Politics And Theatre

PRAGUE: Recently I read an article headlined "Politics as Theatre", a critique of all I have tried to do in politics. Its argued that in politics there is no place for a realm as superfluous as theatre. In the early months of my presidency, indeed, some of my ideas had more theatrical flair than political foresight. But the author erred in one fundamental issue; he misunderstood both the meaning of theatre and a crucial dimension of politics.

Aristotle once wrote that every drama or tragedy requires a beginning, middle, and end, with antecedent following precedent. The world as the experience of a structured environment includes Aristotle's inherent dramatic dimension, and theatre is actually an expression of our desire for a concise way of grasping this dramatic element. A play of no more than two hours always presents, or is meant to present, a picture of the world and an attempt to say something about it.

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One definition of politics says that it is the conduct of public affairs, concern for them, and their administration. Obviously, concern for public affairs means concern for humanity and the world. This requires a recognition of humanity's self-awareness in the world. I do not see how a politician can achieve this without recognizing drama as an inherent aspect of the world as seen by human beings and thus as a fundamental tool of human communication.

Politics without a beginning, a middle, and end, without exposition and catharsis, without gradation and suggestiveness; politics lacking in a transcendence that develops a real drama using real people, into a testimony about the world is, in my opinion, a castrated, one-legged, toothless politics. I am not always successful in practicing what I preach, but I work for a politics that knows its matters what comes first and what follows, a politics that acknowledges that all things have a proper sequence and order, a politics that realizes that citizens -- without theorizing as I am now -- know perfectly well whether political actions have a direction, a structure, a logic in time and space, or whether they lack these qualities and are merely haphazard responses to circumstances.

On a limited stage, within limited time, with limited figures or props, theatre says something about the world, about history, about human existence. It explores the world in order to influence it. Theatre is always both symbol and abbreviation. In theatre, the wealth and complexity of being are compressed into a simplified code that attempts to extract what is most essential from the substance of the universe and to convey this to its audience. This, in fact, is what thinking creatures do every day. Theatre is simply one of the many ways of expressing the human ability to generalize and comprehend the invisible order of things.

Theatre, too, possesses a special ability to allude to and convey multiple meanings. Action shown on stage always radiates a broader message, without necessarily being expressed in words. It is a fragment of life organized in a way meant to say something about life as a whole. The collective nature of a theatrical experience is no less important: theatre always presupposes the presence of a community -- actors and audience -- who experience it together, and this sharing is an important part of the experience.

All these things have counterparts in politics. A friend once said that politics is "the sum of all things concentrated." It encompasses law, economy, philosophy, and psychology. Inevitably, politics is theatre as well -- theatre as a system of symbols addressing us as a whole, as individuals, and as members of a community, and testifying through the specific event in which it is embodied, to the great happenings of life and the world, enhancing our imagination, and sensibilities. I cannot imagine a successful politics without an awareness of these things.

The symbols that politics employs are by nature theatrical. National anthems, flags, decorations, holidays, do not mean much of themselves, but the meanings they evoke are instruments of a society’s self-understanding, means for creating awareness of social identity and continuity. Politics is also charged with symbols in other less visible respects. When Germany's President came to Prague, shortly after our Velvet Revolution, on March 15, 1990 (the anniversary of the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands), he did not have to say much because the fact of his visit on such a day spoke volumes. It was equally auspicious when the French President and British Prime Minister arrived on an anniversary of the Munich Agreement.

Symbolic political acts resemble theatre. They too involve allusion, multiplicity of meaning and suggestiveness; they too portray an abridged reality, making an essential connection without being explicit. They too have a universally accepted ritual framework that stands the test of time.

Even doubters cannot deny one aspect of theatricality in politics: the dependence of politics on media. Many politicians would be helpless without coaches to teach them the techniques of performing in front of the camera. All politicians, including those who sneer at theatre as superfluous, something that has no place in politics, unwittingly become actors, dramatists, directors, or entertainers.

The significant role that sense of theatre plays in politics is two-edged. Those possessing this quality can arouse society to great deeds and nurture democratic culture, civic courage, and a sense of responsibility. Such people can also mobilize the worst instincts and passions, make masses fanatic, leading them into hell. Remember the gigantic Nazi congresses, torchlight processions and inflammatory speeches by Hitler and Goebbels, the cult of German mythology. We could hardly find a more monstrous abuse of the theatrical aspect of politics. And today -- even in Europe -- rulers use theatrical tools to arouse the kind of blind nationalism that leads to wars, ethnic cleansings, concentration camps and genocide.

So where is the boundary between legitimate respect for national identity and symbols, and the devilish music of pied pipers, dark magicians and mesmerizers? Where do passionate speeches end and demagogy begin? How can we recognize the point beyond which expression of the need for collective experience and integrating rituals becomes evil manipulation and an assault on human freedom?

Here is where we see a huge difference between theatre as art and the theatrical dimension of politics. A mad theatrical performance by a group of fanatics is part of cultural pluralism, and as such, helps expand the realm of freedom without posing a threat to anyone. A mad performance by a fanatical politician can plunge millions into endless calamity.

So the drama of politics demands not an audience but a world of players. In a theatre, our consciences are touched but responsibility ends when the curtain drops. The theatre of politics makes permanent demands on us all, as dramatists, actors, and audience -- on our common sense, our moderation, responsiblity, good taste, and conscience.