Thorn in the body politic: a transatlantic dialogue on the aesthetics of commitment within modernist political theatre.
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This thesis investigates the transatlantic manifestation of the debate regarding the aesthetics of commitment in the modernist literary and theatrical tradition. Within the debate theatre occupies a privileged position since (because of its two-fold roles both as theory and performance) it allows a critique both of performative conventions and methods and also a dialectical consideration of the audience’s socio-political consciousness. The debate, often referred to as form versus content – schematically re-written as ‘autonomy’ versus ‘commitment’ – and its transatlantic evaluation are central to modernist aesthetics, as they bring into question the established modes of perceiving and discussing the issue. A parallel close reading will reveal the closely related development of the European and the American traditions and evaluate their critical strengths and shortcomings. The first part of the thesis discusses the positions of Georg Lukács and Bertolt Brecht, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin in tandem with those of the New York Intellectuals, especially as expressed in the latters’ writings in the Partisan Review. The second part extends this transatlantic dialogue through a consideration of the theatrical works of the New York Living Newspaper unit of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) in the USA and Bertolt Brecht’s vision of and relationship with ‘Americana’ as revealed through such plays as In the Jungle of Cities, Man Equals Man, St Joan of the Stockyards and the 1947 version of Galileo. The Federal Theatre and Brecht’s respective dramaturgies demonstrate differences in the articulation and application of the aesthetics of commitment and politics of engagement. A close reading of four plays by the Living Newspaper unit will not only reveal the influence of the Russian Blue Blouse groups and Meyerhold’s theatrical experimentations, but also how the unit’s playwrights and administration attempted to re-write this aesthetic. Hallie Flanagan (the director of FTP), recognising the limitations of Broadway and having sensed the audience’s need for a new kind of theatre, realised early on the importance of ‘translating’ the European aesthetics of commitment to conform with the American New Deal discourse. Brecht’s plays manifest not only the differences with respect to the European aesthetics of commitment, but also its highly complicated development. His American experiences revealed that the failings of the FTP’s attempt to establish a viable national theatre with a social agenda prohibited a more powerfully theatrical connection (theoretical and performative) between the two traditions. Both the European and the American modernist aesthetics are informed by Marxist cultural and literary theory, particularly by the writings centred on the political efficacy of a work of art with respect to its reception and its modes of production. The politico-aesthetic encounter of the Marxist tradition of engagement with a commitment to aesthetic formalism (often associated with the autonomy position) led to a confrontational and polemical rather than dialectical argumentation. However, this thesis maintains that the arguments were not simply articulated by theorists at opposing ends of the political spectrum. At the same time, Brecht and the Federal Theatre Project’s interest in the advancements of the European avant-garde and fascination with the notion of ‘Americana’ demonstrate the necessity to examine the issue of commitment in a more dialectical manner. While their notion of the aesthetics of commitment differed, this thesis argues for the necessity, not only of revisiting some of the fundamental premises regarding the role and function of this aesthetics in modernist political theatre, but also of reading the two traditions in conjunction.