An A to Z of Theory | Augusto Boal: Legislative Theatre and Politics

In his penultimate column on the radical playwright and director Augusto Boal, Andrew Robinson examines Legislative Theatre – a method pioneered during Boal's tenure as a member of the Rio local parliament. Robinson also examines and critiques the radical democratic perspective underpinning this phase of Boal's work.

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Legislative Theater. (Photo: Center for the Theatre of the Oppressed in Rio de Janeiro)

In Legislative Theatre, democracy is a two-way exchange between legislator and voters. The elector should not simply be a spectator, but a participant, a spect-actor. (Photo: Center for the Theatre of the Oppressed in Rio de Janeiro)

Legislative Theatre

Boal developed the method of legislative theatre during his tenure (1993-97) as vereador (city councillor/MP) for the Workers’ Party, before the latter’s reconciliation with neoliberalism. When he was elected, Boal used half of his vereador staff allowance to hire Jokers. These Jokers pioneered legislative theatre with community groups, formulating proposals which were submitted as potential laws.

Boal describes the experience of being a vereador much like the masks in his theatrical work. It is like putting on a strait-jacket: People respond to him according to his role, not his personality. He is subjected to constant ‘mental pollution’ from bureaucracy. He emphasises that he never simply used theatre for party-political ends. He sympathises with the population’s hostility to the political class. But he also tried to use theatre and parliamentary politics to produce better laws.

As might be expected, Boal was subjected to hostility from the right-wing media and the political establishment – including a series of defamatory accusations and unsuccessful (but disruptive and expensive) court cases. One of the essays in Legislative Theatre discusses the history of representations of the Devil, in light of a literal demonisation by the mayor: the PT were accused of making pacts with the Devil.

Legislative theatre is rooted in ideas of participatory (or transitive) democracy. In this view, real democracy is a two-way exchange between legislator and voters, similar to Freirean education and Theatre of the Oppressed. The elector should not simply be a spectator, but a participant, a spect-actor. The relationship between legislators and voters should produce dynamisation, not catharsis. Election season in Brazil is already, according to Boal, an erotic or carnivalesque moment of public performance. Legislative theatre takes this process further, promoting participation.

More broadly, Boal calls for a participatory democracy. The centralising, authoritarian, normative tendencies of the state should be dismantled, and replaced by democratic organs at the base level. These organs should create a genuine dialogue between different groups, regions, countries, and so on.

The idea of legislative theatre is that sometimes, solutions to spect-actors’ problems are rooted in bad laws. Solving the problems requires changing the laws. Law is seen as an expression of someone’s desire. At present it expresses the desire of the powerful – but it can also express the desires of the people. The absence of a critique of the structure of law and normativity is a noticeable problem here.

Participation in this case is far deeper than simple “consultation” on policies. Some kind of collective policy formation occurs, which the representative expresses, rather than deciding. The process occurs with a range of affinity-groups or “nuclei”. In practice, most of these were from excluded or marginalised groups, but with great diversity among them. They included, for example, groups of black students, shanty-town residents, trade unionists, older people, people with disabilities, and ecological activists. In legislative theatre, outcomes need to be taken to other settings and re-tested. Shows originate in one community, but are performed and discussed in others. This is necessary to connect problems facing very different groups.

The thirteen laws resulting from this process mostly dealt with rights for people with disabilities, older people, mental health patients, and gay couples – for example, prohibiting discriminatory room-pricing for gay couples at motels, banning electro-shock therapy, and putting telephone boxes on raised platforms so blind people can find or avoid them. Boal rates his most important law as a witness protection measure. He also emphasises that the only law he formulated himself was badly thought-out, in contrast with the collective measures. He suggests that, in these thirteen cases, the theatre groups have made desire become law.

Social Problems in Brazil

The book Legislative Theatre also includes a number of Boal’s interventions and speeches during his spell as vereador. These interventions included a speech – “Memory and the Torture Chamber” – which arguably helped win the vote to preserve a notorious torture site as a memorial site. In this piece, Boal argued that the destruction of the memory of past human rights abuses leads to present atrocities such as the Carandiru massacre.

The two main problems in Brazil, according to Boal, are poverty and physical violence. The system keeps people poor and ignorant so it can control them. The problem of poverty is visible in manifestations such as begging and child sex work. But it has become invisible in itself. Capitalists dominate other groups (such as artists) through a law that only takes capitalist interests into account. Discussing the Candelária massacre, in which seven street children were murdered by police, Boal argues that the crime of the massacre should not make us forget the deeper crime that children were sleeping in the street to begin with.

Another recurring topic is corruption. Boal argues that vote-buying ultimately costs the people who think they gain. People who pay bribes to be elected will often pass laws which raise their voters’ cost of living. The political elite are condemned for breaking agreements – a situation which makes agreements virtually impossible, reducing everything to a conflictual arithmetic.

Land-grabs against poor people are another frequent topic. Officials simply ignore the lives of poor people when their invisible, unregistered settlements are in the way of development projects. The essay “Resignation” denounces the government’s failure to take measures against the predictable deaths and homelessness which arise from flooding every March. Another essay, “Elizete”, focuses on the problem of forced displacement.

Evicted people, and flood survivors, are resettled – but their food supplies go missing. The supplies are probably being stolen by other poor people during the delivery process. Boal suggests this is a case where people come to blows, or harm one another, because they are so poor. In a moving account, Boal denounces the police violence, above and beyond the norm, that displaced people suffered while protesting. And he recounts how, for one survivor, Elizete, mirrors have become triggering – she cannot look at herself as a human being. This piece shows starkly the inhumanity of capitalism and statism – and the problem of forced displacements has re-emerged as a major issue around the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Similar things also happen in Britain and neighbouring countries.

At one point, Boal exposes the ridiculousness of state repression. He was being tortured because of an offence which, it turns out, was that he spread the “lie” that, in Brazil, people are tortured. This incident is also worked into Boal’s play Torquemada.

Other essays deal with the rise of organised crime in Brazil. Boal analyses organised crime as a spin-off from political violence. Kidnapping was used first by the military during the dictatorship, then by guerrillas in retaliation, and eventually became common practice. He sees crime as a kind of social regression. The absolute despotism of a drug lord is a regression to the earliest stages of monarchical power, when justice simply meant the king’s whim. However, the root cause is social injustice, which deepens hatred and fuels violence. In addition, the networks of police and criminals are interlinked. Boal is also careful to emphasise that massacres by state forces are also a huge problem, and disturbingly popular. For instance, shopkeepers hire police to kill street children.

There is a remarkable difference between Boal’s discussions of contemporary organised crime, and his fond memories for the chicken thieves of his childhood. The latter were brave and cunning, forced to steal to feed their families, while risking a thoroughly unjust lynching or expulsion by the community. Unlike today’s elite criminals, they had honour.

The Politics of Boal’s Recent Work

Politically, Boal’s early work, such as Theatre of the Oppressed, is clearly Marxist and anti-imperialist. His more recent work incorporates democratic, humanitarian and poststructuralist themes. The strand running through both approaches is Boal’s underlying humanism. Boal sees human beings as creative actors, with a calling to pursue freedom and happiness in an otherwise hostile world.

At one point, Boal suggests that people are constantly fighting against nature for survival and joy. This struggle for pleasure is both a right and a duty. It is sometimes suggested that people must change the world themselves – or else it will stay the same. The struggle for pleasure is the source of everything extraordinary in human life. In contrast, nature is seen as a Hobbesian law of the jungle, in which the strong consume the weak. Through the struggle against oppression, ethics is to prevail over nature. The debt to humanist modernism is clear here, and the worrying theme of domination of nature is a limit to Boal’s conception of oppression (See part 7). There is a certain ambiguity here, in that Boal both celebrates vital force, and attempts to disassociate it from nature. Life, or nature, itself has no meaning. Artists and madmen seek to give meaning to life, to order its chaos. Boal asks that they never cure our madness, and that all become mad in this sense.

However, we are forever haunted by our barbaric side. We have a predatory animal nature we cannot be rid of. For instance, we have to kill (plants or animals) to eat. Nature gives us this animal side. Ethics, in contrast, is a human invention. The role of culture is to transcend our nature and create an ethical world. Boal wishes to move towards a society without oppression. However, he also sees “society” in conventional, conservative or liberal terms, as a normative order protecting us from chaos. It is a type of civilisation which uses laws, commands and values to protect us from barbarism. Autonomy – everyone setting their own ethic – is defined as barbarism. We are responsible for creating a better future. We have free will, and cannot deny it. Putting profit before the welfare of others is unforgivable. Capitalism and authoritarianism are types of reversion to a barbaric animal nature.

This humanist dualism informs Boal’s critiques of capitalism and militarism. International relations are basically predatory, despite the illusions of diplomacy. Globalisation is simply another name for this ages-old predation. Boal would be in favour of globalisation of welfare. But instead, the quest for profits is globalised. This process homogenises people, making us all alike. The desire to privatise space is also taken to be a less-than-human, “animal” drive. It involves the capture of territory. The consumerist spectacle is part of this drive. In modern spectacular societies, each society tries to expand its spectacle as its territory.

Boal emphasises that he is not against types of business which are about satisfying needs, such as street markets. He is against the type of business which creates addictions or stimulates unnecessary needs. Boal is afraid that the values of profit and the market are displacing humanist values. Humans seek to expand ourselves – outwards as territory, inwards as poetry. Today, the outer form of expansion seems to have eclipsed the inner.

In addition, Boal sometimes sees social problems as resulting from barbarism. Repressive, rigid morality is taken to be an effect of economic scarcity, for instance in relation to sexual morality and pregnancy. However, when working with the MST, Boal found there was more democracy when people were in very poor conditions. Once they settled on farms, gender and age hierarchies resurfaced.

Boal clearly uses modernist categories for socially progressive goals. However, this kind of modernism is problematic. The figures used by Boal – the savage, cannibal, animal-like, hominid, primitive, barbaric, and so on – are associated with modern coloniality in its wars against indigenous groups, its practices of animal abuse and ecocide, and its perpetuation of Northern “humanitarian” imperialism. The idea of a separate humanity, superior to nature – and especially of a division into those closer and further from nature, with a preference for the latter – is closely tied-up with abyssal thought and resultant genocides and enslavements. It is dangerous to reproduce such figures, even if refigured as a progressive critique.

However, Boal gives an unusual twist to the humanist account. Usually, such humanist binaries serve psychological repression: we must contain our emotions and be instrumental and productive, so as to be “human” rather than “animal”. For Boal, humanism is aligned on the side of expression and de-repression.  The main types of modern power – capitalism, authoritarianism, mass production, imperialism, globalisation – are defined as forms of barbarism, marked with the sign of the inhuman. In a sense, Boal inverts the usual loading of the terms, at least insofar as they mark different groups of humans.

Boal’s argument sometimes seems to naturalise oppressive structures. All societies have more-or-less organised structures, ranks, and so on. Humans are herd animals by nature. Leaders always have charisma, and are usually of three types. Ideological leaders are followed for their ideas. Pathological leaders are manipulative, and zoological leaders are extremely egocentric tyrants. Although Boal believes that all societies need rules, he also believes that breaking rules is necessary to liberate us from oppression.

In Boal’s theory, social rituals are usually visual expressions of a society’s oppressions. They create mechanical ways of responding to oppressive situations. Boal isn’t necessarily against norms and normativity. He takes a position that norms are both necessary (for predictability) and in a sense undesirable. They are somewhat authoritarian, and suppress needs and desires. Boal uses the term “ritual” for particularly oppressive, imprisoning forms of normativity. This type of norm is not socially necessary. The process of dismantling masks and rituals reveals the oppressive relationships underneath. Some rituals are also ambiguous. Even misunderstandings of performances often contain useful information. Rituals can often be broken by acting in ways which defy their rules. For example, in one scene a boss sits on a tall chair behind a big desk. The worker or client has to sit on a lower chair. One actress subverted this by sitting on the boss’s desk.

Boal’s work has evolved in radical-democratic directions. In recent works, Boal writes of persuading or forcing governments to ask us what they should do, much as actors in Forum Theatre do. He contrasts this ideal with the current situation where society is simply a massive marketplace. After 911, Boal portrayed his theatrical work as a path for youths who were seeking a ‘true identity’ which had been suppressed by political rhetoric and censored media.

Boal’s politics become increasingly liberal in his recent work. After his earlier years of anti-systemic politics, Boal carefully reinvents himself as an advocate of the “rule of law”, rejecting his guerrilla years as a mistake. Boal now sees law as necessary to prevent a Hobbesian world where everything is permitted, a world he identifies with Brazilian organised crime.

Animals are seen as driven merely by survival at any cost, the “law of the jungle”, the “survival of the fittest”. Humans are separated from animals by ethics, which define how people should behave: ‘the individual judged by the norms of society’. Human rights are the highest form of normativity. Opponents of these norms are primitive or barbaric. There is thus a constant struggle between the ethics of “Civilisation” and the barbarism of those who reject normative constraint. The punishment of criminals, in line with judicial power, is taken to be coextensive with human rights, and the war of civilisation against barbarism. If people don’t fear retribution, there is disorder.

I find this piece deeply problematic. Boal does not seem to realise that this argument repeats standard reactionary arguments against social struggle and diversity, and a basically liberal view of normativity. Similar arguments can be – and are – used to defend all kinds of authoritarian laws and forms of state repression. The account, like others of its kind, is also largely inaccurate. Normativity is always the law of some against others, of ingroup against outgroup. Norms and law may have earlier origins, but modern law and law-enforcement arose with the rise of class society, and function to destroy horizontal relations so as to reproduce vertical power. Subordination to judicial power is an effect, not of progressive “civilisation” of a formerly evil humanity, but of the historical rise of concentrated power. (In fact, Boal also makes contradictory claims: “law of the jungle” as primordial, pre-human reality, or as historically emerging, Machiavellian ethic). In Boal’s earlier works, law gets a straighter, less liberal treatment.  While there are oppressors and oppressed, the law is always hypocritical. Law and order are simply rhetoric to hypnotise the demoralised masses.

The human world is no more peaceful than most animal species are among their own species, and more violent than many. So-called “primitive” (indigenous and non-western) groups are not marked by random violence, but by greater dialogue than “modern” social groups. Survival of the fittest is a capitalistic principle, far more than an indigenous or naturalistic principle (fitness relativity largely precludes Hobbesian readings in modern biology). And there is a world of difference between normativity – the coerced subordination to socially-imposed rules – and the process of ethical creation which Boal’s work elsewhere celebrates.

However, Boal uses this basically conservative argument in a progressive way. He portrays reactionary opponents of human rights as opposing normativity and law. In effect, he mobilises the idea of law against the discourse of sovereignty which suspends the law. This is an important point: someone who really believes in the law, or in dominant norms, would be just as condemnatory of police brutality as of any other illegal or immoral act.

In another essay, on Romeo and Juliet, Boal suggests that the emergence of centralised political power is a form of progress, against a diffuse medieval form of power. And in yet another, ‘The Individual and the Twenty-First Century’, he portrays then-current wars and crises, such as those in Rwanda, Angola, and DR Congo, as representing a return to savagery. This could, he argues, be the future of humanity unless we resist individualisation. He is also nostalgic for the unity of World War 2.

Later we are told that people have learnt a lack of respect, and that neglect of the poor is an instance of this. People need to be given the security of collective respect for an overall structure in which everyone knows their place. This seems a strangely characterological way of thinking of social relations, reminiscent of conservative views of social problems as social breakdown.

Boal’s slippage into liberal or conservative discourse is here closely connected to his humanism. However, the feeling of a lack of structure and meaning is also probably connected to the anxiety and decomposition brought about by neoliberalism. As capitalism moves from a phase focused on centralised power to a more diffuse form of hierarchy, core (or formerly privileged) groups experience a loss of structure, meaning and predictability – what psychoanalysts term a loss of the Symbolic. The enforcement of fixed norms as a response to this breakdown – a restoration of an authoritarian Symbolic, with or without leftist undertones – is an ultimately counterproductive, but common, response. The danger is that it restores the structure of sovereignty and therefore the reproduction of capitalism. The narrative of a meaningful humanity united by a meaning-structure and a common ethic is caught-up with modernity and its underside, colonialism. I feel that dissidents instead need to find ways to produce a diffuse Symbolic, or else do without it.

Boal is on less controversial terrain in his critique of globalisation. He argues that globalisation works mainly by atomisation. It has to individualise people to make them part of a global space, eliminating the intervening social levels. This in turn requires that practices of coming-together, such as demonstrations and popular organisation, be made as difficult as possible. But, like earlier televisual individualisation, this process does not make people increasingly unique. It destroys their individuality, making differences disappear, so there is no difference between one individual and another. And individuals ultimately lose their decision-making power to banks and corporations. Hence, paradoxically, we now need collective organisations to continue to exist as individuals – rather than as statistics or grains of sand. Boal also mourns the effects of neoliberal globalisation, such as the disappearance of crafts and skills, and the corruption of the political elite. He also warns that art is faced with death. Art will die without patronage. And if patronage is controlled by business, art will become moribund. The external priorities of funders will displace the inner vision of the artist.

Boal terms globalisation phagocytosis, a kind of absorption through eating at a cellular level. Globalisation breaks down borders between nations, but not those between classes. Therefore, it is accompanied by walls and borders springing up – from gated communities in Brazil, to anti-immigration policies in the North. He suggests that, if there is a society at all, then everyone in it must have a right to live. Without basic welfare rights, there is no society.

On the other hand, Boal still insists that social improvement is possible. Social harmony is ‘more or less’ possible, ‘almost always’. Everyone can be taken into account, even if all their desires are not met. Boal also maintains that anyone can do anything that any human can do – albeit better or worse. Overall, he still sees humanism as a progressive force, even in the face of the neoliberal onslaught.

For other essays in the 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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