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Last Updated: 06/17/2003
Theatre of Peace: reflections.
Simon Stander

In the theatre the public gazes at a remarkable event, one based on conflict; but the audience of the theatre of war gazes at violent conflict. Is there some connection between these definitions of theatre that is more than semantic? Could there be a theatre of peace?

Theatre of peace: reflections


There are two main definitions of the word theatre. One refers to the place where you go to see a play or a dramatic event; the other is where you go to war or gaze at it as if in the theatre, as in the expression the “theatre of war”. The public willingly suspends its disbelief as it gazes at the actors on stage; the theatre of war demands an equal effort on the part of its audience, but this time it is belief rather than disbelief that is demanded of them.

In the theatre the public gazes at a remarkable event, one based on conflict; but the audience of the theatre of war gazes at violent conflict. Is there some connection between these definitions of theatre that is more than semantic? Could there be a theatre of peace?

In the theatre, peace, all too often, is more synonymous with death rather than life. As Shakespeare had MacBeth say:


            Better to be with the dead

            Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace.


But, then, Shakespearean characters all too frequently regard peace as a dull or, even, an uncomfortable interlude between turbulent times. In Henry IV Part I we hear the king complain about


                        The cankers of a calm world and long peace


While the ordinary man in the street echoes this same feeling in Coriolanus when war is in the offing:


Why, then, we shall have a stirring world again. This peace is nothing but rust to iron, increase tailors, and breed ballad-makers.


In due course, once Prince Hal has transformed himself from the playboy of the sceptr’d off shore isle to a marauding king, we hear him call his soldiery from peace to war:

                        In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man

                        As modest stillness and humility;

                        But when the blast of war blows in our ears,

                        Then imitate the action of the tiger:

                        Stiffen the sinews: summon up the blood.


As the TV news programmes geared up for the onslaught on Baghdad, the music became more strident, and you felt that the atmosphere changed to that urgent Shakespearean stiffening of sinews and summoning up the blood, prior to spilling it. Did the audience gear up to suspending its disbelief? Did it know what to believe or what not to believe?

                Many plays are more or less inconsequential. They may be humorous or witty or lightly satirical or generally “feel good”. This is light entertainment. By contrast genuine western drama leaves the audience exhausted. See how light your step is as you leave the theatre after sitting through Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or Rolf Hochhuth’s Deputy. Audiences choose to watch, playwrights choose to write and producers and directors choose to bring to living breathing paying congregations dramatised stories about a married couple tearing the other apart, about a desperate family in which the father finally commits suicide, about a religious leader revered by many millions who failed to face his conscience about the murder of a few millions of another faith.

One way we can cover the whole of the twentieth century and end up with a manageable number is to take the winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature as our guide, because, oddly, the list has few playwrights, barely one per decade, pride of the laureate places going mostly to poets and novelists. Of the playwrights who have been honoured, the Nobel Committee has leant heavily toward the maverick and the politically radical. Dario Fo who received the prize in 1997 and is best known for his forceful and bloody farces provides far from peaceful evenings as we laugh at the defenestration of anarchists. He can claim an honorable line back to the comedia del arte but then the original term comedy had little to do with laughing. Dante Alghieri made the word up from comus and oda to mean a rustic tale. Rustic tales have happy endings unlike tragedies, which have unhappy endings and middles and beginnings. Nevertheless Dante made sure that he took his reader through Hell before reaching a happy ending in Paradise.

          Wole Soyinka, heavily influenced by Ogun, a Nigerian God of War, was presented with the prize in 1986; he was educated partially in England, and is loosely in the Western tradition but he is also massively influenced by the Nigerian Yoruba culture. Imprisoned without trial for two years 1967-69 in Nigeria, his work increased in anger and pessimism as a result of his personal journey through hell.

        We now have to travel back nearly twenty years to 1969 to find our next man. (All Nobel playwright laureates are men.] Samuel Beckett followed few of the rules for the theatre. Nevertheless he fits our general mould for a playwright. He does not give us an easy time. The normal rules, such as they are, are suspended and replaced by a series of concrete stage images. No matter. Beckett always claimed that he had little talent for happiness and a kind of hopeless pointlessness undermined most of his work. The tale is often told of his visiting the man who stabbed him in the street. When Beckett asked why the man stabbed him, the criminal answered: “I don’t know”. Beckett claimed that this pointlessness was the most significant moment of his life. In many ways he has made a Beckett play one of the most significant moments for viewing audiences. Other proponents of the theatre of the absurd would have us recognise ourselves, and our oppressors, on the stage and in life. Antonin Artaud who sank into schizophrenic madness and Guy Debord who saw the whole of society as a spectacle and who shot himself with a P.38 had a go with not inconspicuous success in their own circles.

            Next we have two part-time playwrights, J P Sartre (1964) and T.S. Eliot (1948). Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral is a magnificent piece of work telling us of the murder of a to be saint by knights loyal to a particularly competent medieval war lord, King Henry II of England. The themes in this verse play are similar to those trapped in the same time zone by Jean Anouilh in Becket and James Goldman in Lion in Winter.  Sartre’s greatest work for the stage, and the least performed because of its huge cast and its length, is probably Le Diable et le Bon Dieu. This play, too, deals with another warlord, Goetz, who, during the Thirty Years War, found he did more harm as a monk, a potential saint and a man of peace than he did as a warlord. 

            Next is Eugene Gladstone O’Neill (1888-1953). Here we have a playwright in a genuine classical tradition. His Mourning Becomes Electra is based frankly on Aeschylus’s Orestia where he sets a rewriting of Agamemnon’s ‘welcome’ home from Troy at the end of the American Civil War. As we add Desire Under the Elms and The Iceman Cometh we struggle for peace of mind, or peace of any kind. Yet in 1936 when he received the prize he had not yet written his most gruelling play about a miserly father, a drug addict mother and a hopelessly alcoholic son and brother. That got its first performance after his death on 1957. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is as hellish as Huis Clos and a lot more real.

Perhaps the Nobel panel felt the depression of the nineteen thirties favoured the playwright, especially if jaundiced, because a second playwright received the accolade in this decade.  Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) takes us back to the theatre of the absurd with the author of Six Characters in Search of an Author and the (madness) of Henry IV. The agonising Sicilian is reported as having said in all modesty.  “I have tried to tell something to other men, without any ambition, except perhaps that of avenging myself for having been born.” One is driven to wonder what a room full of O’Neills, Becketts and Pirandellos might be like especially if Dario Fo wandered in and threatened to throw them out of the window. (This premise is offered to any budding playwright free of charge.)

On the eve of the First World War, perhaps with sharp prescience, the Nobel prize for literature was awarded to Hauptmann in 1912 and to the Belgian, Maeterlinck a year earlier. Both forcefully set out to challenge convention. According to Germany’s great poet Rilke, “Maeterlinck replaced action with inaction, events with the eventless and dialogue with an expressive semantics of silence.”  We might ask him to join the company of Beckett, O’Neill,  Pirandello and Fo and to do his best not to be cast from the window. Perhaps his best known work, now rarely performed, is The Blue Bird and was directed by no less a person than Konstantin Stanislavsky in Moscow and later played to wild acclaim in London, New York and Paris. He does provide some instruction for us. “Many a happiness,” he said, “as many a disaster can be governed by chance, but the peace within us can never be governed by chance.”

We have omitted only one other playwright from the list. George Bernard Shaw, the 1925 recipient, is one of the two Irishmen represented. The award came with these words “for his work which is marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty.” Others may have been more innovative or surreal or obscure but Shaw is truly satiric. At times he is monumentally powerful and destructive and honest. At times you can read or listen to Shaw and be completely taken by the way in which he appears to cut away the undergrowth to reveal the truth behind hypocrisy, cant and plain stupidity. At times he’ll do just about anything to get a laugh or a round of applause. And it is this jest, this lightness that undermines the seriousness of his intent. So it is that his antiwar play, Arms and The Man, was a comic romance labelled as a Play Pleasant and the blueprint for the musical The Chocolate Soldier.

When we go to the serious theatre we go, of course, to be entertained but we also go for more than that. We go to be purged, at least partially, of our fears and our guilt. We go to be made angry or to laugh, oftentimes uncomfortably. We go to have our emotions stirred, to fight inwardly, to boo, hiss, cheer or to lay the blame, to be more than we are rather than less, to have a score of lesser emotions acted out by those who are professional at it, to love and to hate. We do not go to experience peace nor do the producers nor directors nor actors or dramatists dream of offering it. We go for conflict because without conflict there is no theatre. However, this is a million miles from the theatre of war, which is solely based on violent conflict.

The other theatre for which we buy tickets reflects the society we live in. However, there is no evidence that playwrights have changed the world. In recent years Vaclav Havel wrote telling drama under the prevailing regimes in what was then Czechoslovakia. Later he became president of that country but he failed to keep Slovakia from seceding. He failed to get Czech industry to stop making the odorless explosive Semtex much beloved by terrorists. Playwrights generally do not change the world even when they become Presidents and write their own speeches.

As we live in a world marked by non-peace it is not surprising that plays in the western tradition are nothing if not based not only on conflict, but on violent conflict. There have been those who have argued that nature is harmonious and based on cooperation. But such writers (say, Kropotkin or Malinowski) are not as yet in the mainstreams of thought. Adam Smith claimed that the world, especially the world of Economics, was based on harmony but David Ricardo dispelled any notion that liberal economics was anything other than conflictual and competitive.  For most individuals in the Western world, the biological struggle for survival is merged with the competition that is inherent in liberal economic systems. All this is encapsulated one way or another on the stage when we go to the theatre. The theatre reflects a sad truth about our lives, our families and our society. Playwrights would have us live in conflict and only hope to die in peace, while almost daily we gaze at the theatre of war, not knowing what to believe or disbelieve.

There are those who argue, myself among them, that permanent peace is possible. Those with imagination may hope that the world can be so reformed that poverty, hate, greed, envy, lust for power and so on can be sufficiently eradicated that there is peace before death. Until then many of us will go to the theatre at intervals and reflect on some sad truths, but more often will stay at home and watch the drama performed in the theatre of war, and reflect on even sadder truths.