The Power and Failure of Art Under Oppression — A Story from Ancient Greece and Modern America

I want to tell you a story I first read in Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. A story that stuck with me long after, and helped shape how I think about art and art’s role in liberation. It is the story of Thespis and the birth of the protagonist, but it is also the story of theatre as a weapon, one that would be used in many different hands and not always for the right cause.

Thespis of Athens was one of the most well regarded singers in the chorus. Back in those days, Greek theatre was nothing like what we call theatre now. It was the age of the dithyrambs, the hymns sung in unison by the chorus. Evolving from the songs and celebrations of the harvest, the chorus sang familiar, unchanging hymns to the gods. The audience knew what it was expecting each time, it knew the stories that were coming and the morals and traditions they imparted. One did not go to the theatre to think, one went to relax and be reminded of what one already knew.

Athens had changed a lot by this time. It was now a dynamic city of competing philosophers, lawmakers and tyrants. Despite the gulf of history between us, many of those movements would look familiar to us, especially those that currently carried the most clout. Men like the lawmaker Solon who legislated against the moral and economic decline of the city and created the basis of what would become Greek democracy. Solon and his contemporaries argued the merit of free markets and the importance of an economic meritocracy. Solon could also be very progressive, for example his controversial policy that forgave all debt for everyone in the city. At the same time there was no willingness to then tackle and dismantle the larger systems that had created that debt in the first place, and that quickly lead to those forgiven becoming trapped once again. The old nobility of birth had been replaced by a new nobility of money. The best choruses of Athens received funding from the richest members of this new aristocracy, who in turn received tax credits for their service to the community. Theatre was part of Athens, but the idea that it was a direct part of the important work of Athens was absurd.

On this night, Thespis stood in the chorus, prepared to sing the prepared and expected answers to the prepared and expected questions the chorus was about to sing. The audience watched, content in complacent enjoyment. It was then that something in Thespis snapped. Something within him compelled him to move, to change. Whatever that something may have been, the result was like nothing seen before on a Greek stage. Leaping out of the chorus, Thespis shouted “NO” to the question the rest of the chorus was politely singing their “yes” to. The audience gasped as Thespis continued, moving about the stage contrary to the rest of the performance. Not having any prior experience to draw on, the rest of the chorus simply continued their performance as normal, not deviating or stopping once. Thespis responded by loudly and aggressively commenting on everything they said. Challenging every moral put forward, doubting every myth, free associating every current event in Athens to the legendary stories on stage. In one moment, Thespis had invented the protagonist. The being on stage that stands alone, that controls the story, that engages the audience directly in a way a unified chorus never could. The protagonist could not exist without the chorus, but there was no question who commanded the stage.

After the show, despite the grumbling of some traditionalists, the audience and other actors celebrated and cheered this daring display. Never before had any of them been moved by theatre in such a way. Never before had a night at the theatre been so gorgeously surprising. Thespis knew he had struck on something. It was from this cloud of giddy triumph that Thespis returned to his dressing room to find himself greeted by none other than Solon. The great lawmaker had been in the audience, silently taking in everything, and now he had words for Thespis.

“Are you not ashamed?” Solon asked the actor. “You ruin a lovely performance, and for what? To condemn good morals? To insult good stories? To debase everything we have been told? To obscure the truth we all know with your lies?”

“But I do not lie, I am merely playing. I have transformed the stage to a place where the protagonist can challenge everything, can play with any idea. If what I say on that stage is ever not true, it is not me lying but me playing a game in a false reality where one can challenge truth. This is now a space to engage with truth as we’ve never been able to do before.”

“Regardless of who you really are, when you take on that role on the stage, you become a liar, and a danger to Athens. The people will not understand your game, they will not understand your ideals. They will only see that someone on stage has said these things, and they will then believe they can say them too. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what you say in your game, what matters is the message that anyone can speak. That it is possible for anyone to say something. This is a message that cannot be tolerated. You cannot do this again.”

Solon then perhaps overplayed his hand. He turned back to stubborn, triumphant Thespis and gave a more specific threat.

“When Prometheus gave fire to humankind, the gods chained him to a rock and tortured him with vultures for all time. Imagine what your lords could do to you if you gave my city a tool more dangerous than fire.”

If anything can sway a successful, stubborn artist, threats from above is not one of them. Thespis’ audience demanded he perform in this new manner again the next night. Though rightfully terrified, Thespis’ resolve was only hardened by the combination of adulation and unjust threat. Thespis’ great contribution to the stage would remain, but he would have to become more clever in order for it (and himself!) to survive.

Thespis created a new art to aid the performer in this role. If Solon’s problem was that the audience would believe the stage was reality, then Thespis would obscure that reality further, and create plausible deniability. Thespis would create the mask and costume the performer could wear to disguise himself. “This being, which looks like me, is not me.” He created the actor, to further separate the stage from reality. “You know me as Thespis, but at this moment you also know I am in fact someone else.” Ironically, this new creation made his work even more of a lie than the unbridled truth he had let forth the night before, but it was a lie the lords of Athens could only grumble at without cause for action.

But Solon was not the only man to dislike this new art. Even as the audiences poured in to the theaters, even as ticket sales rose higher and higher, even as Thespis’ triumph was praised all over Greece, his patron, Maecenas, stewed. Athens was a city of money and politics, and theatre was made possible only by the patronage of the wealthy merchants and banks. Maecenas was no draconian lawmaker. Maecenas was cultured, educated, cosmopolitan, liberal and clever enough not to come at Thespis with threats.

“Thespis, darling! Your work has never been better. The ‘protagonist’! Amazing! The ‘actor’! Transcendent! You have changed art forever. Already, young dramatists begin to call themselves ‘thespians’ in your honor.

That is why I am here with you today. I am not an artist, only a producer, and I would not DREAM of telling you how to perform your art. That is not my place. But at the same time, I hope you can see the puzzle I am in. People see my name on your work, and they assume the words you say are my own. They are not cultured, like you and I are. They do not understand you like I do. I have to be careful, because even if I see the value of your new art, I cannot always risk funding it. It would be such a shame if Thespis’ grand work faded into obscurity because I was no longer able to promote it. Such a shame, indeed. Luckily, while I am no actor, I AM a producer, and I know how we can solve this problem.

“You should be free to improvise every night as your protagonist, just as your producers should be free to not fund things that might be misunderstood or get them in trouble or go against their own feelings. Bring me a written script of your improvisations ahead of time, I will read it to make sure I am not going to be surprised, and if I approve, I will give you my money. If not, then you are still free to perform! On your own. Perhaps on the street, so long as you are careful to avoid the lawmakers (it is such a shame I wouldn’t be able to protect you outside this theater).”

Where tyranny had failed to censor, capitalism had succeeded. A censorship that hid itself well. Thespis and the thespians that followed were still free to improvise, and the market was free to publish or punish as they desired. There would be no free art, so long as the freedom of the market was the biggest concern for the rulers of Athens, but to anyone watching it would appear to be a voluntary subjugation undertaken by the artists themselves.

It is a story that had happened before, outside of Greece, and would happen again many times. It would happen in Japan, where the brilliant Okuni created a new theatre, free from law and caste, that scared the Shogunate so much they banned all women from the stage and legally classified all musicians as prostitutes. It would happen in England, where Shakespeare’s daring counter-culture work was intimidated and brought to heel before the monarchy. It would happen in America, when a fake beaver on stage enraged the US government so much they shut down the Federal Theatre Project. But none of these stories end there. Because Solon and Maecenas were not the only grand thinkers of Athens moved to action by Thespis’ discovery.

As the theatre grew in popularity, the philosophers of Athens could not keep ignoring it as though it was mere “peasant dance.” Plato reacted first, and with a hatred so strong and terrified that people would not even have a word for it until Sartre. To Plato, theatre was an existential threat. Plato’s world was one of absolutes. A world where there were objectively correct forms of everything (Platonic ideals) and society was no exception. People lived in a false world that only reflected the objective, true ideals Plato knew must exist, and this theatre and poetry was but a reflection of a reflection. It was debased, it pulled people even further away from truth, and it would have no place in Plato’s vision of a perfect Athens. More than any other philosopher of his age, Plato railed against the theatre and condemned it. The more he did so, the more he looked like a fool to anyone not hoping to be his disciple.

Plato was a wise man, but not a particularly clever man. His contemporary, Aristotle, was both. Aristotle watched as Plato flailed against Thespis’ new art. Finally, Aristotle came forward, “my dear friend Plato is close to the truth. Art is not reality. But it is a mistake to think that it has no place within reality, just because of that. The ideal society should not shy away from this new theatre, but embrace it. Embrace it and use it.

“The common man, filled with confusion and conflict, goes to the theatre. They see the protagonist, engaging in actions that they cannot do in reality. They place themselves into this false reality, feeling everything the protagonist does as if they did it themselves. They feel the protagonist’s triumphs and failures as if it was their own. If theatre is done correctly, the common man is then able to feel a release from their conflict. They feel catharsis. They get to engage in the debased morals and rebellions that we would not want good citizens to indulge in outside of the stage’s false reality. Then, good theatre would give the protagonist a chance to repent, or suffer for their sins. The audience would repent with the protagonist, or suffer with one who refused, and would again feel catharsis. Without realizing it, the citizens would be trained in proper behavior, and in acting out rebellion would walk away with a desire to conform.”

Aristotle’s view was popular, though not universal. Indeed, most later tyrants would follow the thinking of Solon and Plato, and in doing so would unknowingly give art more power. For art’s power is strongest when it is feared. But sometimes in history, a clever tyrant would follow Aristotle. Those were the moments when artists who wanted to use their work for change would have the hardest time.

In our time, it is hard to say exactly when a more Aristotle-esque view achieved a stronger hold among our own tyrants. It was there when the young, college-educated proponents of American exceptionalism and the free market joined the CIA, and convinced the fearful old men above them to sponsor the painters and dramatists they had spent the past decade fearing. It was there when Rockefeller tore down Diego Rivera’s mural. It was there when two young Jewish immigrants named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the first new god of the 20th century, and in order to survive had to sell him to a corporation for a mere $130. It was there in the disenfranchisement of black writers, artists and cartoonists. It was there as it erased women artists and writers, and then argued they had no history of their own but could “join in” the great work of men if they were willing to behave. It was not the only view, and the Plato-esque terror at art and artists still holds sway among some even today, but the more clever, sinister tyrants have had many successes.

Today, celebration of art is everywhere. No longer seen as a path to becoming degenerates and drop-outs, it is the dream of every young child to be an actor, a cartoonist, an animator, a graphic novelist, an anime voice-over, a game designer, a comedian, a creative, a youtuber, a content creator. The new Maecenas has learned a great deal since that first compromise. Now he is able to convince new artists to pay HIM in exchange for being produced. The new Aristotle tells their audience to consume these stories that the desperate artists have sacrificed so much to get produced. To consume the stories and live them as their own. Scared of fascism? Live the life of an plucky orphan, chosen for greatness. Resist through the wizard boy, the empathic gem child, the space rebel, the super hero. Resist through them, feel their struggle as your own, and walk away soothed. So even work that could be used to think and challenge becomes a tool to stop thought and stop conversation.

The jester has no power. It does not matter if they mock the king, as long as the king remains king. If the king can convince people the jester matters, it can protect them. So the jester mocks the king, mocks his name, mocks his bad ideas and policies. The jester HATES the king. But then the jester sees the coming mob, and instead of seeing the downfall of the king they claim they are mocking and fighting, they only see the loss of their place in the castle. So the jester mocks the mob, mocks the those protesting tyranny, and tells themself that there is no other way, that the king would be defeated if only they had listened to him. They watch the king send out soldiers to slaughter the people, and, despite themselves, the feel at ease. If the jester was a threat, they would have no job. If the Daily Show was any threat to power, it would not be allowed on the air.

The new Maecenas and Aristotle laugh, dropping bread crumbs in the form of “gay Iceman! Muslim Ms Marvel!” only to turn around and donate a million dollars to Trump. They turn journalism into media, making the consumption of news and data as cathartic as “good” theatre. They trick the oppressed and the desperate into fighting harder to get “representation” in these false realities than they fight to get funding and support for fellow oppressed and desperate artists. They trot out the occasional Plato to say, “look! It matters! Look how scared this man is of you, the jester, the poet, the thespian!” The truth is, the tyrants do not currently fear art.

But they should.

Make them fear it again. Make them fear you.

The reality created on the stage, created on the page and even in the digital spaces of your computer still have power. Do not mistake that power for the ability to enact great universal change, to instantly bring down tyrants or to sway the hearts and minds of bigots. No, the power of art is that it creates spaces to think, to connect, to challenge and to train. To take the stories and say “this is possible.” To resist the easy catharsis of “I am Harry Potter, I support the democrat Khaleesi” and ask the harder question, “WHY do I see myself in here? What about this false world do I want to see in mine? How can I then work to achieve that?” Any cathartic art can be made powerful, if the audience is willing to become artists themselves. Any rebellious art can be made toothless, if the audience decides to remain passive.

Make them scared of the artist again. Make them scared of the audience again.

Make Athens burn itself until we are all free.

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