Radical Democratic Theatre

Fisher, Tony (2011) Radical Democratic Theatre. Performance Research, 16 (4). pp. 15-26. ISSN 1352-8165


The aim of this article is to interrogate the emergence of a form of participatory theatre that I shall call ‘radical democratic theatre’. The term ‘radical democracy’ derives in the first instance from the political theory of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, but in terms of its application to theatre and performance practices, it might well be drawn in relation to Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. Consequently, one useful starting point in grasping what is at stake when speaking of a radical democratic theatre is to trace the limits of Boalian thought by revisiting some of the theoretical assumptions upon which it stands. Two fundamental assumptions of specific concern have to do with (1) the nature of the theatre ‘subject’, as conceived by Boal, and (2) its relation to the political task of emancipation. Boal expresses this task in the following terms: ‘In order to understand the poetics of the oppressed one must keep in mind its main objective: to change the people – “spectators,” passive beings in the theatrical phenomenon – into subjects, into actors, transformers of the dramatic action’ (Boal, 2000: 122). To begin to approach the limits of this task, and probe what is implicated in its basic presuppositions, I want to focus on what will emerge as a significant theoretical difference over the way in which we might understand the nature and ambition of the strategy of ‘transformation’ – specifically, by drawing a distinction between the underlying aims of the Theatre of the Oppressed and the project of radical democratic theatre, as it might be conceived today. While Boal thinks the emancipatory potential of theatre predominantly in terms of freedom from oppression, by contrast, I will argue that the fundamental strategic aim of radical democratic theatre is not ‘liberation’ per se, but the destabilisation of the relational space in which political identities are first configured. Radical democratic theatre cannot ‘liberate’ anyone but it can destabilise the matrices of a given political distribution and in particular release thereby what politics has suppressed – first, antagonism and dissent, and second, forms of reciprocal action and empathic identification on which new forms of sociality might be based. The shift in perspective marked here can be thought as a move away from the classical focus of the left on emancipation from oppression to the problem of what Iris Marion Young calls ‘domination’, which suppresses, not freedom, but rather equality at the level of political engagement. Domination, she tells us, ‘consists in institutional conditions which inhibit or prevent people from participating in determining their actions or the conditions of their actions’ (Young, 1990: 38).

Placing the emphasis on equality, rather than freedom, by no means entails the denial of oppression. Rather, it signals the attempt to think emancipation beyond the classical rhetoric of revolutionary praxis. I will describe the possibility for this kind of strategic intervention, with reference to Michel Foucault, as necessitating, instead, the practice of the arraignment of power. It is this kind of idea that Randy Martin has in mind when, defending Boal’s legislative theatre from its critics, he describes how Boal was able to awaken a recalcitrant public to a consciousness of itself as the primal scene of the political, in which the ‘law can be interrupted, reversed, challenged’ (Martin 2006: 28). It is also, however, precisely here, where oppositional politics encounters the law, that the limits of this form of participatory theatre are disclosed. This is because it is precisely at the point where opposition moves from resistance to direct engagement with the structures and institutions of power that the democratic moment is most at risk of assimilation and co-option by the forces of the status quo. The
reasons for this are complex and unnerving – as Laclau and Mouffe have demonstrated through their astute critique of 20th century Marxism: ‘[there is] no subject’ they write, ‘which is absolutely radical and irrecuperable by the dominant order, and which constitutes an absolutely guaranteed point of departure for a total transformation’ (Laclau and Mouffe 2001: 169). I shall call this profound instability, which is constitutive of political identities, the ‘democratic limitation’. The democratic limitation refers to both the inherent volatility of political identities and to the impossibility of reconciling those social antagonisms, constitutive of the political field, according to a universal political settlement. Through this concept we will be able to discern, not just what makes radical democratic theatre and performance possible; we will also be able to specify in what sense it can be called radical insofar as it reveals the precariousness of every essentialist political discourse.


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