Theatre artists generally have mixed feelings when it comes to plays with political topics. So much of political art is badly done. Many writers and painters assume that their art will be compelling merely because it tackles political issues. They fail to do their work as artists, and the result is often a sloppy mess. There have been good political artists, Diego Rivera and Arthur Miller among them, but they did their work.
Being a lawyer, and coming from a family fascinated with law and politics, I cannot completely keep away from writing on political topics. Some time ago, I adapted Chekhov’s masterful novella Ward No. 6 as a stage play now called No One is Safe. It dealt with the taboo subject of mental illness, and made a number of people uncomfortable.
Despite what is bandied about, mental illness remains off limits in our art, politics, healthcare and national discourse. Nevertheless I came back to it with a new play called The President of France. It concerns a schizophrenic homeless man who struggles to survive on the streets. And while I have tried vigorously to do my work as an artist, the play’s biggest obstacle will be the intellectual laziness confronting it.
Intellectual laziness appears frequently in the places where it should not be. It is rampant in academia. As a boy in school, I became aware that a number of my teachers did not want me to learn. This caused me to lose interest in school, an attitude that lasted for years. But even at the college levels I have frequently found among academics closed minds and a resistance to learning.
Our politicians are also well versed in intellectual laziness. On the issue of mental health, they tell us, “You can do nothing with these ill people. They shall remain as they are. It is better to spend your tax money on other things, such as our pet projects.”
This attitude is unacceptable. In The President of France, I confront this laziness by adding even more challenges than usual. Among these challenges are the songs, which will cause great frustration to those people who love to pigeon-hole works of art. These people, of course, tell us that music has no place in theatre outside of musicals and operas, where it has the purpose of entertaining us, or putting us to sleep, as the case may be.
But I contend that music is essentially linked with theatre. Even in modern times, Bertolt Brecht made effective use of songs in plays that were neither musicals nor operas. In my new play, the songs do not merely replicate the spoken scenes. Instead, they come at the audience from separate angles, and force the audience members to both think more vigorously and see larger pictures.
As this play is propaganda, it calls for change. For the true political theatre does not consider change to be merely possible. It considers it necessary.