Like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon keep watch for their Godot, I wait for the Canadian theatre—so self-confidently progressive, so sure of its liberal bona fides—to produce something like a class critique, an adequate reckoning with its own economic premises and those of our society. It never comes.
In vain, mumbling and prancing like Beckett’s Lucky, I hold out for some brave fool to say: “Hey, institutional theatres that claim millions of dollars in public funding, you’re still of and for the rich, and courting the brown rich in addition to the white rich doesn’t make you paragons of social justice. How about enacting policies that make your work consistently affordable for patrons who earn near or below the Canadian median income? That, like many European repertory companies, offer wage security to artists and not only or mostly to administrators? That provide childcare so attendees needn’t be able to afford babysitters in addition to show tickets? Most importantly, how about staging work that challenges, and doesn’t just affirm, your audience’s liberal triumphalism?”
Some stagefolk will argue that the Canadian theatre totally does class critique. They might gesture in the direction of Soulpepper Theatre Company’s celebrated Toronto production last year of Accidental Death of an Anarchist, a 1970 leftist agitprop play by Nobel Prize-winning Italian playwright Dario Fo. The production team updated the play’s social references to include bits about former Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s various depredations, racialized police carding policy, the general badness of the rich. It was all energetically, skillfully performed; director Ravi Jain has a sharp instinct for comedy, and the cast was excellent. Among Soulpepper’s patrons, generally old, white, and wealthy, I hear there was discomfort, some walkouts, though the crowd wasn’t noticeably perturbed on the night I was there. The production was a hit. It won five Dora Mavor Moore Awards, Toronto theatre’s statuette for honouring its own, including Outstanding Production, the top prize.
It was a slickly crafted entertainment that gave pleasure to many people; on that level, it deserved its success. Yet the chatter around it also made claims for its political importance. The Globe and Mail’s theatre critic felt “hit over the head” by the play’s politics when he saw it, but he recanted several months later when it was feted by the Dora jury. “It turned out that Torontonians,” he wrote, “especially white middle-class Torontonians such as myself and much of Soulpepper’s core audience, needed a hit on the head.”
What I saw was elites who’d paid $80 for a chance to be told in the broadest possible terms that elites are bad. Their instructors on this point were highly competent, precariously employed artisans, some of them safety-netted by their own vast ancestral capitals. The commendable ethnic diversity of the creative team belied the production’s total lack of diversity of political thought; it signaled to the audience that they were on the right side of history, while the frothy substance of the work, with its one-liners and populist harangues, told them that history wasn’t worth their serious attention. A tacit suggestion was made: the elites who attend theatre about the badness of elites aren’t the real problem. They’re the enlightened rich. The real problem is the uncompassionate rich, they who prefer the National Post to the Globe and Mail. Curtain call. Digestif?
I envy your optimism if you think this sort of “class critique” leads, even obliquely, to any social change about which someone who lives in Toronto’s Rexdale or Jane-Finch areas, who relies on public housing or food banks, would give a fuck. Yes, an elite consensus that police carding is wrong has important consequences for black dudes in such neighbourhoods, but even if we imagine that that consensus doesn’t already exist among such elites as darken Soulpepper’s door—a stretch—topical quips and slapstick aren’t by themselves a political education. By definition, they assume the audience’s prior acquaintance with the objects of their mockery; otherwise they’re not funny. They skewer social conditions without illuminating how those conditions work. But they lend themselves well enough to activism-tourism: buy your expensive ticket, concerned bourgeois couple, and get to feel for an hour or two as if you’re at a real live demonstration! An assault on power! 100% No Teargas Guarantee.
If you’re running a business and wish to market that experience, that particular strain of self-congratulatory pleasure, you’re free to do so. But it’s not social justice: it’s Social Justice™. The product nestles comfortably in the political economy it claims to skewer. It doesn’t illuminate the way our society’s basic structures really work. And it’s entirely typical of what passes for class criticism in the Canadian theatre, notwithstanding the odd exception: Crow’s Theatre’s Winners and Losers, for instance, in which co-creator/co-performer Marcus Youssef reveals, with moving and generous vulnerability, the extent to which his would-be precarious existence as a theatre artist has been enabled by family wealth.
Yes, an emphasis on economic inequality oversteps if it erases other concerns. The politics of redistribution don’t just replace and can’t simply efface the politics of recognition. Almost 30 years after legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term and offered a brilliant analysis of “intersectionality,” it’s blisteringly, brain-meltingly obvious that racism and sexism exist in a complex symbiosis with social class. Yet far too often, in the Canadian theatre as elsewhere, liberal elites rail against racial and gender injustice while they maintain an exploitative economic status quo from which they benefit. Sometimes, at worst, that railing may even be a cynical diversionary tactic to protect that status quo. There are semi-regular controversies about racial diversity in the theatre; the latest of Factory Theatre’s semi-regular productions about Indian brothels (Bombay Black, following 2011’s Brothel #9) featured Because-It’s-2015 colour-blind and gender-blind casting; but neither it nor any other Canadian theatre I’ve seen has asked whether we really believe, as Marxist theorist Adolph Reed Jr. frames the issue witheringly in terms of US demography, “a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people.”
It’s clear that if it doesn’t take class seriously, a liberal identitarian politics creates just as stratified and no more meritocratic a pyramid of winners and losers as the dynamics it aims to replace. It’s entirely compatible with—indeed, has become partly constitutive of—neoliberal capitalism. It also happens to do a great job of keeping shrewd white men in power. The white artistic director who programs a single playwright of colour in his season may be grumbled about but is basically given a pass; because he’s doffed his cap, the broadly reactionary assumptions that underlie his theatre’s work go unchallenged in public. Activists crucify the other guy who didn’t get the memo at all. While they’re distracted, the cynical guy more or less does as he likes. Within that ecology, he remains a winner.
Meanwhile, such a politics doesn’t reliably benefit those in whose name it’s enacted. Consider the relative neglect of an artist of colour like Soheil Parsa, with whom I collaborated when I was a teenaged actor and playwright. A Baha’i refugee from the Islamic Revolution in Iran, a man who drove a school bus to support his family while he struggled to build a theatre career in Toronto, Parsa is the founding artistic director of Modern Times Stage Company, an organization that’s now almost three decades old. Through that company, he’s produced a steady flow of critically lauded theatre that fuses eastern aesthetic traditions with texts from canons both eastern and western. Yet, while he’s drawn a below-subsistence pittance of a salary from Modern Times operating grants, he’s been kept on the margins of the Canadian theatre by institutional leadership. His brilliance and originality are widely acknowledged; he’s been shortlisted for the prestigious Siminovitch Prize; he’s even received the occasional commission to support the creation of new work, including one from Soulpepper, to its credit. But there’s simply no white director of Parsa’s stature in Canada who’s had so few opportunities to direct on major stages and thereby earn, at least sporadically, a living wage. In 27 years, he’s been hired as a director by a professional Canadian theatre exactly once—and never in Toronto, the country’s English-language theatre centre and the city where he’s based.
The liberal left would likely blame racism, or a cronyism structured along racial lines. There’s probably some truth to that, but it’s not the whole story. Humanistic, universalistic in his artistic philosophy—Modern Times’ website testifies, perhaps too simplistically, to a desire “to move away from ideology towards a human vocabulary that speaks across civilizations”—Parsa is an inconvenient kind of Other. His productions, with their irreducible poetic symbolism, refuse all progressive polemic. They don’t glorify difference as a good in itself; they advance no claim of victimhood however legitimate. They deal in primordial archetypes, images that evoke basic human experiences of love and loss, suffering and its transcendence. In this respect his work is essentially, and openly, conservative, which makes Parsa an unhelpful face of diversity for artistic directors who want to signal their liberal enlightenment in their hiring practices (while leaving their own power entirely intact, of course).
So he falls into the category of least advantage: lacking ancestral privilege of class or race or nationality, but excluded also from a discourse of redress and its possible benefits. As a remarkable artist who happens also to be an immigrant of colour, there’s no good reason for Parsa to be thus left out, except his work doesn’t serve the economic elite that decides how the discourse of redress gets heard and turned into policy. It’s in this elite, which has not race or gender but class as its common denominator, that power is concentrated—in the microcosmic world of the theatre and beyond it. To challenge that power, even to see that power and how it works, would require a kind of radical critique that the Canadian theatre doesn’t dare to venture.
It’ll be objected that I’m addressing only large mainstream theatres, while radicalism happens at the margins. And it’s true I’ve seen low- or no-budget theatre that’s curious and perceptive about the roots of social problems. But such productions struggle to reach an audience beyond the peer groups of the artists involved. Unamplified by the funded institutional theatres, that work is ghettoized, reduced to an honourable private gesture.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Compare the situation in Berlin, where wide outrage greeted the recent appointment to the legendary Volksbühne state theatre of a leader, the Tate Modern’s Chris Deacon, seen as out of step with the theatre’s revolutionary traditions. An open letter signed by Volksbühne-affiliated artists laments that with this change in management, “the artistic processing of social conflict is displaced in favour of a globally extended consensus culture with uniform presentation and sales patterns.” According to The Guardian, the Green and Left parties in Berlin declared their intentions to make this theatre controversy an election issue.
It’s hard to imagine the same thing happening in Canada, where neoliberal consensus culture has done a particularly thorough job of strangling other forms of political imagination. But that’s no excuse not to encourage impulses towards reform. For instance, if the mainstream institutional theatre has any genuine interest in effective political action—if it isn’t content just to perform political concern, in cynicism or self-delusion, as a means of selling tickets and winning subsidy—Toronto artist Richard Greenblatt suggests it consider the model of theatre made for youth and children. Through the school system, such work “very often goes to its audience, rather than asking them to come to a venue that may be outside their cultural comfort zone,” says Greenblatt, perhaps best known as co-creator of the global hit play 2 Pianos 4 Hands. “It is highly subsidized (although could be more) and so ticket price is not a barrier. It truly plays to a full cross section of the population. It is actually encouraged by funding bodies and the Ministry of Education to tackle extremely complex social and political issues.”
I find that sort of thinking a lot more radical than the political ideas the Canadian theatre tends to put onstage. If that theatre wants to solidify its claim to the progressive idealism it so likes to signal, it could do worse than to pursue the kinds of questions Greenblatt raises about the conditions of access to art—a necessary basis, maybe, for asking more disruptive questions more deeply in the work itself. The depressing alternative is spelled out in The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson’s beautiful 2015 book of blended memoir and theory: “That’s what we both hate about fiction, or at least crappy fiction—it purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions, stuffed a narrative full of false choices, and hooked you on them, rendering you less able to see out, to get out.” Canadian theatre audiences, and artists, deserve better.