By Isaac Butler
Over at Howlround, Daniel Jones is yet again beating the drum for more "conservative voices in the theater." It's a well-meaning piece, but I'm not particularly sympathetic for two reasons.
The first is that theater has historically been the refuge of the kinds of people that the conservative movement was disdainful of, actively hostile to, or actively trying to oppress. As each of these groups has entered the mainstream, it's easy to foget about this, but I'd rather not. Theater and Conservatism aren't mutually exclusive, but they've historically been made up of populations at odds.
This is still true today. The Republican Party's official platform supports institutionalized homophobia. The theater community is pretty much inseparable from the LGBT community.
Hostility here makes sense, is what I'm saying. And you have to look at why that hostility is there before you accuse theatermaers of being chicken ("are theater-goers afraid to attend a performance that expresses views they do not agree with?") or try to use moral outrage over our divided country to try to move the needle on this one. (Also, equating conservative POVs with other voices that are often shut out of theatrical conversations w/o recognizing the very very different levels of power of those voices outside of theater is insulting.)
But also... and this is my main question when this comes up... what does conservative theater even mean?! What does liberal theater even mean? (I'll leave aside what exactly Jones means by "conservative" a term that's never defined but appears to mean "mainstream Republican")
I've actually written about this before, in a post I'm still actually proud of, so you can check that out here. I find that Daniel Jones is similarly muddled about what he wants. Does he want agit prop plays about abortion and Obamacare? Does he want plays written by people who self-identify as conservatives? Does he want plays where, in reading them, he feels like the subtextual assumptions are conservative in nature? And if it's the latter well... what about most of the classics?
Many plays from earlier times are conservative on at least some level, in that they take as their assumptions certain things we have now questioned or disrupted. Shakespeare's plays express heteronormative, conservative values about marriage (they also subvert them, but you don't have to play them that way). Chekhov's plays, you could argue, are anti-progressive, in that progress regularly appears to be impossible within them. Strindberg's views of male-female relations are pre- (and, many would argue, anti-) feminist. Many plays that seemed very forward thinking at somepoint now seem backward-looking, decades later.
Many new plays produced today are fairly conservative in their assumptions about class. The plays of Mamet and Rebeck are conservative on issues of gender (in fact, most plays in which there is some kind of battle of the sexes plot going on are conservative w/r/t gender, as they believe gender is a solid thing rather than a social construct).
If what Jones really wants is plays that are overtly conservative and agitate for conservative legislative goals re: abortion and Obamacare, all i can say is that what he's gunning for is more bad theatre. Most agit prop theatre is terrible, including lefty agit prop theatre.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention in the above that there are whole ecosystems of conservative theater that operate outside the LORT universe. The circuit of Black theater that Tyler Perry came out of is often incredibly conservative. And there is evangelical theater all over the country. So it looks like we have to define both "conservative" and "theater" in order to really have this conversation!