Through subtle parallels to our own lives and choices, literature can help us make sense of political upheavals.
Political science may help to solve some of these riddles, but far from all. For example, scholars may be able to argue that those disappointed or marginalised by the US political establishment voted for Trump’s promises. Or they could claim that people voted for the UK to leave the EU because it was seen as the project of a rich elite.
But they cannot fully explain why millions believe in “alternative facts”, or why the arguments for these are made so passionately. Perhaps unexpectedly, theatre can be an instrument for thinking about politics and making sense of Trump, Brexit and other political upheavals.
The type of theatre we’re talking about here isn’t Shakespeare’s historic plays or modern TV dramas in the style of House of Cards or The West Wing – they can make visible what happens behind closed doors. What we really need to do is take a step back to understand what is going on in the whole of society – and in ourselves. And it is theatrical comedy that opens up this way of thinking.
The Swiss dramatist and author Friedrich Dürrenmatt is considered an international writer of classic plays, but is popular only in German-speaking countries. However, Dürrenmatt can teach us how to make sense of irrational policies through the use of literature, and especially comedy. He shows us how everyone can use art to think politically.
Dürrenmatt’s position is that our complicated, chaotic world, where a clear morality no longer exists, has to be translated by literature into an understandable narrative. Theatre can represent certain aspects of the world and place them in a concrete story.
As the audience, we can step back from our own prejudices, and fear for or laugh at the figures on stage. In comedy especially, we can watch something we don’t need to take too seriously – only to realise afterwards that we behave in our own lives exactly as the characters on stage do. Our own frustrations and foibles are revealed to us as the play unfolds. By experiencing the drama, we have unwittingly considered, mocked and judged ourselves. Dürrenmatt once said: “I love to trick the audience into thinking about their own case, which is always political”.
So, how can this theory be applied?
Play for today
Dürrenmatt’s most famous comedy The Visit (1956) tells the story of Claire Zachanassian, a wealthy old woman who visits the now-impoverished village of her youth. She offers the villagers the sum of one billion Swiss francs under the condition that someone kills the owner of the village shop.
As a young woman, Zachanassian had loved this man, but he had jilted her when she was poor and pregnant. Now she wants to exact her revenge and see justice done. At first the villagers reject the immoral offer. But soon they start to talk about how the money could alleviate their poverty and suffering. Then, figuring they deserve it, the locals begin to buy expensive things on credit in anticipation of their wealth, making the shop owner increasingly nervous. In the end – spoiler alert – they accept the offer and kill him.
Of course, the comedy discusses big questions of justice, but as we watch, it mainly makes us laugh and judge. The characters on stage are portrayed in ridiculous ways: their obedient bow to the rich old woman is idiotic; their greed is farcical; their willingness to put aside loyalty is weak; their poor excuses for taking the money are laughable.
After the play ends, we may ask ourselves how we would have reacted to Zachanassian’s offer. We can use it to think about the choices in our lives, like accepting high-interest rates that are too good to be true from dubious banks; or voting for politicians who are only acting for those rich or British enough, or for parties advocating low taxation.
And suddenly all our usual excuses and justifications are toppled. In the course of the play we dismiss the villagers as laughable, ridiculous and shameful. But as Dürrenmatt claimed, we have been tricked into thinking about our own lives all along.
Through the parallels of the play to our own lives, we are led into thinking politically without the usual prejudices. Now we begin to understand why people believe lies and vote for irrational politicians. In this situation, it is easy to avoid responsibility with feeble excuses – because everyone’s doing it and it’s necessary to survive. It is possible to convince yourself to vote for a necessary evil, just as the impoverished villagers decided to kill the shopkeeper.
Appalling lies are swallowed in order to make the chosen evil acceptable. The people hit by Trump’s travel bans, or Britain’s European neighbours, are the necessary sacrifices for what surely must be the only option left, some might reason.
Literature in politics can only hint at how we should think. Otherwise, we repeat the problems of political science which is stuck with a rigid way of thinking designed to produce absolute truths. Thinking about difficult moral questions with the help of literature is more playful, and dissolves all limitations.
Taking literature too seriously – making messages absolute and ideological – would destroy this possibility. Instead, literature has to be vague, emotional, and open – used as an opportunity to explore our sense of morality and justice. Literature may not be able to fully explain Brexit, but it can help make sense of it.
Brexiteers are Claire Zachanassian figures in that they promise to save Britain and the NHS – if Europeans living in the UK and British people living abroad are made to suffer the necessary sacrifice. Like the villagers in the play we are then asked the difficult question, and the answer we give should help us see ourselves more clearly – if we are honest.