Theatre of the Oppressed

I have an ongoing project to upload recordings of seminal bits of theory writing to my Soundcloud account. So far I’ve made recordings of extracts from Peter Brook’s ‘The Empty Space’, Georges Perec’s meditation of urban space ‘Species of Spaces’, the first part of David Foster Wallace’s essay on Television ‘E Unibus Pluram’

I’m fairly happy with these but there’s one recording in particular that’s proving harder to get right. This is Augusto Boal’s introduction to his book ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’. I have put a recording of this up on the Soundcloud but I think it’s pretty hard work to follow. I’d like to do another at some point with a bit more explanation. Here’s what I’ve put together as my introduction to Boal’s introduction:

This is a reading from Augusto Boal’s preface to the year 2000 edition of his seminal work ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’, first published in 1974.

This preface can be seen essentially as a condensed version of the first half of the book in which Boal presents his understanding of the historical development of theatre. He sees the earliest origins of the theatrical event in the ancient pre-classical world in spontaneous revels and festivities linked to natural cycles of harvest and other communal activities. Boal suggests that it was as such festivities became formalised over time that drama became recognised as a distinct art form. The invention of the protagonist is another of the historical moments that Boal explores here – for Boal this is the moment that establishes the essentially dialectic nature of theatre.

I think it’s fair to say Boal is interested in a uniquely political history of theatre. To give a flavour of his political intent I’ll quote from his earlier preface to the 1974 edition of ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’

“This book attempts to show that all theatre is necessarily political, because all the activities of man are political and theatre is one of them.”

Boal argues that the Aristotelain tragic form is essentially conservative, operating to purge its audience of radical intent and so maintain the social status quo. Boal is searching for a more radical form. He sees Brecht’s work as a predecessor for his own work with theatre of the oppressed. So that’s Boal’s first project in this book – to trace the history of theatre as an art form, starting with the Greeks, from that kind of political perspective, and he finds that sometimes theatre has been an agent of political and social change and sometimes it’s been a way for those in authority to enforce the status quo – but we’re never really in any doubt about the kind of theatre that he himself wants to make.

What Boal was after with Theatre of the Oppressed was finding ways to use theatre to promote social and political change and the second half of the book can be seen as a kind of manual in which Boal outlines the different forms and techniques he developed to achieve this from the 1950’s onward. Specifically he discusses his work with newspaper theatre, invisible theatre and forum theatre in which the audience is encouraged to intervene in the drama as it unfolds. Boal coined the terms “spect-actors” (as opposed to specatators) to describe this active involvement on the part of the audience.


About hughchapmansblog

Poet and performance maker based in Cambridge and London

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