Previous columns have explored the work of the radical dramatist Augusto Boal, explaining his theory of oppression, his critique of classical theatre, and his encouragement of forms of theatre in which spectators become participants. In this essay, I will examine the process through which Theatre of the Oppressed came into being, a number of Boal’s plays and productions, and Boal’s technical preferences for selecting narratives, forming characters, and using props and spaces.
Boal did not simply formulate Theatre of the Oppressed as a direct response to cathartic theatre. Rather, he was part of a process of transformation within Brazilian theatre, which had gone through a process that started with importing European classics, then performing local realist scenarios, then “nationalising” the classics. Boal was involved with the third stage, in which European classic plays were performed in Brazilian settings, rewritten and localised. In Boal’s account, this approach is connected to the growth of “Popular Centres of Culture” in early 1960s Brazil. The role of these centres was to share local artistic knowledge.
At this stage, in the early 1960s, Boal was involved in the Arena Theatre of São Paulo. He pioneered the Joker system, mainly as a way of distancing performances from the classical mode, as in Brecht (see below). Techniques used at this time included role-switching, the reduction of characters to an alienated social mask, genre eclecticism, and the use of music to supplement or contradict dramatic action. Characters are treated as effects of social causality, rather than individual psychology. The Joker in this system would often explain things to the audience, or ask actors for their opinions. The idea is to create a patchwork which alters how audiences relate to the play.
Boal’s early work follows this kind of eclectic patchwork approach. For instance, he was involved in producing Arena conta Zumbí (Arena tells of Zumbi), of which he was co-author. This musical based on Afro-Brazilian revolutionary history broke many theatrical conventions. It has been described by other commentators as “stylistically eclectic” and fragmentary. Different sections relate only thematically (not through narrative), focusing on avoiding present and future evils. Empathy or identification with characters was undermined. Indeed, Boal claims it dispensed with empathy.
Another work of this period, Arena conta Tiradentes, dealt with a nationalist uprising in the eighteenth century. These works were characterised by stylistic eclecticism and a collective approach to storytelling. Historical stories were filled with contemporary information to make them relevant, and presented in a mainly fantastic way. Different actors played the same role in different scenes. In Tiradentes, actors were assigned functions (such as the protagonist) rather than characters. When actors circulate in this way, costumes and other markers are used to identify characters.
Boal portrays this period as mainly a period of destruction of theatrical conventions, after which it was necessary to rebuild. He suggests that such early theatre was fuelled by a sense of injustice and a rebellion against cruelty. But he also suggests that his sense of oppression at this point was too general, too connected to an idea of Truth. Boal later argues that theatrical conventions are not good or bad in themselves; but rather are good for certain purposes. However, conventions tend to be fixed, whereas purposes and circumstances change. Also, people get stuck in habitual, mechanised patterns of action which need to be shaken up.
The Emergence of Forum Theatre
The incident that brought revelation, according to Boal, followed a performance of agitprop theatre in the countryside. A peasant named Virgilio asked the actors to take part in an armed insurrection. When they refused, he rejected them. This, for Boal, showed a fundamental problem with Marxist theatre – the actors were not taking the same risks as the audience. They were taking a vanguard role, telling others how to act.
After this incident, Forum Theatre (see part 2) was designed, which modelled and acted social problems based on audience suggestions. The idea in forum theatre is to allow people to formulate their own solutions, rather than the play presenting solutions. Boal’s work has continued to evolve in response to emerging situations.
A second story is used to explain how the “spect-actor” came into being, because the actors couldn’t follow an audience suggestion to the suggestor’s satisfaction. Another story suggests that the later ‘Rainbow of Desire’ techniques were unfolded from problems arising at a workshop in Paris.
Boal on Brecht
Boal suggests that his approach is inspired partly by Bertolt Brecht. He sees this German Marxist playwright as the first to break with classical Aristotelian conventions. Brecht used a style of theatre which sought to raise workers’ consciousness, sometimes called agitprop or agitation-propaganda theatre. Like Boal, Brecht opposed the use of empathy. Instead, he tried to make spectators watch plays in a detached, estranged way. He does this through a distancing effect which makes the social relations underlying theatrical stories visible.
Aristotle’s approach, and all its successors, treat individuals as actors. Theatre is an objective collision of subjective forces. Actions precede from personal character. In Brecht, theatre is instead a subjective collision of objective forces. Brecht denies that characters have freedom. Instead, he portrays them as objects of external socio-economic forces. When characters act, there is always an objective cause which causes them to act. Characters also become spokespeople for economic forces, in an almost puppet-like, stereotypical way.
Brecht denies that people have character-traits that are simply their own, or which stem from human nature. Instead, dramatic characters express socially constructed roles and personality-types. Brechtian characters are not so much individuals as the totality of possibilities for action in a particular social position. Characters act in line with how their role functions. For example, rich characters have to be nasty, otherwise they would lose their wealth. A bourgeois character is driven by profit maximisation, not their own goodness or badness. Characters are also broken-up into component parts, and reassembled. The narrative indicts rather than justifying the existing society, and presents this world as capable of being transformed.
Boal contrasts two series of characteristics of Aristotelian/Idealist theatre and Brechtian theatre – among others, human nature vs social construction or alteration, emotion vs reason, action vs narration, empathy vs the historicisation of action, and maladaption vs social problems as the cause of dramatic action. The replacement of empathy with historicisation is particularly important, in that it allows the spectator to act.
While Boal praises Brecht’s approach, he also tries to move beyond it. Boal’s main criticism of Brecht is that the division between actor and spectator is still in place. The actor or director is still in a position of telling a story to a passive audience, even if the story reflects what the director takes to be reality. This means that there is still only one way of thinking allowed. Speech is power. The director, not the spectator, has the power to speak. Hence, Brecht’s theatre is vanguardist. The spectator no longer delegates power to think, but still delegates power to act. The finished worldview is that of the enlightened vanguard. For Boal, this keeps the spectator alienated.
Boal rejects the view that popular art should be emotive or circus-like. Rather, he emphasises that it should be clear, and not mystified. Popular audiences prefer experimental approaches to closed spectacles. However, he is not opposed to emotion in theatre as such. The problem with most popular art is not emotional stimulation in itself. It is the lack of reflexivity and reversibility.
Instead of historically desituated emotions, a materialist art should show how the world can be transformed. This does not mean that emotions cannot be used. The audience can be sad at a tragic moment in a play. But they should be sad and angry at an oppressive situation, not sad at an unstoppable fate.
In this early period, Boal also wrote a number of other works. Boal’s play Torquemada was initially written in 1971. At the time, Boal was first a political prisoner, then an exile. Torquemada the torturer is clearly an allegory for the dictators and torturers in Brazil at the time. In the play, Torquemada’s allies in seizing power later become his victims. The middle-class and bourgeoisie back Torquemada to guarantee stability. Torquemada himself is an instrument. But he becomes the sole power-holder himself. He does not let the middle-class have their power back. This provides a warning that backing dictators for the good of stability is fruitless. Those who do so will suffer along with their enemies. Like most of Boal’s work, the play uses distancing techniques, such as the same actor playing several roles.
The essay Categories of Popular Theatre was written in 1971, but not published in English until the 1990s (in the volume Legislative Theatre). Boal suggests in his introduction that things were more “black and white” in those days. He has moved away from the dualistic Marxism he deployed in his earlier works. Boal’s piece defines the “people” as workers in the broad sense, distinct from the “population” which also includes bosses. It divides popular theatre – connected in various ways to the people – into six categories:
- Propaganda Theatre – which explains and makes apparent a past event or present reality, such as the pervasive presence of American imperialist products in Brazil. Such work is urgent and aims for an immediate response, such as supporting a strike or voting for a candidate.
- Didactic Theatre – which deals with more general problems. It usually deals with a general ethical problem with indirect political consequences – for example, legal inequality. This encompasses Arena Theatre of the type discussed above.
- Culture Theatre – which uses established cultural forms and folklore, ranging from carnival to classic plays, and/or which addresses broader cultural questions such as personal relationships. The fact that such questions are abused by bourgeois media to depoliticise does not mean that they cannot be used for popular ends.
- Theatre whose content is popular, but aimed at non-popular audiences. This can be either explicit or implicit in content.
- Anti-people perspectives, aimed at the people. See the section on television and reactionary media (in Part 3).
- Newspaper Theatre, which is an early form of Theatre of the Oppressed. This will be discussed in more detail later (Part 5).
Theatrical Techniques and Theory
The goal of theatre in Boal’s model is closely connected to its political function. Emotion itself is not desirable for Boal. Traditional aesthetic criteria of emotional expression, naturalistic realism, and originality are largely abandoned. What matters in dramatic performance is what the emotion signifies. People should transmit meanings unconsciously, on what Boal calls the “undercurrent”. Rather than originality, theatre should aim to preserve and build on existing “conquests” or successes.
Realism is as subjective as any other style, because a cosmic or universal viewpoint is not possible. A universal viewpoint would have to see reality from all the individual viewpoints at once. Realism is therefore somewhat dangerous, because it creates a misleading illusion of objectivity. Art and theatre always represent – they never reproduce. Furthermore, the reality of someone’s social role is often how they are seen by their victims, rather than their self-conception. When people portray themselves, they usually use realistic images. When they portray an adversary, they use subjective, almost expressionist images. Michael Taussig suggests that Boal’s approaches are modernist or postmodernist, because they break up and play with narratives .
Theatre selects which human actions to represent. Boal suggests that passionate actions are those most worthy of artistic representation. Passion should be understood as a vital force: Passion is libertarian; it breaks down barriers and re-creates the world. True passion is total and unsubmissive. People spend too much of their lives suppressing passions – their own or others’ – or dressing them up. There is tragic passion, which justifies life – but Boal seems more inspired by the other type, “clownish love”, which alters life. Against religious objections, Boal argues that passions do not cause suffering. Rather, obstacles to passions cause suffering.
Boal argues that a character’s will, and not their being, is the crucial aspect of the dramatic action. Spectators should not ask “who is this?” but “what does s/he want?” This will should be something specific and concrete. The will is a concrete expression of a particular desire or idea. For Boal, it usually expresses a particular social dynamic. He argues that the essence of theatre is a conflict of wills. This conflict happens both internally – between the will and counter-will of a character – and externally, between characters. Actors should seek to seduce audiences into participating in the drama.
For Boal, incidents chosen for theatrical treatment should usually obey the three unities of time, action and place. Life-stories do not make good theatre and should be discouraged. Instead, narratives should be broken down into moments or incidents. The implication here is that life is a series of distinct molecular components, rather than a continuous, novelistic progression.
Situations of immediate aggression, with no plot development and few options (e.g. an arrest, execution, or rape), are not generally suitable for Theatre of the Oppressed. The lack of options might encourage resignation, and the only way to resist in these cases is physical. Rather, Theatre of the Oppressed concentrates on the events leading up to aggression. Boal also warns against the view that all situations have solutions.
The protagonist should have a will, which is precise and situated: a desire for a particular object or outcome. This will should be “necessary” or ongoing, not capricious. Boal links this to the idea of social needs. A good protagonist has a psychology which expresses a social function rather than an idiosyncrasy. It should be justified by the protagonist’s ethics. The oppressor characters must have similar wills, which are justified on their own terms, though unjust more broadly.
Suitable incidents involve a conflict of wills, not a simple self-realisation. This is one of the differences between political theory and theatre according to Boal. The various wills should express particular social forces within a situation which expresses a social structure. The best cases involve what Boal calls a “Chinese crisis” – at once opportunity and threat, like the Chinese characters for the word “crisis”. A conflict might, for instance, focus on a contradiction between will and external duty, such as pressure to do something unethical. In such cases, a “heroic” stance is encouraged, in which the protagonist stands alone in defence of principles and refuses to compromise.
Boal tries to find a balance between structure and flexibility. Punctuality should be encouraged (as a sign of “respect”), but its absence should not be punished. Concentration should be sought, but the relative chaos of community settings should also be embraced. Theatre requires a separate aesthetic space, to enable a reflexive seeing or listening distinct from immediate life.
Special techniques are proposed to create such a space. For instance, in a noisy setting, music can be used to create a separate sound-space. Boal says that games and techniques are similar to society: they have rules, but also require creative freedom. He emphasises the need to establish a creative atmosphere. Games should not be competitive, and should not be done with violence or cause pain. They should cause pleasure and understanding.
Theatre of the Oppressed involves less control and order than traditional theatre. But Boal also seeks to eliminate distractions which undermine the aesthetic space. He aims for a stage which is a distinct space, but also penetrable. Boal’s approaches tend to involve rules which function to enable rather than block innovation and play. The dialectic of rules and invention (conceived as both necessary) is central to their operation. Rules seem to be designed to create new settings with different dynamics, rather than to produce necessary responses.
Props are used in ways which break with habit, to increase sensitivity. Boal suggests that props are always “speaking”, in a similar manner to everyday objects. All objects on stage should have a definite use. Objects should also be transformed or “aestheticised” on stage. They should be used in different ways, so as to draw attention to their function. An object such as a telephone must be altered before it is used in a play. Otherwise, it carries the message of the shop or the designer, rather than the makers of the play. Boal encourages the use of “unusual objects”, which are out of place in a scenario. Their role is to cause a fissure in perception.
Objects should usually be aestheticised rather than naturalistic, to emphasise awareness of theatre as performance. But they should never seem expensive, so they feel within reach. The aim is to give the impression of a reality which is not directly present, but symbolised. In theatre, symbols and images are ‘polysemic’, with different layers of meaning covering further layers, like an onion. Some objects and images are designed to allow multiple projections by spectators.
For the other essays in the series, please visit the In Theory column page.