Theatre in a Post-Truth World: Text, Politics and Performance

Edited by William C. Boles
240 pp. UK: Methuen

Reviewed by Katayoun Salmasi*

The truth is rarely pure and never simple.
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

In an age where truth can be elusive, a recent volume edited by professor William C. Boles of Rollins College in Florida — Theatre in a Post-Truth World: Text, Politics and Performance, —examines contemporary theatre’s role as reflector and challenger of this reality. A collection of scholarly articles, this book explores the relationship between performance, narrative and politics, highlighting the stage as a critical arena for comprehending a reality where facts and political stories collide.

The anthology opens with a brief introduction by Boles laying philosophical and historical groundwork for the ensuing discourse. This section excavates the term post-truth, unearthing its etymological roots and presenting it as a seed germinating long before it sprouted in the modern lexicon. The introductory chapter engages the reader in a reflective analysis of Socratic teachings and Machiavellian strategy. It traces a lineage that leads to George Orwell’s 1984 and the political ploys of recent world leaders.

Boles recalls Ronald Reagan’s role in shaping a government that often valued storytelling over factual truth. He notes that Donald Trump continued this trend, prioritizing audience and ratings over accuracy which fostered an electorate that often seemed indifferent to government truthfulness. This analysis of post-truth provides a thorough understanding of its impact on our socio-political landscape, highlighting its influence on political rhetoric and the fabric of contemporary public discourse generally.

Moving to theater specifically, Heidi E. Bollinger explores the play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith, which revisits narratives around the Rodney King beating trial and the unrest that followed. Bollinger examines the play’s significant role in ongoing dialogues about race and justice. She highlights how Smith’s play, composed of different personal accounts, offers a window into the fragmented reality of a community in turmoil, reflecting the way “contradictory and often dubious perspectives without a definitive verification or refutation” intersect. Bollinger underscores that Smith’s technique of assembling contrasting viewpoints foreshadows the challenges of distinguishing truth in the flood of information and misinformation that defines the post-truth era. The essay presents the play as a critical medium for dissecting and understanding the layered and often conflicted nature of truth concerning societal events.

In the second chapter, Mamata Sengupta delves into the thematic heart of Caryl Churchill’s Glass, Kill, Bluebeard’s Friends and Imp, which collectively premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2019. Sengupta explores Churchill’s poignant examination of truth’s plasticity against a society steeped in the post-truth phenomenon.

Bluebeard’s Friends critiques the market value of narrative over actual veracity, revealing modernity’s moral disengagement. Glass portrays truth’s fragility through the metaphor of a young girl made of glass, susceptible to the distorting forces of narrative manipulation. Kill reflects the existential anguish in the search for incontrovertible truths within a maze of conflicting realities. Sengupta claims these plays offer a profound commentary on the post-truth era’s blurred lines between subjective interpretation and objective reality: “In a culture of counter knowledge, the truth suffers, and the metaphor of the glass girl, vulnerable and easily  shattered, serves to underline this point.” The author argues that Churchill’s characters maneuver through a landscape where myths are malleable. The truth is as fragile as glass, easily fragmented or remolded to suit the contours of contemporary discourse.

Editor Boles takes on broader themes of democracy and truth in the context of the Trump era’s “alternative facts” in the following chapter. He himself dives deeply into Soft Power by David Henry Hwang and Shipwreck by Anne Washburn. Boles considers how Soft Power envisions a future when China reshapes American historical narratives, and how Washburn’s Shipwreck critically examines the integrity of Trump-era presidential discourse. Through his analysis, Boles encourages audiences to actively dissect and question the staged narratives, mirroring the distortions present in real-world political discussion. His commentary critiques the transformative power of theatre to spark critical thought about truth in our contemporary, complex political landscape.

In the chapter “Negotiating the Fifth Wall,” Lynn Deboeck discusses how politicians and public figures build a metaphorical “fifth wall” to shield themselves from direct inquiry and control the narrative during public performances such as press conferences. Deboeck suggests that this wall allows them to deflect and distort questions, manipulating public perception actively. Through specific instances from political events including the Trump administration’s tactics, she illustrates how this strategy actively obscures the truth and stifles public debate, contributing to the spread of disinformation and a post-truth political climate. This manipulation by politicians actively undermines democratic discourse and can open a path to autocratic rule.

Victoria Scrimer’s essay examines the nuanced process of transforming the US Mueller Report –which investigated possible Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election — into a theatrical piece. She critically assesses how drama can oversimplify and misinterpret complex, detailed legal text, significantly altering public perception. Scrimer suggests that the stage adaptation may inadvertently shift the focus from the factual gravity of a legal document into a form of entertainment, a move that potentially undermine the more severe nature of its contents. Scrimer delves into Robert Schenkkan’s adaptation of the report, which she thinks leans towards political “hobbyism,” suggesting that it diminishes the report’s implications by repackaging it for dramatic consumption. Scrimer’s analysis touches on the broader impacts of documentary theatre and its role in conveying truth within a politically-charged atmosphere.

In their analysis, Stephen Carleton and Chris Hay use two plays by Australian playwright Tommy Murphy– Mark Colvin’s Kidney and Packer & Sons, as examples of a shift in Australian biographical theatre, particularly in a post-truth context. According to Carleton and Hay, Murphy’s narratives prioritize emotional impact over factual accuracy, aligning with the post-truth era’s emphasis on the visceral over the rational. In their argument, the writers suggest that Mark Colvin’s Kidney combines actual tweets and media clips in its storytelling, balancing factual references with creative interpretation to reflect the complex interplay between truth and narrative construction. Hay and Carlton scrutinize the Packer family saga in Packer & Sons, which focuses on an Australian media empire. The authors write that in Australian theatre, emotion energizes storytelling, reflecting a trend that honors emotional integrity as much as empirical accuracy, particularly when contending with the currents of post-truth politics. Carleton and Hay’s analysis of Murphy’s plays underscores this noteworthy transformation, acknowledging the blend of actuality and affect in the dramatic depiction of reality.

Helen Georgas’ article provides a compelling examination of Tina Satter’s Is This A Room, a dramatization of the FBI interrogation of a convicted spy named Reality Winner. Georgas unpacks the intricate manner in which Satter creates a space wherein verbatim text and theatre converge, pushing the audience to navigate a complex blend of authentic and performative elements. Georgas claims that Satter’s interpretation transforms the raw transcript into a canvas that challenges and involves the audience in a narrative steeped in honesty and imaginative theatre. She argues that this method underscores the plastic nature of truth within the artistic realm and broader socio-political discourse, offering a reflective mirror to the intricacies of the post-truth era. Georgas’s analysis suggests that Satter’s production transcends simple reenactment, situating it as a pivotal response to interrogating truth and the performative aspects of reality.

Susanne Thurow’s analysis of Kip Williams’s 2018 digital-stage hybridization of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui scrutinizes the blending of live acting and digital projections to explore power dynamics in the era of digital manipulation. Thurow contends that Williams’s approach underscores the challenges of the post-truth era, questioning the integrity of image-making and its influence on public perception and democratic discourse. The production becomes a critique of media’s persuasive potential, examining how digital augmentation can skew or disrupt the viewers’ connection to reality, a poignant artistic commentary on the pervasive impact of media in shaping political narratives.

In his essay “Satanic Panic: Performance in the New Culture War,” Lewis Church skillfully navigates the landscape of artistic condemnation, highlighting the ways in which cultural icons, such as Marina Abramović, are unfairly demonized amid rampant misinformation that fuels today’s cultural conflicts. Church reveals how post-truth dynamics can actively vilify artists, casting them as evil characters entangled in the complex webs of conspiracy theories. This chapter serves as a rallying cry for the defense of artistic expression, condemning the falsehoods that plague our digital age. Church’s article calls for the defense of creative freedom amid cultural conflicts incited by alt-right groups. He underscores the necessity of upholding truth and rationality to counteract the suppression of artistic expression.

Theatre in a Post-Truth World is an exploration that prompts reflection on theatre’s impact on our perception of truth. The book focuses on the intersection of art with social discourse and recognizes theatre’s role in challenging misinformation and guiding those who seek to understand and influence our era. It presents essays that serve as a manifesto for theatre’s engagement with truth, offering a narrative for readers interested in theatre’s societal impact. Anyone seeking to understand the transformative potential of theatre in challenging, reflecting on, and even reshaping our world should view this book as an indispensable resource. 

*Katayoun Salmasi is an Iranian-born theatre critic, playwright, dramaturge, and director. Her critical writings have been featured in various journals and magazines. In Iran, she made significant contributions to the field through her work with the Iran Theatre Critics Association, with the International Association of Theatre Critics and through organizing cultural festivals and international theatre events. She completed her doctoral studies, focused on immigrant narratives in contemporary American drama, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she now teaches theatre studies.

Copyright © 2024 Katayoun Salmasi
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