Performance and Activism

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In plays, there is often a moment when one character turns to another (or several others), pauses, and says something along the lines of, “Did you know that…” followed by a fact or a statistic or a moral position. That’s the moment when I know I’m in trouble.

Because that’s when the play becomes about something. The drama mutates into edification, characters into mouthpieces, and monologues into sermons. That’s the moment when my seat becomes a pew.

I empathize with the writer’s impulse, guided as it often is by good intentions. But when these lead us down the road of didacticism or, worse still, demagoguery, we must be wary. Any attempt to substitute for the audience’s conscience ensures a work’s swift demise.

Perhaps a good first step is to encourage perspective over convictions, and trust that an audience will reach the same conclusions as the writer.

Thornton Wilder describes this with an eloquence that makes my heart ache: “If an author refrains from intruding his point of view, readers will be nettled, but will project into the text their own assumptions and turns of mind. If the work has vitality, it will, however slightly, alter those assumptions. I suspect all writers have some didactic intention. That starts the motor. Or let us say: many of the things we eat are cooked over a gas stove, but there is no taste of gas in the food.”

And, as shows like DV8’s “To Be Straight With You” or Victoria Theatre’s “Aalst” have shown, when that happens it results in powerhouse art.


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First Publication

Buddies in Bad Times Blog – February 2013