. Augusto Boal: The History of Theatre | Ceasefire Magazine

Augusto Boal: The History of Theatre An A to Z of Theory

In the third essay of his series on Brazilian revolutionary dramatist Augusto Boal, Andrew Robinson explores Boal's analyses of classical and bourgeois theatre, as well as his criticisms of modern mass media such as television.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, June 22, 2016 14:35 - 3 Comments


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In this third part of the series, I aim to explore Boal’s analysis and critique of other forms of theatre and media. In particular, I examine why Boal considers classical and bourgeois theatre to be manipulative and oppressive. I also consider his criticisms of modern mass media, such as television.

The History of Theatre of the Oppressed

Boal’s best-known work outlines the theory behind his ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’, situating it in a critique of classical and bourgeois theatre. Echoing Marx, Boal argues that the dominant art is the art of the dominant class, who control the means to disseminate art. The ruling class, and dominant groups in other situations of oppression, thus impose their values by force.

The art of a dominant class is oppressive in a particular way. Mythicising – the general process of magnifying events into a purified form – is deemed unobjectionable by Boal. However, mystifying something, so as to obscure its essential features, is wrong. Dominant art and theatre misrepresent in this way. They also have certain emotional effects which discourage social action.

Classical Theatre

Boal’s history of (modern) theatre starts in Ancient Greece. (Like many accounts, it’s rather Eurocentric, and ignores, for instance, the long history of theatre in Bali and Java). Theatre begins as a variety of carnival. Workers celebrate the end of the working day with uncontrolled play – probably similar to Bakhtin’s carnivalesque. So, theatre has a pre-history in carnivals, feasts and mass singing.

But the powerful aristocracy want to keep such play within limits, so as to protect the social order. They put up walls to separate actors and audience. Free play was replaced by choreography. Playing was planned in advance by poets and stage managers. At this point, a split occurs between the actor who performs, and the spectator who watches. This is the origin of oppressive forms of theatre.

The structure of classical theatre is based on delegation. The spectator adopts a passive role, and delegates power to the actor. In turn, the spectator becomes an object that is acted on. Initially, this was a way to convey one-way, monological messages.

One day, an actor rebelled and spoke his own words on stage. This was the invention of the protagonist. In theatre, the protagonist is the main character on whose events the story is focused. There are also protagonists in cinema, television and literature. Hamlet and Antigone, Harry Potter and Bridget Jones are examples of protagonists.

In classical theatre, the protagonist was often in conflict, or dialogue, with the chorus (a group of performers who argued with the protagonist and commented on the play). Dialogue meant that the official view might not prevail. For Boal, it classically modelled the relationship between the people and the aristocracy. The protagonist was an individual, whereas the chorus represented social power or convention. The protagonist often acts in ways which bring consequences. This is crucial to the moral story of classical theatre.

Boal portrays the invention of the protagonist as a victory for individual agency. People prefer to be protagonists rather than supporting actors. The protagonist shows that people can speak with their own voices. The invention of the protagonist broke the monologue of social power. However, the protagonist was re-absorbed by ruling-class theatre in such a way as to render her/him conformity-inducing.

In the ancient world, the role of the protagonist was contested. The role had to be restricted so that it would be tolerated. Protagonists had to wear masks and costumes so they could get away with telling the truth about power. This means that a split occurs between the actor as a real person, and the character who is portrayed in the play. This split is crucial to the psychology of theatre. It has lasting effects, which can be liberating as well as oppressive.

The subjective will of the character is the motive for action in this kind of theatre. Therefore, characters usually have to have enough freedom to act on their inner, “spiritual” impulses. This can be achieved by making them powerful, or by showing their defiance even in conditions of suppression.

Classical theatre worked mainly by empathy. This means that the audience were expected to identify vicariously with the protagonist. They would see as the character saw, feel as the character felt. Because of empathy, the things which happened to the protagonist would have emotional and moral effects for the audience. This happens today, too. We’re meant to be happy for Harry Potter when he wins, sad when his friends die, and so on.

Boal argues that this empathy is cathartic. People could take pleasure in forbidden things, without actually doing them. Usually, though, the protagonist gets their comeuppance. A lot of Greek plays were tragedies, in which the protagonist comes to ruin through an excess of some moral or character-flaw. Sometimes, the protagonist is also made to repent, so that spectators can be encouraged to learn the moral or ideological lesson of a story, without living through it themselves.

Tragic theatre was used for political “coercion”, or hegemony. One effect of this situation is that the character is more closely aligned with the spectator than the actor. For a modern case of this type, think of the time when Anakin in Star Wars slaughters the Sand People. Viewers are encouraged to sympathise with his sadness and anger, but to see how it takes him to the Dark Side and leads to tyranny and, eventually, Anakin’s destruction.

The message itself isn’t necessarily bad, but the method, from Boal’s point of view, is coercive. The film-makers try to compel the viewer to embrace their critique of anger, and constrain their own violent impulses, by living indirectly and passively the experiences of the protagonist.

In Boal’s account, Aristotle’s theory of theatre is particularly criticised as ideological. Aristotle tries to purge the audience of their moral sins through empathy and catharsis. Catharsis is the process by which the emotion is purged, because of the suffering it causes to the character. It is a way of offsetting what are taken to be shortfalls between the ends and the means of the natural order. It is a way of getting people back on the ‘right’ track, the “straight and narrow”, of moral virtue.

Classical characters usually exhibit virtues and vices. These are consistent habits or character traits, not simply occasional passions. They are usually deliberate, conscious, uncoerced, and habitual or constant. Their virtues bring them good fortune, and their vices bring them disaster – often from an occasional fault which is an effect of an underlying vice. The view that the character has come to a bad end through their vice encourages the ‘Just World’ fallacy, magical voluntarism and the personalisation of blame for social problems.

In Boal’s reading, spectators are tied to classical protagonists through the emotions of pity and fear. These emotions are brought up when an undeserved evil befalls a character resembling ourselves, because of a moral flaw. It is consistent with the ancient Greek worldview in which acting morally meant acting in line with a cosmic order.

Aristotle assumes the existing order to be basically just. People act virtuously if they obey the law and conform to dominant values. But for Boal (as for other conflict theorists), the existing order is unequal and unjust. The powerless tend to rebel. The promotion of a view of harmonious order is thus seen as an act of class war. The role of theatre, as is the case with other structures of repression and habit, is to keep the powerless passive, if not satisfied. It contributes to upholding an unjust order.

Hence, heroes or villains are shown to try to fight the system and fail. Tragic heroes defy the dominant order. The characters seek “the good”, or a desirable outcome. Often, they even seek political outcomes, such as justice. They fail to reach these outcomes, in spite of the audience’s sympathy and considerable moral virtue, because of a decisive character-flaw. This encourages people to purge their own character-flaws as the way to overcome social problems. But if the problem is structural, then this is an oppressive displacement of the real issue.

According to Boal, this basic structure, as theorised by Aristotle, continues to dominate mainstream theatre, and related artforms, such as cinema and television. There are numerous variations on this basic structure. Usually, the tragic hero meets disaster because of a single moral flaw. In other cases, for instance, a seriously flawed character is saved by a single virtue. Or an individual, such as Don Quixote, might be shown to be out of sorts with social norms. In more progressive cases, the story shows social morality itself to be flawed from the director’s perspective. Similarly, empathy does not always work through the emotions of fear and pity. The structure and emotions change.

Such changes do not affect the basic function of theatre. It is still a way of monologically promoting a particular morality. And it relies on spectators to remain passive. It is what Brecht terms an ’emotional orgy’, producing historically desituated emotions. And it requires spectators to leave their brain at the door. The differences are explicable partly because there are several moral systems in play. For instance, the hero of one class will be the Don Quixote of the succeeding class. On the other hand, a pragmatic or mundane act may sometimes be framed as heroic. The forms of heroism therefore change and vary, but the coercive function of theatre and related arts stays the same.

For Boal, the formal aspects of Aristotle’s theory are less important than its ideological function. This function continues to operate in modern theatre, as well as other media, such as television. Even when these modern stories don’t look much like classical plays, they still have the same role of discouraging deviance through empathy and catharsis.

Boal calls this basic structure ‘coercive’. From his point of view, most theatre, television, movies, and even theories are coercive in this way. I’m inclined to think of analytical philosophy as theatrical in this way. Thought-experiments like the trolley problem involve a kind of pared-down moral theatre focused on dilemmas. They’re more like simplified plot devices than real, complex situations. Actually, they’re a bit like Theatre of the Oppressed scenarios, but with the available options arbitrarily pared down to two.

The Aristotelian type of theatre is an ideal system for social control, for adjusting individuals to an existing social order. Any social system with a definite ethos can use the Aristotelian form of theatre to promote this ethos. This is why it has survived so well. Feudal lords and modern corporations, propagandists of the Soviet Union or the Nazis or American liberalism, ancient city-states and postmodern networked broadcasters, religious rulers and secular modernisers, left-liberal film-makers and aggressive neocons can use the method with similar effectiveness. They just have to change the content of the message to reflect their own ethos. For instance: to make the American spy or the rogue cop either a hero or a villain, to have the protagonist’s piety or bloodlust either purged or reinforced, and so on.

This flexibility is why the model has survived. However, Boal insists that the cathartic form of theatre cannot be used by revolutionaries, at least during revolutionary periods. This is partly because it requires a clear established morality, and partly because it is coercive in structure. In periods of moral upheaval, there is no definite ethos to promote. The cathartic form of theatre cannot dynamise people. It can only promote a fixed, monological worldview.

Boal argues that Aristotelian empathy is a terrible weapon against the
people. It is a way to make spectators alienate their power to fictional people. These fictional people then make decisions for real people, in alienated, purified worlds. And spectators absorb and experience the resultant simplifications. The resultant mystifications might express themselves as Barthesian myths. They reverberate in the outer reality with violence. For instance, in the essay “Dominici or the Triumph of Literature”, Barthes suggests that a peasant is wrongly executed for murder, because the judge and jury frame the case in terms of the norms of literary fiction. Similarly, Bush framed his hunt for bin Laden in the rhetoric of Westerns – “Wanted, Dead or Alive”.

For his part, Virilio argues that, today, we process everyday experience through the gaze of machines, seeing even unmediated realities in televisual ways. This isn’t a direct effect – where people just copy what they see. It’s the transmission of a specific ethic, worldview and culture through the systematic, continual purging of certain emotions or beliefs, and the reinforcement of others, by means of empathy.

In later works, Boal contrasts such empathy with sympathy. Sympathy means feeling with the character, rather than being emotionally led by them. The ability to shift emotional meanings is the crucial difference between the two notions. Sympathy involves seeing from the other’s perspective, as it transforms reality. The spectator identifies with someone else’s creative agency, rather than their ethos. Such a transitive identification is only possible if there are similarities between the artist’s context and one’s own.

Boal largely avoids empathy and catharsis in his work. However, in some passages he suggests that empathy will have a legitimate place in a future system, with a more benign function. The teleological structure of Boal’s early work – the narrative of historical progression from classical theatre through various stages to Theatre of the Oppressed – gives the impression that he is opposed to other kinds of theatre. But in his later work, Boal emphasises that he is not against traditional theatre. He still sees a place for traditional performances.

Feudal Theatre

As we have seen, the Aristotelian system is extremely malleable to different power-structures. According to Boal, medieval feudal art was similar to classical art in its structure. It tried to lock society into a fixed structure. And it portrayed the nobility as divine. It often modelled the Last Judgement and images of heaven and hell to intimidate spectators. The forms of theatre were also adapted to a new context. Theatre had to be loud and expressive to maintain the interest of a constantly circulating, noisy audience.

While the function of theatre remained the same, its presentation shifted. Characters were often very abstract, expressing moral principles or attributes.  Commedia del’Arte is an example of this tendency. (If you’ve never seen a Commedia del’Arte play, Punch and Judy shows are a simplified version of the same idea. Punch is a “trickster hero” who defeats stereotypical adversaries using cunning).

In essence, Boal sees medieval theatre to be treating abstract attributes – like virtues and vices – as characters in their own right. This carries on in some of the more conservative versions of modern theatre, too. For instance, Boal suggests that Hegel’s view of theatre is based on this approach. There are no longer characters called “Goodness” or “the Devil”, but concrete individual characters basically take on the same roles.

Boal also criticises a number of more recent trends in theatre. Romanticism is criticised as a swansong of feudal theatre, one which is also deeply mystifying. Its main theme, according to Boal, is that even a poor person can be spiritually rich. This distracts from material conditions. Realism is criticised for showing reality as fixed and known. Its virtue is in elevating everyday life to the status of art. Its limit is in showing what is already familiar, keeping things as they are. Art becomes superfluous when it’s too close to reality.

Expressionism, surrealism and impressionism are criticised for presenting purely subjective realities. Boal also criticises the proto-poststructuralist approach of Ionescu, which suggests that everything is just “chat”. This is accurate regarding much dominant discourse, and helpfully sweeps away earlier abstractions, but it is oppressive when applied to real issues such as poverty.

What is missing from all of these approaches is a multi-dimensional portrayal of human characters. Boal argues that these approaches involve a “reduction” of man/humanity which is also a form of alienation. Real characters are transformed into abstractions, whether these are moral, metaphysical or psychological.

Classical Bourgeois Theatre

Boal’s discussion of “bourgeois” theatre is particularly relevant to today’s world. He suggests that new types of theatre expressed the position of the new, rising ruling-class, the bourgeoisie. In bourgeois theatre, characters stopped being incarnations of moral values and faults. Instead, they were portrayed as exceptional individuals. They were separate both from the old aristocrats and the passive people. They were connected to the Calvinist view that the rich are a divine elect group. People become rich because they are favoured by God, whereas God was against the poor. Hence people are rich or poor because of their deserts and virtues.

This image of a heroic individual is embodied in Machiavelli’s theory of virtù or virtue, as shown in his play Mandragola as well as his political writings. It is exhibited by Shakespearean characters such as Richard III and Lady Macbeth. A virtuous Machiavellian individual (usually masculine) is a creature of the mind, not the body. He takes advantage of his potential in a calculating, instrumental way. Hence, he avoids both emotions and morals as constraints on his actions. He pursues goals – whether political, business, or romantic – in a clinical, instrumental way. Such stories involve a triumph of the instrumental, rational individual over emotion, nature and adversaries. In effect, bourgeois morality suggests: anything someone has the power to do, they also have a right to do.

The bourgeois theatrical protagonist becomes an increasingly unconstrained subject, rather than an object of fate. Rather than being privileged by their social position as noble or aristocratic, modern heroes are taken to be extraordinary individuals in themselves. The hero is master of her/his own destiny, achieving success through her/his own abilities.

However, not everyone has this same right to act. The bourgeois individual has to be distanced both from the feudal social and moral structure, and from the ignorant masses. The bourgeoisie are careful that working-class people aren’t portrayed as exceptional individuals with a right to act on their desires.

Boal also suggests that capitalism destroys the uniqueness of individuals, making people alike through media conditioning. This is one major difference between Boal’s view of the bourgeois ethos and Stirner’s theory of egoism (which otherwise looks quite like Boal’s version of bourgeois thought).

Boal repeatedly compares Machiavelli’s theory to the work How to Win Friends and Influence People by the capitalist Dale Carnegie, and other American works on the “How to succeed at life” theme. He suggests that modern capitalist ideas are basically similar to Machiavelli’s, but hidden in discourses of self-esteem instead of being presented as explicitly political. They differ mainly in their credibility. Machiavelli said that “where there’s a will, there’s a way” in all seriousness – whereas Carnegie is almost farcical. We might also point here to the contemporary boom in self-esteem and self-help literature as a return to this ethos.

Of course, Boal’s readings are controversial. In particular, he takes Shakespeare’s plays to have hidden messages. Shakespeare is taken to promote Machiavellian characters like Richard III, even while being careful to commit on the surface to a feudal ethos. The likes of Richard III and Lady Macbeth get their comeuppance in Shakespeare’s work, so as not to break too clearly with the society of Shakespeare’s day. Nevertheless, for Boal, they offer clear moral models for spectators.

Contemporary Mass Media

The heroic, baroque form of theatre is particularly associated with the rising bourgeoisie. Today, capitalist media are more triumphalist. Boal suggests that such media have insidious effects. When upper and middle-class media are spread in poor communities, they promote a competitive ideology and celebration of ‘winners’ and the ‘most capable’. This devalues poor communities. Television teaches people to assimilate characters’ feelings and actions, even when these are known to be dull and empty.

Discussing today’s works, Boal cites Ishikawa’s view that bourgeois theatre is “finished theatre”. It presents a world seen as already finished – the bourgeoisie’s world. This is equally true of bourgeois science, psychology, and so on. The idea of the “end of history” encapsulates this view.

In a modern context, Boal also connects Aristotelian catharsis to imperialism. Through media such as TV, people are alienated from the universe of their real life, and come to see things from the perspective of the ‘invader’, or in an American way (since most media are American). Spectators are exposed to competitive, capitalistic fictional worlds which encourage them to see and act in a similar way.

Much of the modern media also encourages particularly passive, unthinking absorption. Mechanical repetition in cinema blocks intellectual development, encourages passivity, and stunts the ability to use metaphor. Discussing violent action films, Boal argues that they are damaging, not because of the violence itself, but because it lacks a rationale. Violence without empathy destroys the human dimension of life.

Where there is empathy, it follows the coercive Aristotelian model. Westerns, for instance, are taken as Aristotelian – provided they are viewed from the standpoint of the villain. Westerns placate the audience by showing that deviance, which breaks social balance, is punished by catastrophe. For instance, the “Indians” or Mexicans in Westerns are associated with the desire for transformation. They are killed by the victors, purging the audience of their desire for transformation.

Discussing globalised television in a later work, Boal suggests that it both atomises and deindividuates. It atomises because people are isolated as individuals in front of a television set. And it deindividuates because it produces homogenised, simulated desires – a ‘prosthesis of desire’ which replaces individual desires. This kind of simulated desire is clearly distinct from the type of desire sought in Boal’s theatrical method. It channels desire towards a finished object, instead of stimulating the desire of a subject of becoming.

Boal particularly dislikes TV because, as a form of media, it makes dialogue almost impossible. This is perhaps less so today, now video montage tools are more widely available, but still, most television is one-way. He also suggests that TV encourages a false appearance of neutrality. It does not allow itself to be “seen” as constructed narrative. It pretends to give a total, impartial view.  In fact it rarely shows the whole picture. Even an accurate portrayal of one side of a game or conflict makes it impossible to understand. And images can be combined in misleading ways. Also, images are also shown at too fast a speed to allow processing and interaction. Television prevents us from perceiving or noticing the entire situation – the silences, the unspoken, and so on.

Attempts to use Boal’s work televisually have fallen foul of this monological structure. There was a brief television show based on Boal’s theatre methods, but it was cancelled by TV executives, apparently for showing too many black faces. Another TV project fell through because the directors wanted to hand-pick the spectators.

More broadly, Boal suggests that the media creates a culture of lying and simulation. It splits people into two halves: bodies on the ground and heads in mediatised clouds. In general, we are not allowed to see ourselves in the art we see. He calls for all the media to be democratised, so that it carries the voice – not only the eyes and ears – of the people.

Newspapers are also taken to misrepresent truth in a number of ways. For instance, they include or neglect details which change the context entirely – in one example Boal gives, by covering the size and quality of Paraguayan steaks, but not their price, unaffordable to most Paraguayans.

Politicians, meanwhile, repeat lies or “spin” until they seem more real than the truth. Boal himself was targeted by the right-wing press during his spell in politics (see the upcoming Part 6 in the series), with libellous accusations given enormous coverage, and their later rebuttal barely being noted. He has sought to expose and critique the functioning of media narrative-construction through the technique of Newspaper Theatre (see Part 4).

Also on the topic of reactionary media, in Categories of Popular Theatre Boal discusses the types of plays he takes to be “anti-popular” yet are ostensibly aimed at “the people”. These plays generally involve two tactics. Firstly, they avoid big political and social problems, focusing instead on personal issues.  They also present these problems as soluble on a purely personal level.

This is probably the reason for Boal’s early hostility to writers such as Tennessee Williams. Boal accuses such works of mystification. The hero’s refusal of convention is taken to incite the audience to accept capitalist norms. Furthermore, the emphasis on personal neuroses and love triangles is taken to distract people from political issues, and to personalise these issues. Popular theatre is taken to deal with a different set of (more political) issues, though Boal already suggests that it is a mistake to neglect the everyday problems of a personal scope. This early hostility to psychology is weakened in Boal’s more recent work, particularly the ‘Rainbow of Desire’ techniques.

Secondly, reactionary media model or portray those realities that reflect and further elite interests, such as docile, efficient workers. The more explicit types of reactionary theatre are taken to be too obvious to be effective. More subtle types allow a certain degree of subversive content, such as mocking Americans or the elite, or portraying basically charming but incompetent “natives” in need of imperialist help. Characters might be poor and happy, or self-made because of upward mobility, or rich but unhappy, telling us we don’t want to be rich.

When Boal writes about American theatre and TV, he sees it as both ideological and naive. American media professors study audience reactions, find out what works, and then offer more of it in greater doses. The aim is to maximise box office returns. This reproduces conservatism in that existing habitual reactions remain intact and are not challenged. It reflects the domination of the arts by the market which, for Boal, destroys the special humanising mission of the arts.

Boal’s writings on contemporary mass media are few and far between, but can easily be extended to analyse much of the current mediascape. On the one hand, the heroic individual who triumphs against the odds is an underlying model for such cultural mainstays as the fantasy hero, the action hero, the eccentric rogue cop, pirates, cowboys, superheroes. Jack Bauer and Rambo, Indiana Jones and Dirty Harry, all variously incarnate bourgeois virtù. They are lone individuals whose mastery of power, strategy and intuition secure success. Entrepreneurs themselves are also portrayed, misleadingly, in such heroic terms.

On the other hand, the grimdark settings of the more supposedly amoral scenarios – Mad Max, Game of Thrones, The Shield, and Escape from L.A., for example – create a world where bourgeois virtù (usually with added machismo) is necessary to survive.

Remember that for Boal, these media are still following Aristotle’s proposals. By identifying with the macho or manipulative hero, the viewer learns that machismo or manipulation are the way to succeed in the world. By seeing characters suffer as a result of being emotional, sentimental, or principled, the viewer learns that we need to be tough to survive.

In this way, people accept bourgeois ways of thinking without even being persuaded of them. The average authoritarian today seems to revel in being tough, amoral, without scruples, focused on “what works”, unafraid of “getting their hands dirty” – the real-life reflection of the dystopian anti-hero.

Boal’s theory has implications for the structure of contemporary ideology. Even though in principle, unlike Aristotle, “modern” people don’t believe that moral virtue involves conforming to a just cosmic moral order, the structure of modern fictional life reproduces this assumption. People continue to think and act in line with bourgeois virtù, often without realising that there is an ethical content to what they do. And this has knock-on effects, such as when people assume that victims of police brutality are guilty, or poor people are feckless.  Indeed, personalisation of blame has made a big comeback under neoliberalism. Remember, too, Benjamin’s order of fate, which is closely connected to personal responsibility.

There are echoes of the same moral theory Boal attributes to Machiavelli in a whole variety of bourgeois theories – sometimes as a fictive construct of how people can be theorised, and sometimes as an account of how they actually are. Economic analysis creates abstract models in which this individual is assumed to exist. Rational choice theory, strategic management theory, public choice theory, theories of social movements based on collective action (such as Tarrow’s), political theories such as those of Rawls and Nozick, all reproduce the Machiavellian virtuous individual. Arguably, methods such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and classroom management attempt to manufacture this type of individual. Modern theories assume the type of self, or subject, which modern culture attempts to create.

It is crucial to emphasise that this is a particular theory of the moral individual. It is often mistaken for a set of realistic claims about an amoral, harsh world, and the prudent stance within it. But it always entails implications about how people should act in such a world, which is itself portrayed as neutrally real rather than unjust. These actions reproduce the very world to which they respond.

Hence, Boal’s approach can explain many aspects of contemporary culture. However, there are some problems with this theory. Boal broadly subscribes to the cultural effects theory of media hegemony, in which the media reproduce dominant capitalist norms. However, this theory is unfashionable today. Subsequent research suggests that audience re-readings already occur in traditional media. Poststructuralists like to suggest that the media is in some way democratic, because it is open to multiple readings and uses. Can Boal’s theory deal with audience response research, such as the studies of David Morley and Ien Ang, or phenomena such as fan-fiction and AVI’s?

I think it can, because the cathartic effect does not have to be total in order to work. Readers may subvert or “reform” the message they receive, but a certain core of conformist structure is still conveyed. The director/spectator relationship may not be a pure monologue, but it is not an equal, democratic dialogue either. It it highly asymmetrical, with more power held by the directors – and, by extension, by powerful media conglomerates which own a growing proportion of the global media.

Poststructuralists claim to democratise theory by recognising popular agency. But in some respects, their account of agency plays into the neoliberal politics of blame, and the concealment of structural barriers to effective action. By claiming that capitalism has already done what Boal seeks to do, poststructuralism substitutes a constrained agency for a transformative agency.

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

Andy McLaverty-Robinson

Andy McLaverty-Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. He is the co-author (with Athina Karatzogianni) of Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (Routledge, 2009). He has recently published a series of books on Homi Bhabha. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.


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An A to Z of Theory | Augusto Boal: Brecht and Beyond – The Boal Method | D!rupt
Sep 21, 2016 16:20

[…] Anti-people perspectives, aimed at the people. See the section on television and reactionary media (in Part 3). […]

Andrew Shaw
Jan 6, 2017 13:07

I believe that Boal was wrong in his use of the words sympathy and empathy.. To really empathise with a person’s exprience it is necessary to have been through the same or very similar situation.This is why Forum Theatre works best with homogenous groups Sympathy is more like feeling sorry for the person. It has been noted that. replacing the protagonist with a ‘sympathiser’, who has not had the experience, can anger the original actor and alienate the audience.

The Aristotelian cathartic process and it use in modern media seems more like hypnosis and works through identification. It might be considered a shallow form of empathy. How effective it is as a means of social control by catharsis is a matter of conjecture, but it seems to have replaced religion as the ‘opiate of the people’. It certainly works to perpetuate the ‘system’.

Apr 3, 2017 9:47

The choice of terms is a little strange, and I think reflects a language issue – differences between English and either Portuguese or Ancient Greek. If I was formulating this theory, I might refer to vicarious experience, identification, or affective fusion, instead of empathy. It’s the total emotional identification with the character which causes catharsis for Boal’s Aristotle, and which allows manipulation. It’s probably quite close to what you’re thinking about in terms of modern media.

Boal talks in other places about common oppressions, and the difference in forum theatre between dealing with a common oppression and dealing with degrees of sympathy. But, I’m not sure an outsider’s perspective is necessarily worse than that of someone dealing with the same experience, or that there’s a clear line in terms of which people can or can’t ’empathise’. On the one hand, it’s never possible to directly access and share another person’s experience, even if it seems to be “the same” experience, because there will always be individual differences and personal biographical elements in how something is processed and conceptualised. On the other, very different situations can produce very similar emotional effects – for example, post-traumatic stress from very different sources of trauma. I’m sceptical of the idea of self-presence of experience, which has become so prevalent in identity-related theories today. Traumatic experiences tend to feel incommunicable – this is a side-effect of the trauma being stuck in the limbic system – but I’m not sure this reflects the reality of the experience, as opposed to how it is processed. Some people today seem to want to glorify trauma as a kind of direct, immediate knowledge, which is somehow superior to logic or evidence or other emotions – a kind of fixed point which can ground political action and identity. This makes sense in terms of the affects of trauma, the way it feels pre-cognitively real and reacts to challenge, but I’m not sure such a position is at all epistemologically tenable – not least because “the same” trauma can have different effects on different people, and “the same” experience will give some people post-traumatic stress but not others. I also disagree that sympathy with another person’s suffering, without common experience, is necessarily pity. It’s possible to be outraged at an injustice or cruelty against others, without any sense of condescension whatsoever. Not all emotional reactions are about in-group belonging. Animal rights activism, anti-imperialism, prison solidarity, even anti-crime ideology are not really matters of pity. One might, for instance, be outraged at a violation of what seems to be the proper order of things, or react viscerally against something which seems predatory.

In a context of precarity, cybernetic management, and fragmented niche labour and consumption markets, common experiences are less common than they ever were. Feelings of commonality seem to have to take longer circuits to create visceral reactions. Take a case like Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, or various ‘mass incidents’ in China (e.g. Weng’an) – clearly the one person’s trauma acts as a catalyst for wider discontents among people who have not suffered anything remotely similar, but who experience some kind of commonality at the general level of injustice or corruption or contempt for human life. A case such as a murder by police (Mark Duggan, Michael Brown…) produces a response from people who experience a commonality in terms of police brutality and class/race oppression, but none of these people have had *the same experience* – they have not been murdered. They are constructing some kind of fantasmatic equivalence between a murder and other kinds of oppression (beatings, harassment…); or perhaps they are worried that it *could be* themselves or their families next time. The construction of experiences as “the same” or equivalent is itself a social construct.

In any case, theatre of the oppressed isn’t mainly about whether the experience is understood – it’s about the structure of power in a situation, the responses available to the oppressed person. Sometimes the outsider will see structural possibilities which someone inside a situation might not have thought of. People are often both fatalistic due to trauma/learned helplessness, and stuck in repetitive scripts as to how to respond. If the outsider assesses the situation wrongly, this should come out in the responses of the actor playing the oppressor.

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