‘The Theater and the Plague:’ A call for radical envisioning

by Tessa Gaffney

When the shutdowns started, I was in a Directing II class at The University of Akron taught by the brilliant James Slowiak of New World Performance Lab. One of the required readings on our syllabus was a manifesto by Antonin Artaud entitled, “The Theater and the Plague.” 

I didn’t read it until last week (sorry, Jim!).

The essay details plagues throughout history with scary similarities: how they always seem to manifest in the brain and/or lungs — both organs directly related to the human consciousness and will; how it spreads mysteriously; and even how those who are asymptomatic and skeptical to the end will die full of scorn for other victims. It is disturbing to see how predictable we are. 

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Artaud mentions plagues coinciding with the most profound political upheavals and downfalls of kings. He also prophetically points out that true freedom is the examination and restructuring of sexual division, which immediately calls to mind the current battle against trans rights spearheaded by those who have the audacity to call themselves radical feminists, yet exclude the most marginalized women among us (who, among others in the LGBTQ+ community, went through a plague of their own that was largely ignored by the U.S. government).

But the most enlightening and uplifting passage states:

“…the plague is a superior disease because it is a total crisis after which nothing remains except death or an extreme purification. … the action of the theater, like that of plague is beneficial, for, impelling men to see themselves as they are, it causes the mask to fall, reveals the lie, the slackness, baseness, and hypocrisy of our world; it shakes off the asphyxiating inertia of matter which invades even the clearest testimony of the senses, and in revealing to collectivities of men their hidden force, it invites them to take, in the face of destiny, a superior and heroic attitude they would never have assumed without it.”

In her recent interview with WBUR Here & Now, Angela Davis suggested that the latest surge in the anti-racist movement might not have been as strong as it was if it were not for the pandemic, “which gave us the opportunity to collectively witness one of the most brutal examples of state violence.” Coronavirus has highlighted the holes in our healthcare system, pushed inequalities on all levels into stark relief, and revealed the utter lack of compassion in our policies (and, often, policymakers themselves). Already disillusioned and, for many who were laid off, with sudden time for research and civic engagement, a growing number of people became more aware and active. Part of what keeps the system in place is a chosen busy-ness through the lens of “hardworking American consumerism” or an imposed busy-ness through stagnant wages and an ever-inflating cost of living. 

Conversations are happening about defunding the police, abolishing the prison system, and reallocating resources to education, health and social services in a mainstream way. Now is a moment to reimagine society, in terms of capitalism, racial justice and communal support for one another. 

Theater can help us in that radical envisioning.

In another book we read for class, A Director Prepares, author Ann Bogart declares that “it is the artists who will create a livable future through their ability to articulate in the face of flux and change.” Artists are the creators of culture and the makers of myths; their stories shape societies.

During quarantine, I had the opportunity to watch a webinar by the Center for Cultural Power called, “No Going Back: A COVID-19 Cultural Strategy Activation Guide for Artists + Activists.” It lists some narratives we need to paint the picture of a “new normal” and build a joyful and liberated world. (It is available on their Instagram, @culturestrike – I would encourage you to look it up! It’s extremely useful.) These narratives include:

  1. A just and sustainable world is possible and necessary
  2. We already have the solutions we need
  3. We get through this together
  4. We are only as safe as those members of our community who are most at risk
  5. We are greater than fear
  6. Voting should be easy and safe for everyone

Let’s brainstorm all the possible alternatives to our present reality. Let’s showcase transformative justice and mutual aid. Let’s educate about ranked party elections. Let’s celebrate the end of a 40-hour work week and the beginning of holistic and individualized learning. Let’s perform our wildest, binary-breaking and decolonizing dreams with all the steps to get there. 

Along the way, let’s support and pay the amazing Black artists who are already doing essential work. Let’s follow and promote The Chameleon Village’s HOME Project, Ma’Sue Productions’ “Or Does It Explode?” and Millennial Theatre Project’s “Say It Loud!” and all the others I don’t know about. Let’s make a list!

As Artaud says, the theater is like the plague because it is “the revelation, the bringing forth, the exteriorization of a depth of latent cruelty… it releases conflicts, disengages powers, and if these powers are dark, it is not the fault of the plague nor of the theater, but of life.” This pause in theatrical production can be used to rethink the stories we share in all arts institutions and address the white supremacy characteristics embedded therein; we may never get this time again.

Photo: by Elise Gaffney, taken during a scene change at The University of Akron’s Directing Workshop on Nov. 25, 2019. Every year, student directors are given the opportunity and resources to showcase their own work. Theatre majors at UA receive a holistic education, leaving with a knowledge of every aspect of the art form. Used with permission from Tessa Gaffney. 

Tessa Gaffney recently completed her final semester as a Graduate Assistant in the Arts Administration program at The University of Akron, which, if the administration has their way, will soon no longer exist. She would like to urge anyone who believes in the arts in Akron to fight for the faculty and staff at this local institution.