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Research in Drama Education, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2001

The Postgraduate Short Article Searching for the Marxist in Boal CARMEL O’SULLIVAN The Education Department, 3087 Arts Building, Trinity College, Dublin 2, Ireland (e-mail: carmel.osullivan@ tcd.ie)

This article will examine Augusto Boal’s relationship to and understanding of Marxism, and its inèuence on the development of his work. The position of Boal, whose thinking is heavily inèuenced by Brecht, will be examined in relation to basic Marxist concepts and principles to which Brecht is faithful but that are not reèected in Boal’s ideas, despite his insistence to the contrary. Boal’s ‘Marxism’ transforms Marxism into a doctrine of piecemeal reform. His reformist politics as reèected in his practice would therefore appear a negation of socialism as Marx conceived it. Whereas Marx was committed to gaining a deeper insight into the driving forces of the contemporary world as a means of changing the form and content of the whole of society, Boal’s approach appears to encourage people to look for that insight in terms of their own lives, thus effecting change for themselves, exercising an individualist attitude towards empowerment. It will be suggested that Boal seems to incline to an idealist method and this undermines all his claims. This would indicate a contradiction between the theory of Boal, supposedly informed by a socialist perspective, and the actual practice—which could end up more supportive of a capitalist regime than against it. ABSTRACT

Introduction Since the publication of his seminal text, Theatre of the Oppressed (Boal, 1979), Boal has rarely acknowledged any connection between his work and that of other theorists and philosophers, but the connections in many instances are undeniable, particularly in relation to borrowing from Brecht’s aesthetic, which is ultimately drawn from Marx. In Theatre of the Oppressed (1979, p. 84), Boal champions the cause of Marxism (as exempliéed in Brecht’s theatre) in contraposition to the idealist poetics of Hegel. He proclaimed his new theatre as ‘dialectically materialist’ (1979, p. 79), committing himself to the same fundamental materialist Marxist philosophy that inèuenced Brecht (Taylor, 1977, p. 61). He directly refers to and aligns himself with the ‘Marxist poetics of Brecht’ (see Boal, 1979, pp. 88, 92, 93, 95, 105). Indeed, he asserts that his theatre is a development of Brecht’s, which in turn was a radical change from the idealist philosophies of Aristotle and Hegel. In Aristotle’s poetics, the spectator delegates power to the dramatic character who thinks and acts for him/ her; in Brecht’s poetics, the spectator ISSN 1356-9783 print; 1470-112X online/ 01/ 010085–13 Ó 2001 Taylor & Francis Ltd DOI: 10.1080/ 13569780020031816


86 C. O’Sullivan delegates power to the character to act for him/ her but retains the right to think for him or herself. However, in Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, the spectator delegates no power to the character either to think or act in his or her place, but ‘he himself assumes the protagonic role, changes the dramatic action, tries out solutions, discusses plans for change—in short, trains himself for real action’ (Boal, 1979, p. 122). It is interesting that both Boal and Adrian Jackson, the translator of many of Boal’s books, now choose to distance the work from any association with Marx and/ or Brecht: he [Boal] eschews labels, carefully dodging questions which might pin down his current ideology or pigeon-hole it in a category of, say, ‘Marxist’ or ‘Brechtian’ or whatever; such limiting categories are inimical to the whole spirit of the Theatre of the Oppressed. (Jackson, in Boal, 1992, p. xxiii) In spite of this conscious effort on their part, Boal remains unquestionably associated with Brecht and Marx in the eyes of many supporters and practitioners of Theatre of the Oppressed (see Albuquerque, 1986, p. 457; Cohen-Cruz, 1990, p. 48; Taussig & Schechner, 1990, pp. 52, 55, 62; Wallis, 1993, p. 78). However, there tends to be a blurring of understanding in terms of aligning him with apparently contradictory philosophies, as illustrated by Drennan (1994, p. 299): Boal’s ideology is unapologetically Marxist; he is an intellectual, a scholar. His theories take as their point of dialectical departure Aristotle’s Poetics; his practice, Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares; both are considered intertextually with Brecht. In the context of Boal’s thought and play, terminologies which are often used unselfconsciously take on different meanings. The reader of this gamebook [Games for Actors and Non-Actors] must reèect on politics, psychology, sociology, aesthetics as well as the fundamental deénitions of theatre and drama. Boal’s is a didactic theatre with a mandate for social and political change. The apparently antithetical relationship between Boal’s originally proclaimed Marxist origins, the perceptions of his followers in this respect, and his actual theatre practice provide the focus of concern in this article. Discussion will centre predominantly on the extent to which Boal can be described as operating a Marxist method in his Theatre of the Oppressed, as originally claimed (Boal, 1979). Theatre of the Oppressed: idealist or materialist? The great scientiéc revolution of the seventeenth century produced a new materialistic science, whose ‘theories involved no purpose, no design, no God. We could understand the world just by taking into account the action of different bodies upon each other’ (Callinicos, 1995, p. 44). Thomas Hobbes and fellow Enlightenment thinkers extended this study of nature to the study of society, conceiving human nature as unchanging. As the Enlightenment theory of human nature was in the main a study of the mind, they viewed people’s passions and their thoughts as being of greater importance than their economic and social position. Thus, the enlightenment philosophers’ view was idealistic, centred on ideas rather than the material world, where ‘change was seen as a result of


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old ideas being discarded and new ones adopted’ (Callinicos, 1995, p. 46). Their philosophy paved the way for the intellectual framework of the early socialists. In his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx rejects the view held by Hegel and the utopian socialists that thought can be isolated from social practice. He felt that ‘thought can be understood only as part of social life, not as something which develops independently of that life’ (Callinicos, 1995, p. 78). For Hegel, argues Marx, the action of thinking creates the real world, whereas ‘with me the reverse is true: the ideal is nothing but the material world reèected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought’ (Marx, 1976, i, p. 102). Marx was impatient with the highly idealist philosophy which endeavoured to reduce everything to human consciousness (Callinicos, 1995, p. 15). He did not believe that human consciousness was irrelevant to change, but that ‘Consciousness can never be anything else but conscious being, and the being of men is their actual life-process’ (Marx, 1975, v, p. 36). Thus, human thought is a response to the problems posed by the material and social conditions in which people live (Marx, 1975,v, p. 36). It follows then that ‘the source of change is not the adoption by human beings of new ways of seeing the world. Rather, these new ways are a product of changes in material and social conditions’ (Callinicos, 1995, p. 78). Marx insisted that in developing their material production, people alter their actual world and also their thinking and the products of their thinking: ‘It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness’ (1975, v, p. 37). The implication, according to Callinicos (1995, p. 98), is that the beliefs which people hold will be formed under the pressure of the material and social circumstances in which they live. He contends that people are not ‘disembodied spirits living in some realm of pure reason’. They are struggling to exist in difécult conditions, and thus the beliefs they hold are attempts to make sense of their situation, and to guide their everyday actions. In the eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, Marx declares, ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’ (1975, v, p. 5). This is a direct attack on the young Hegelians who, according to Marx, attribute an independent existence to consciousness, and whose charge to change consciousness amounts to a demand to interpret the existing world in a different way. Callinicos (1995, p. 79) interprets this reasoning as: The belief that a change of ideas will transform reality simply produces a new way of looking at reality, which itself remains unchanged. Idealism is thus a profoundly conservative viewpoint, because it allows us to think that the battle of ideas is a substitute for the struggle to change the material and social conditions of which thought is a reèection. The characteristic feature of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed is a sharing of ideas in response to a presented stimulus. This may take many forms, such as the representation of an idea in theatrical format or practical intervention in a forum play or Rainbow of Desire technique (Boal, 1995a). But it does not conceal the underpinning philosophy that it is the suggested idea that will or will not determine change in any given situation. Where an idea ‘fails’ or is not deemed ‘progression’ by the spectactors, another one is proposed, and yet another, and so the work proceeds. Boal (1998, p. 9) clearly asserts that Forum Theatre creates good ideas. Thus, in line with Enlightenment philosophy and Hegelian idealist thought, change is perceived as ‘new ideas being adopted’.


88 C. O’Sullivan Participants are actively encouraged by the Joker, both before and after the presentation of a forum play, to think of ideas that might change the protagonist’s situation in the scene. The very fabric of Theatre of the Oppressed depends on ‘idealism’ in a utopian sense, supporting Saint-Simon’s belief that ‘Ideas are thus the motor of historical change’ (Callinicos, 1995, p. 49). Boal’s philosophy in this respect is in stark contrast to Marx’s conviction expressed above. One of the most explicitly stated aims of the Theatre of the Oppressed is that it allows participants to try out new ideas and thus initiate change from this informed perspective (Boal, 1979, p. 142). The concept of material and social reality as postulated by Marx does not have a bearing on Boal’s practice. Emphasis is placed on the realisation of people’s desires, needs or release from oppression (as they perceive it), within a theatrical moment. The development of critical consciousness is advocated in isolation and independent from people’s ‘actual life-process’ or ‘conscious being’, and contradicts Marx’s thesis, of which Boal was apparently supportive (1979, foreword, p. 97)—that it is not thought that determines social being, but social being that determines thought—thus indicating that there is a fundamental confusion manifest in Boal’s philosophy and its translation into practice. The oldest argument against socialism is that it is contrary to human nature (Harman, 1997). People recognise it as a good idea but because they believe that you can’t change human nature, socialism will never happen: ‘Any attempt to create a society free of poverty, exploitation and violence is bound to run up against the fact that human beings are naturally selésh, greedy and aggressive’ (Callinicos, 1995, p. 65). Marx however, cuts across this notion of an unchanging human nature in his sixth Thesis on Feuerbach where he argued that there is no such thing as human nature in the abstract; rather: as society changes, so also do beliefs, desires, and abilities of men and women. The way people are cannot be separated from the sort of society in which they live. So in order to understand how people behave, we must érst analyse the historically changing ‘ensemble of social relation’. (1975, v, p. 4) It is interesting that although Boal (1979, p. 96) appears critical of Hegel’s position in this argument, his practice reèects the idealist attitude that human nature is unchanging. Boal has interpreted Brecht’s rejection of the concept of human nature as unchanging to mean: ‘For Brecht, human nature does not exist’ (1979, p. 96; my emphasis). His failure to understand Marx or Brecht in this respect leads him to revert to his idealist leanings. For example, in Theatre of the Oppressed, the oppressor by virtue of his/her deénition as such, is perceived to be a particular ‘type’ of character, who will always remain that way, irrespective of what we do. The term ‘magic’ is cried aloud to reprimand participants who attempt to ‘breach the rules’ of the game and begin to explore the wider éeld of social and material relations that exist outside the ‘alienated’ domain of the workshop. Boal (1995b) cautions that it would be idealistic to attempt to change the oppressor’s attitude, and therefore, the emphasis is placed on changing our own beliefs and ideas if we are to effect change. This idealist, simplistic perspective makes no recourse to material reality or the dominant social relations in the environment in which the ‘situation’ takes place. It was illustrated in a recent example of a Forum Theatre session [1] where the oppressed person was advised to directly confront her conniving


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employer and demand increased pay. After a series of interventions trying different ways to back the bullying employer into a corner, the oppressed person succeeded in getting her way, and was granted an increase in pay. Such practice contrasts sharply with Marx’s hypothetical example of an employer who starts paying his/ her employees a higher wage, but soon he/ she may lose competitive edge in a capitalist economy and the industry will close. The argument is that it is not enough to change the apparent immediate oppressor’s ‘position’ as this is to completely and naively ignore the complexity of the wider social and economic reality (i.e. the effects of capitalism). In The Holy Family and The German Ideology, Marx lampooned the Young Hegelian’s belief that thought ruled the world. He wrote in the preface to The German Ideology: Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to get this notion out of their heads, say by avowing it to be a superstitious, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. (1975, v, p. 24) Callinicos (1995, p. 64) adds that ‘For the Hegelian left, all that people had to do to become free, was to think themselves free, to rid themselves of the “illusion of unfreedom”’. A similar mentality is endorsed in Theatre of the Oppressed where the protagonist is recommended to act upon an idea in order to free him/herself from their oppression; the underlying philosophy supporting the Hegelian notion of the supremacy of thought or the ‘idea’. On the one hand, Boal (1979, p. 87) appears critical of Hegel’s belief that the ‘passions transformed into habits were the motive forces of action’, yet, on the other hand, this criticism contradicts his actual practice, where the use of theatre techniques in isolation from any consideration of the dominant social and material order may lead to frustration when an individual ‘changes’ but inevitably the source of oppression remains the same. Although Boal (1996) may argue that their perception of the oppression has changed, thus potentially leading to improvement, Marx denounced such an idealistic approach, stressing that ‘ideas’ do not change reality. Referring to a project she worked on with young people using Theatre of the Oppressed techniques to deal with bullying, Poulter (1995, p. 15) remarked that the students ‘demanded to know if we were going to stop the bullying in their school’ as a result of the project. For them, it was not just a case of énding clever ways to outwit the tactics of the bullies and theatrically ‘solve’ the problem; they recognised that the school would have to deal with the issue itself if success was to be achieved, something that does not appear to concern Boal. Dialectics Classical political economists in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had identiéed the contradiction at the heart of society as the fundamental conèict of interest between capital and labour, but they could not explain why and how historical change takes place. Hegel further developed the concept of dialectic in order to understand the historical process. The dialectic is based on two assumptions: ‘all things are contradic-


90 C. O’Sullivan tory in themselves’ and ‘contradiction is at the root of all movement and life, and it is only insofar as it contains a contradiction that anything moves and has impulse and activity’ (Callinicos, 1995, p. 59). Hegel argues that beneath apparent opposition is an underlying unity: ‘Neither the one nor the other has the truth. The truth is in their movement’ (Callinicos, 1995, p. 59). Thus, Hegel’s broader argument would suggest that by concentrating on individual things, only the differences between them are perceived, whereas, if we examine things from the standpoint of the dialectic, ‘we see that they are all part of the same process: the truth is the whole’ (Callinicos, 1995, p. 60). Marx acquires this historical perspective from Hegel but where Hegel dissolved the antagonisms in the ‘Absolute Spirit’, Marx believed that there is no end to the contradiction: ‘It is the contradiction that leads to change—as the contradictions in feudal society led to the change to capitalism. And capitalism contains its own contradictions which will lead to further change’ (Callinicos, 1995, p. 75). Marx recognised that every class society is a unity of opposites: one class exploits another opposing class. This means that each class exists only in antagonistic relationship to the other: exploiter and exploited are mutually dependent on each other. Certainly, Boal was aware of the dialectical relationships between things (1979, pp. 6, 93) but unlike his contemporary, whom he respectfully calls his ‘last father’, Paulo Freire (Boal, 1998, p. 129), he did not infer the logical dialectical relationship between oppressed and oppressor in his practice. Freire (1972, p. 34) recognised that the oppressed must realise that the oppressor exists in a dialectical relationship with them; that without them the oppressor could not exist. The practice of Theatre of the Oppressed negates this praxis of dialectics, centring on individuals and the differences between them rather than focusing on the complex underlying unity that exists between oppressed and oppressor. Whereas Marx recognised that all things are contradictory, and contradiction provides the impulse for activity and change, as witnessed in the historical development of society, Boal’s techniques inherently deny the notion of the ‘unity of opposites’ in an effort to superécially ‘solve’ individual oppression. Emphasis is placed on the éxed, eternal nature of existing social relations as dictated in capitalist society, and rather than explore the dialectical relations as Hegel, Marx, Brecht and Freire did, Boal’s solution is to try to artiécially ‘dissolve’ the contradictions through reformist political approaches; thereby destroying the one mechanism that can, according to Marx, lead to change in social relations. Consequently, instead of developing increased understanding of the complex social and material relations in capitalist society, Boal’s participants are engaged in a struggle that involves them in seeking to regain their humanity through becoming in turn an oppressor of the oppressors, rather than as Freire (1972, p. 28) advocates, a ‘restorer of the humanity of both’. Historical Dialectical Materialism McLellan (1971, p. 196) argues that Marx’s materialist views on historical development are based on the understanding that the development of society is ‘determined by changes in its economic basis, in its forces of production and its corresponding relations of production’, rather than, as Hegel had argued, through the progress of the human mind. On questioning why the French Revolution of 1789, although it had seemed so


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progressive, failed to solve the inequalities in society, Marx concluded that the ‘contradiction between the principles of the state and the real life of the citizens … characterised a “merely political” revolution’ (Callinicos, 1995, p. 40). Although the theory of the political revolution proclaimed that it was open to everyone to emancipate him/ herself by becoming a bourgeois, in reality, not everyone could do so, and the inescapable outcome was the exploitation of one group in society by another. Thus, the external appearance of political equality was accompanied by real economic and social inequality: ‘For what good is the right to dine at the Ritz, if you haven’t got the money to pay for a meal there?’ (Callinicos, 1995, p. 42). Apart from Boal’s ‘theatrical’ solution of engaging in an evening of Invisible Theatre to allow one to eat at éne restaurants and not pay for the meal (Boal, 1979, pp. 144–146), his Theatre of the Oppressed techniques fail to recognise the contradiction between the political and economic aspects of the ‘dual revolution’—between the promise of liberty, equality and fraternity, and the real inequalities and exploitation of industrial capitalism. Participants of Theatre of the Oppressed are invited to engage in idealist theatrical activities aimed at ‘rehearsing for the revolution’ in a workshop environment with fellow participants and actors. While it may be perfectly feasible to proclaim or enact one’s freedom from oppression in such a setting, without any consideration of the dominant material and social relations, such an activity mirrors why the French Revolution failed to cure the ills in society. Marx argued that the most important characteristic of the next revolution would be ‘that it would be social and not merely political: it would not only proclaim abstract rights that in fact only a few could enjoy, but achieve a general emancipation by penetrating to the real life of man—his socioeconomic life’ (McLellan, 1971, p. 198). It has been claimed that Boal’s work, by focusing on personal experiences of oppression, fails to take account of the political context in which we operate and ignores the universality of such situations (Gillham, 1985). Ball (1995, pp. 84, 85) argues that Forum Theatre has frequently been used to explore personal and social issues, often ‘at the expense of an examination of structural issues and the effect which economic and political factors have on people’s lives’. This point is brought forcefully home when Paterson (1994) writes of the slaughter of eight street children in Rio during the Seventh Festival of the Theatre of the Oppressed (1993). He (1994, p. 43) records that Boal’s response was to invite the group to spend the day doing Image Theatre ‘as a way of representing our responses’. Thankfully, Paterson did realise the severe limitations of their contribution: ‘the murdering of children was but one of the intractable, systematic problems that no mere theatre image could eradicate or perhaps even effect’, but there is cause for concern when he adds, ‘Yet there remained, and for me remains, a belief—as Boal himself contends—that for there to be truly transformative macro-revolutions there will érst need to be truly transformative microrevolutions within individuals and communities. It is here that TO has a role to play’. The apparent futility of such an idealistic activity, described as a ‘truly transformative micro-revolution’, organised to ease their consciences and allow them to purge themselves of their emotions, the very emotions that might spur them to act, is revealed in a caption that Paterson himself wrote beside one of the pictures included in the article; it reads: ‘An Image Theatre piece, created by Douglas Paterson and Festival partici-


92 C. O’Sullivan pants, is rehearsed before a march downtown to enact the impoverished lives and killing of street children. Image Theatre became a mechanism for participants to élter their angry responses’. One wonders whether these festival delegates would have been more effective had they retained their anger and channelled their energy in more socially and politically productive ways, and not just engaged in a therapeutic exercise for themselves. Such a cathartic approach is in direct opposition to Brecht’s understanding of theatre for social change and contradicts Boal’s earlier sharp criticism in Theatre of the Oppressed (1979, p. 46) of Aristotle’s poetics in this regard. Social Relations of Production If, as Marx asserts, production is the most fundamental human activity, then it follows that we should give most attention to the ‘social relations of production’ and the way that production is organised when we analyse society. Marx would argue that ‘If production is a social activity, then it follows that changes in the organisation of production will bring about changes in society, and therefore, since “the essence of man is the ensemble of the social relations”, changes also in people’s beliefs, desires and conduct. This is the core of Marx’s materialist conception of history’ (Callinicos, 1995, p. 69). Boal appears to concur with this line of reasoning in Theatre of the Oppressed (1979), and yet the manifestation of this philosophy is not evident in his practice. There is no reference to or consideration of the organisation of the process of production or the effect of changes therein, which according to Marx is the érst stage of looking at people’s social relations and then at their beliefs and conduct. Theatre of the Oppressed tends to concentrate attention on individual expressions of oppression, isolated from the ‘actual life-process’ of participants. Since the end of primitive communism, people have lived in class societies, and therefore, it is important for the ruling class that the direct producers accept their ‘lot in life’. Marx believes that ideologies prop up class societies by misleading the exploited about their position in society, so that the social relations are seen as natural, inevitable, and instead of being seen as speciéc only to this period of human history, speciéc class interests are seen as universal human interests. Marx is not suggesting that the capitalist gains his/her proét by cheating the worker and paying labour-power less than the socially necessary labour time required to produce it. Rather, he argues that exploitation is nothing abnormal but a typical outcome of the regular workings of the capitalist mode of production. Thus, for Marx, the whole system of capitalism is exploitative by its very nature, whereas the Theatre of the Oppressed principally preserves the impression that it is corrupt or evil individuals who are oppressing protagonists in an otherwise fair and equitable system. Thus, Boal’s ideology contributes to sustaining the dominant relations of production, and by default, acceptance of the status quo. Emphasis is placed on reform rather than an overthrow of the existing system as Marx was committed to. Where Marx attempted to analyse the social relations of production through detailed critical, analytical study, and in the process demystify them, the contradictions inherent in Boal’s theory and practice only serve to conceal them further. Marx’s dedicated examination of ‘commodity fetishism’ and the rate of proét and surplus-value which conceal the real relations of production, contrasts starkly with


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Boal’s superécial treatment of social relations and oppression, demonstrating a complete lack in understanding the scientiéc basis of the subject. The Role of the Revolutionary Theorist Marx’s attitude towards the working classes was that ‘The task of the theorist is not to lay down the law to the workers, but rather to make sense of what they are éghting for, to show how they can achieve it’ (Callinicos, 1995, p. 16). He believed that as intellectuals, ‘artists and literati had some choice as to whether they would merely reèect the current alienation, encourage adaptation, or help to transcend it’ (Callinicos, 1995, p. 17). Boal (1992) theoretically commits to Marx’s principle here, particularly in relation to allowing people to attempt to make sense of their own situation, but it is in the application of his belief that he leans towards the érst two of Marx’s choices: reèection and adaptation. Boal fails to show people what they are éghting for or how to achieve it other than in an individualistic, idealist capacity. Thus, the dominant ideology reèected in the practice of Theatre of the Oppressed encourages ‘minor adjustments’, ‘little tweakings’ in individual cases of oppression, that allow the oppressed to be able to live with or bear the oppression more easily but have no connection whatsoever with the underlying reality inherent in the social relations of production. The status quo remains intact, if not strengthened. On a related point, commenting on the Paris Commune, Marx wrote: Insurrection is an art quite as much as war or any other, and subject to certain rules of proceeding, which, when neglected, will produce the ruin of the party neglecting them … Firstly, never play with insurrection unless you are fully prepared to face up to the consequences of your play. (1975, xi, pp. 85–86) He felt strongly that ‘to call to the workers without any strictly scientiéc ideas or constructive doctrine … was equivalent to vain dishonest play at preaching which assumed on the one side an inspired prophet and on the other gaping asses’ (Callinicos, 1995, p. 21). In applying Marx’s analogy, Boal would seem to do rather better than the masses in the foregoing description. Indeed, references to his status as just such an inspired prophet abound in the literature (Heritage, 1994; Paterson, 1994; Campbell, 1995a; Nash, 1995). A central concern of this article is that Boal’s entire system rests upon a haphazard ‘acquaintance’ with the ideas of a handful of, albeit key, philosophers and theorists, namely, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx and Brecht, chieèy expressed in his seminal publication Theatre of the Oppressed (1979). This text, however, lacks any sense of argument or constructive debate, and serves mainly to illustrate the divergence between Boal’s professed philosophy and his subsequent practice. It contrasts sharply with other Marxist scholars such as Gramsci, who was widely read in order to take on board the Marxist ideology and praxis to actively change the world rather than just interpret it (Salamini, 1981). Gramsci realised that it was not just what he read that was important but how he synthesised and modiéed these ideas in the practice of socialism (Davidson, 1977). Boal’s weakness in this regard points forcefully to the injustice of leading the so-called masses with tentative ideas lacking philosophical rigour. ‘Playing’ (in the sense of a double entendre) with people’s lives, whilst not fully committed or


94 C. O’Sullivan even sensitive to the possible outcomes, places Boal in a very capricious position. His practice negates Marx’s materialist theory of history where ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past’ (1975, xi, p. 103). In this way, he further aligns his practice with the idealist poetics of Hegel, and seals the ineffectual fate of the Theatre of the Oppressed as it continues to be conducted in a virtual vacuum. Social or Individual Revolution? In ‘On the Jewish question’, Marx argued that a mainly political revolution, such as that of 1789 in France, would liberate people only as ���an individual withdrawn into himself, into the conénes of his private interests and private caprices, and separated from the community’ (1975, iii, p. 164). ‘Only a social revolution which swept away private property and individualism could offer “human emancipation”’ (Callinicos, 1995, p. 18). In Theatre of the Oppressed (1979), Boal recognises that it is in the interests of the ruling capitalists to foster an environment where people are concerned with their own personal and private affairs, isolated from the community, and thus susceptible to manipulation by the ruling classes. He writes: the ruling classes pretend kindness and become reformist in critical moments; they give a little more meat and bread to the social beings who are workers, in the belief that a social being will be less revolutionary to the extent that he is less hungry. And this mechanism works. It is not for any other reason that the working classes in capitalist countries show so little revolutionary spirit, and rather prove to be reactionary, like the majority of the proletariat in the United States. They are social beings with refrigerators, cars, and houses. (1979, p. 97) Clearly, understanding the socially paralysing and alienating effects of purely political or economic revolutions, it is difécult then to comprehend how Boal’s practice has regressed from socialism into overt individualism, and in particular, his entry into the arena of mainstream political reformism through his latest adaptation of Forum Theatre, namely Legislative Theatre (Boal, 1998). Why Boal chose to reject his earlier beliefs in socialist Marxist principles based on the conviction that the relations of production in class society are ‘not relations between individual and individual, but between worker and capitalist, between farmer and landlord, etc.’ (1975, vi, p. 159), is somewhat of a mystery. However, what is abundantly clear is that he has turned his back on this philosophy, despite his continued insistence on being engaged in the liberation of the oppressed. His use of terminology has shifted from radical social transformation to individual empowerment, a notion that has been hijacked in the Western world by individualism and private notions of ‘getting ahead’ (O’Sullivan, 1998, p. 169). Freire emphatically rejects the concept of self-liberation or personal empowerment, criticising ‘this culture in love with self-made people’ (Freire, 1987, p. 109) where ‘self-absorption serves the capitalist system’s needs to divide and conquer


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common people, attempting to organise them into a commercial, conformist culture, contradicting the very individualism it proposes’ (Shor, in Freire & Shor, 1987, p. 111). A possible explanation for Boal’s shifting perspective could be related to the general swing in leftist politics in the last two decades. Callinicos (1995) argues that the events of 1989–1991 (the collapse of the Communist regimes in eastern Europe) strengthened the position of those on the Left, like New Labour in the UK, who argue that there is no alternative to market capitalism. One can only speculate that as a result of his vagueness and thus poor commitment to his theoretical stance, Boal fell prey to the ‘revisionist’ politics of the Left. Or it could be related to the situation that Freire (1972, p. 46) identiées when he refers to people who convert from being the oppressors to helping the oppressed. They are genuine in their desire for social justice but their preconditioned background instils in them a somewhat oppressive patriarchal attitude. Boal’s materially comfortable background and current lifestyle may place him in Freire’s category here (Campbell, 1995b, p. 118). Final Thoughts Many sociologists and historians will admit only that social conèict exists as an accidental phenomenon which can be eliminated by skilful ‘social engineering’ (Callinicos, 1995). They see society as essentially harmonious, a position reèected in the confused ideological underpinning of Boal’s practice, whereas Marx ‘conceived society as a unity of opposites, of which the class struggle was an essential part, and would continue until the basic contradiction, the exploitative social relationship at the heart of society, was eliminated’ (Callinicos, 1995, p. 76). Hegel’s third stage in the dialectical process was the unity of opposites in Absolute Spirit where the contradictions are dissolved into each other, essentially as in a Theatre of the Oppressed workshop where the oppressed, seeing things in a different way, continue life much as before but now apparently ‘empowered’ and released from their oppression. For Marx, ‘contradictions can only be overcome through struggle … and the antagonism between wage-labour and capital is no mere illusion; it cannot be abolished through some mental change, some different way of seeing things, but only through revolutionary social change’ (Callinicos, 1995, p. 76). The fundamental difference between Marx and Boal is revealed in this statement. It would appear that Boal has shifted quite signiécantly from the radical socialist position he at least appeared to support in his early writing (1979) to the strongly reformist bureaucratic stance he currently adopts, and has done so now for quite some time. Callinicos (1995, p. 11) insists that one cannot accept Marx’s scientiéc theory and reject his revolutionary politics: the two go together. That is the fundamental point about Marxism—it is, in Antonio Gramsci’s words, the philosophy of practice. Gramsci started to unite his ideological stance with a practical approach early in his career, and ‘This uniécation was what enabled him to start creating useful theory for the working class’ (Davidson, 1977, p. 82), a process that Boal, sadly, seems not to have understood. His inadequate attempts at theorising openly contradict his practice, and are thus so misleading and vague as to be destructive and manipulative. It would appear that he has fared well from being associated with the ideas of Brecht and Marx, who devoted their


96 C. O’Sullivan lives and careers to the cause of the socialist revolution. He adds little or nothing to existing theory or practice. His buzzword is ‘theatre for social change’ and apart from its continuous utterance by devoted acolytes, it remains a vacuous phrase, in sharp contrast to its worthy meaning for both Brecht and Marx. Note [1] This session took place during the 8th International Festival of Theatre of the Oppressed, held in Toronto, Canada in July 1997. References ALBUQUERQUE, S.J. (1986) Conèicting signs of violence in Augusto Boal’s Torquemada, Modern Drama, 29, pp. 452–459. BALL, S. (1995) The inèuence of Boal on Theatre in Education in Britain, Contemporary Theatre Review, 3, pp. 79–85. BOAL, A. (1979) Theatre of the Oppressed (London, Pluto Press). BOAL, A. (1992) Games for Actors and Non-Actors (London, Routledge). BOAL, A. (1995a) The Rainbow of Desire, trans. Adrian Jackson (London, Routledge). BOAL, A. (1995b) Public lecture with Augusto Boal at the International Students’ House, Great Portland Street, London, 24 October. Organised by the London Bubble Theatre Company. BOAL, A. (1996) Rainbow of Desire Workshop, 28 October–1 November 1996, at the Toynbee Studios, Commercial Street, London. BOAL, A. (1998) Legislative Theatre (London, Routledge). CALLINICOS, A. (1995) The Revolutionary Ideas of Marx (London, Bookmarks). CAMPBELL, A. (1995a) Falling or èying? A meeting between forum and opera (Ford Open Prison, July 1992), Contemporary Theatre Review, 3, pp. 39–49. CAMPBELL, A. (1995b) Questions from Rio, Contemporary Theatre Review, 3, pp. 109–119. COHEN-CRUZ, J. (1990) Boal at Nyu. A workshop and its aftermath, TDR, 34, (T127), pp. 43–49. DAVIDSON, A. (1977) Antonio Gramsci: towards an intellectual biography (London, Merlin Press). DRENNAN, B. (1994) Games for Actors and Non-Actors [a review], Theatre Review, 46, pp. 299–300. FREIRE, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (London, Sheed & Ward). FREIRE, P. & SHOR, I. (1987) A Pedagogy for Liberation: dialogues on transforming education (Basingstoke, Macmillan). GILLHAM, G. (1985) Editorial, SCYPT Journal, 14. HARMAN, C. (1997) How Marxism Works (London, Bookmarks). HERITAGE, P. (1994) The courage to be happy. Augusto Boal, Legislative Theatre, and the 7th International Festival of the Theatre of the Oppressed, TDR, 38, (T143), pp. 25–34. MARX, K. (1975) Collected Works (London, Bookmarks). MARX, K. (1976) Capital (Harmondsworth, Penguin). MCLELLAN, D. (1971) The Thought of Karl Marx: an introduction (London, Macmillan). NASH, D. (1995) The rainbow of desire: the Boal method of theatre and therapy [a review], New Theatre Quarterly, 11, p. 400. O’SULLIVAN, C. (1998) (Re)Laying the foundations for a child-centred curriculum in drama and education, in: C. O’SULLIVAN & G. WILLIAMS (Eds) Building Bridges—laying the foundations for a child-centred curriculum in drama and education (Birmingham, National Association for the Teaching of Drama). PATERSON, D.L. (1994) A role to play for the Theatre of the Oppressed, TDR, 38, (T143), pp. 37–49. POULTER, C. (1995) Playing the (power) game, Contemporary Theatre Review, 3, pp. 9–22. SALAMINI, L. (1981) The Sociology of Political Praxis: an introduction to Gramsci’s theory (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul).


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T AUSSIG, M. & SCHECHNER, R. (1990) Boal in Brazil, France, the USA. An interview with Michael Taussig and Richard Schechner, TDR, 34, (T127), pp. 50–65. T AYLOR, R. (1977) Aesthetics and Politics (London, Verso). WALLIS, M. (1993) Games for actors and non-actors [a review], Theatre Research International, 18, pp. 78–79.


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