How could an emancipatory theatrical practice, idealized at a time of radicalized political struggle on the left in Latin America, assume conservative uses in the contemporary world? This is one of the questions asked by Julian Boal in his book About old forms in new times: the Theater of the Oppressed today between “rehearsal of the revolution and interactive technique of taming victims”, released by Hucitec publishing house, in 2022. Constructed from the Julian’s doctoral thesis, the book presents an in-depth study on the practice of Theater of the Oppressed (TO), a system of theatrical forms created by Augusto Boal in the 1970s, considering its historicity, its impasses and its possibilities.
Julian is the son of Augusto Boal, a practitioner and activist of the Theater of the Oppressed, as well as curator and coordinator of several TO meetings around the world, which makes his critical view of both the history of TO and its practice privileged: if “to use Brecht without criticizing him is to betray him”, according to the German playwright Heiner Müller quoted by Julian right in the book’s introduction, thinking about TO without analyzing its contradictions would also be a betrayal.
:: Unpublished material from the collection of playwright Augusto Boal is presented in SP ::
The first part of the book is devoted to a thorough investigation of the historical assumptions of the TO, involving both Boal’s trajectory at Teatro de Arena, the social and political context of Brazil and Latin America, as well as the concepts and references mobilized by the system. For Julian, Boal’s genius was to incorporate debates, solutions and impasses from the political culture of the 1960s and transform them into one of the most important theatrical practices in the history of theater in Brazil and in the world.
The author defends the hypothesis that the creation of TO started from the emancipatory demands of the left, transposing to the theatrical technique the debates about the social division of labor, the end of the separation between art and life, the self-emancipation and self-organization of the oppressed and the bet in heroic individuality as a form of political action.
:: Theater of the Oppressed Center: transforming reality through theater ::
It is at this last point that the discussion about the armed struggle enters, since the imaginary about the Cuban Revolution was alive and active, intensified by the national and anti-colonial liberation struggles in African countries. Boal was critical of the performance of the Brazilian Communist Party, especially the possibility of an alliance between classes and the role of the intellectual as a “guide of the masses” and joined the ALN (National Liberation Alliance), an organization led by Carlos Mariguella, betting on guerrilla warfare and in individual heroic protagonism as a strategy of political struggle in the years of military dictatorship in Brazil and Latin America.
In this context, the creation of the TO would be a synthesis in the form of a theatrical system of the political strategies of the post-1968 Brazilian revolutionary left, relying on individual heroic virtue as a way of transforming reality. This is what we objectively see in the practice of Teatro Forum, where through individual interventions mediated by the figure of the “joker” there can be the problematization/resolution of conflicts of a collective nature exposed on the scene, triggering a joint reflection for the taking of concrete actions in reality . If the world is subject to transformation by the action of men and women, the TO, in the words of Boal, is a “rehearsal of the revolution”, that is, theatrical practice is not an end in itself, but part of a process of collective organization for the emancipation of society.
However, the current political scenario is completely different from the 1960s/1970s. Politically, the armed struggle was defeated and the “individual heroic virtue” is now linked to the idea of entrepreneurship and to the figure of the “self made man” of financial capitalism. As Julian points out when citing Gilda de Mello e Souza and the “uncontrollable autonomy of forms”: regardless of the initial will of its producer, artistic forms produced for a given purpose can produce its opposite, even more so if we think about different situations. In this sense, it is not enough to practice TO armed with “good intentions”, the system itself contains assumptions of valuing individual action that have been appropriated by the most diverse means, from workshops in companies, welfare NGOs to revolutionary groups. Hence the insistence on the question about the emancipatory potential of TO in the present day.
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Far from articulating critical reflection towards paralysis, Julian brings possibilities of confrontation based on concrete experiences linked to specific circumstances, directly articulating the relations between theatrical practice and social organizations, such as Jana Sanskriti, in India; Óprima, in Portugal, and the Escola de Teatro Popular, in Brazil. The book ends with a great provocation about the role of art in the anti-capitalist political struggle. If the impasses for the contemporary practice of TO are many, greater are the possibilities of imagining emancipatory collective interventions from the theater and the thought of Augusto Boal.
*Mariana Mayor is a professor of Brazilian Theater History at the Institute of Arts/ UNESP.
**Review of ‘On old forms in new times: the theater of the Oppressed today between rehearsal of the revolution and interactive technique of taming victims’, by Julian Boal.
***The opinions expressed in this text do not necessarily represent the position of the newspaper Brazil in fact.
Editing: Vivian Virissimo
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