“A televised theatrical performance staged by the Democrats.” With these words, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes expressed his discontent with the beginning of presidential impeachment hearings. He indirectly invited listeners – both supporters and detractors – to consider the relationship between theater and politics.
As the hearings continue, it’s important to remember that theater is one of the most consequential elements in U.S. history, enabling the killing of a president, the election of at least two, and probably the impeachment of another.
This connection between theater and politics goes back to the earliest days of Western civilization. In the ancient world, people took to the stage as one of the earliest instances of civic engagement, telling stories that reflected their history as well as their cultural values. Athenians participated in dramas inspired by public debates as well as mythology. They laughed at comedies that made fun of recognizable politicians.
Throughout history, theaters have been places for the public to see what was happening, venues for transparency offering points of view on real-life scenarios. A “medical theater” was the setting for scientific observation in the pursuit of knowledge. A “theater of war” was a battlefield, a zone of undeniable realness, where a split-second decision could preserve or end a life.
There was little false or pretended about these kinds of theater, as my research on the role of performance in everyday life reveals.
Before print newspapers, radio and television, people learned about current events – as well as their histories – through performances and reenactments.
The importance of live, public presentation has not waned despite the arrival of new forms of media. Even today, the television news anchor seems to be an extension of the Homeric narrator. They entertain and educate us with their stories.
Nevertheless, numerous politicians, including Nunes, have expressed distaste for the presence of theater in the world of politics. Their aversion also has roots in antiquity.
Plato complained about the popularity of artists and fretted that a society that empowered a performer could not realize its potential. He worried that his ancient Greek world might choose to follow an illusionist, essentially the modern-day equivalent of a reality television star, rather than an educated student of politics.
Politicians as actors
As centuries passed, this early anti-theatrical prejudice hardened for some into a general public distrust of an industry and the people who worked within it, viewing them as making money from a lie by pretending to be someone else.
It is this negative labeling – theater as artifice or sham – that creates alarm when the idea of politics as performance enters the conversation.
You can sense the anxiety and hand-wringing when sociologist Richard Merelman, in 1969, linked theater and politics: “It is therefore with apprehension that I approach the question of the relationship between political processes and notions of the drama.”
However, I believe there is no reason to be alarmed or apprehensive about their union.
Many politicians are good actors. Regardless of political persuasion, they often conspire to make great theater. There are innumerable examples, including Rep. Joyce Beatty offering a master class in the performance of disdain by dressing down Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in his appearance before a congressional subcommittee in October 2019.
Power of visibility
It’s common for officials to be wary of having their actions dismissed or minimized as spectacle. As he began an inquiry into whether former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton improperly used personal e-mail accounts, former Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy declared, “I have tried to do this the right way, not with theater, not with theatrics. I have tried to do it without the drama.”
At its core, theater is the focused attention of an audience on a person or a small group of people. There is power in visibility, especially when the person on view understands the persuasive potential of performance. Playwright Oliver Mayer observed in 2016, “The training of theater professionals is essential for an understanding of politics. The knowledge of how to move people and how to be heard are some of the most profound things we can learn.”
The overlaps between theater and politics are everywhere: in political campaigns, presidential debates and, yes, congressional hearings. It was in the theater that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. It was because of their performance savvy that Ronald Reagan became “The Great Communicator” and Trump became president. A musical, “Hamilton,” inspired people of all ages to learn about the founding principles of the American republic.
Theater is part and parcel of politics. It can be criticized, but its essential role cannot be denied.
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