aesthetics of the Oppressed

In The Aesthetics of the Oppressed, Boal extends his theory beyond his usual domain of theatre. He explores the broader role of the arts. For Boal, art is a form of sensory dialogue. It is a means to pursue truth through the senses. It expands the range of one’s ability to detect signals of a special type, in which signifiers are the same as signifieds. Boal gives emotional expression, such as smiling, as an example of this type of signal. Boal’s coinage for this kind of signal is a ‘unicity’. Art helps us to experience and perceive unicities.

The world is diverse, composed of billions of unique entities, and constantly in flux. In other words, everything is ultimately a unicity – something unique which signifies only itself. People use habits and categories to survive the resultant vertigo of sensory input. Naming, for instance, is a way of fixing things in time and space. Although Boal sees such categorising processes as necessary (its absence leads to madness), he also sees them as dangerous, and implies that they are over-used in existing societies. Language is alleged to have a role in the degradation of the senses. Words can even over-ride senses, making people imagine the world is different from what they experience.

In fact, words are always shifting in meaning. In discussions, they change subtly from the signification meant by the speaker, to the signification held by the listener. Every word is loaded with the speaker’s desire, but received with the hearer’s. Communication often fails because words have different connotations for different people. One way to overcome this problem is to use neologisms.

One of the roles of art is to restore the sensory level of perception and communication. This requires that art break down, or move past, the armouring provided by bodily rigidity, habit and language. Art is a process of stimulation, likened to dream and utopia. Boal speculates that it activates a particular kind of aesthetic neurons. We are all artists. Everyday practices, such as lovemaking, can also be art.

For Boal, art is central to human life. Art is part of culture. Culture is what is specifically human about human beings. Culture is a process of humanising ourselves, by replacing natural savagery with ethics. To do this, artists must be free from market demands, which are part of the world to be overcome. Capitalist globalisation undermines this process. It replaces artists with technicians, who reproduce a model over and over. Art is replaced by mass-produced products. The culture market makes people perform with a voice, body, emotions, and so on, other than their own, to maximise profits. Instead we should sing with our own voice. To help change the world, artists need to work outside the profit system, and in the spaces of the people. Saying no to capitalism is not enough. We also need to desire and dream in autonomous ways, which are not dominated by mass culture. The ability to choose different responses – rather than respond on instinct – is a central human trait enabled by art.

The most important part of the Aesthetics of the Oppressed is the Aesthetic Process. The process develops the ability to experience things in a sensory way. It expands people’s expressive and perceptual potential. The main role of artistic products (or works of art) is to amplify this process socially. A participant in Theatre of the Oppressed is said, paradoxically, to become her or himself. What Boal seems to mean here is that the participant is formerly submerged in an alien culture. By forming her/his own perspective, s/he becomes an autonomous subject.

Another important aspect of art is metaphor. Boal sees metaphor as a kind of translation. It is central to language, and all the arts which represent realities. Metaphor is one of the things which distinguishes humans from animals. The modern media are criticised for destroying the power of metaphor.

More broadly, oppression undermines the artistic capabilities of the oppressed. Oppressors generally seek to pare down the symbolic life of the oppressed, reducing them to mechanised work and numerical representation. For instance, workers’ capacity to produce art was partly taken away when artisans were turned into workers. In contrast, Aesthetics of the Oppressed seeks to expand metaphoric activity, symbolic languages, and sensitivity. Forum Theatre seeks to create actions which project one’s values into the future, rather than simply reacting to situations.

Aesthetic distance is a way to see the real, rather than being submerged in it. In this way, the oppressed can formulate their own metaphoric world, or set of meanings. Ethically, we should try to multiply what is learnt. Any work of art (including dance, music, theatre, etc) contains a particular ideology, or worldview. Learning art and culture can help to expand one’s own sensibility. But ultimately the point is to produce one’s own art, from one’s own point of view. Boal argues that artists should ignore the market. The real purpose of art is to speak with one’s own voice. However, this leads to a fatal struggle between artist and art-consumer or buyer. Every artist is essentially ‘subversive’, or anti-capitalist.

Aesthetics of the oppressed is fundamentally about problem-posing. The focus of Boal’s method is thus on the question “what if?” Traditional theatre usually uses the indicative mood – “I do”. Adverts use the imperative mood – “Do!”  Theatre of the Oppressed uses the subjunctive mood, either past – “what if I were doing that?” or future – “what if I were to do this?” Its questions are also accompanied by corresponding acts.

In Aesthetics of the Oppressed, Boal lists several techniques for forms of art other than theatre. One of these entails listing a personal or national event, and trying to link its personal and political significance together. Another involves declaring identity based on different relationships – modelled on the theory that identity is relational. Forms of imagery include photographs of hands, which show a person’s activity, and sculptures made from clean rubbish. In terms of sound techniques, the goal is to connect with inner rhythms. Techniques include telling stories in dance, and turning mechanistic gestures into dance.

For the other essays in this series, please visit the In Theory column page.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.


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