Principles and Pragmatism in Political Theatre: David Edgar's Continental Divide

Article excerpt

British playwright David Edgar has written a pair of highly successful plays on American politics-more specifically regional politics, and to many eyes and ears, California politics. Continental Divide (comprising Daughters of the Revolution and Mothers Against) was co-produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Berkeley Repertory Theatre during their current seasons (2003-04), and will travel to England in March of 2004, playing in Birmingham, Edgar's hometown, and in London at the Barbican Pit. The project was ambitious from the start: not one but two plays, involving over fifty characters, built around a gubernatorial contest with wide-ranging issues addressing the major themes of American politics. Then, too, it could be perceived as cheeky of Edgar to attempt to write about the intricacies of a foreign political system as if he were an insider. The largest risk, though, lay in the matter of political theatre itself: could such a play be successful in a time sometimes described as postpolitical? Would what has always seemed to be a cultural tradition receptive to political theatre in the UK find an equivalent context for the plays in the US? Would Edgar overshoot his target audience?

There are several ironies at work here. Recently, journalists and academics have commented on the decrease of political theatre in the UK. The usually stated view is that in place of the big, epic plays of the 1970s and 1980s-what have been called "state of the nation" dramas because they dealt with the overarching concerns of national life and public institutions-the recent crop of new plays has been almost entirely about individuals, domestic situations, private affairs. The established political playwrights of that former time-David Hare, Howard Brenton, Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill, and David Edgar-have been replaced, so this line of thought goes, by Sarah Kane, Martin Crimp, and Mark Ravenhill, and while their new theatre writing is radical or shocking, it is not big-scale, state of the nation stuff. This impression does not completely hold up to serious scrutiny, however. David Edgar continues to write demanding plays with large casts, not always about the state of the nation, but more recently, the state of Europe (witness Pentecost and The Prisoner's Dilemma, both of which examine the relationship between eastern and western Europe since the collapse of eastern communism in 1989). Caryl Churchill and David Hare have continued to be productive and successful, although employing different styles of writing, especially Churchill whose recent plays, Far Away and A Number, resemble some younger writers' work. This fall, Hare has written a factual drama about the bankrupt railway system (The Permanent Way) returning to a more explicit and definitely "state of the nation" political theme. And perceptive critics of Kane, Ravenshill, and Crimp interpret their works as politically invested, although searching for new means of theatrical representation. Even the concern expressed about the seeming diminution of political theatre itself indicates a society that still cares about its theatre's role in public discourse and national culture.

Ironies also beset the American situation. While the popular wisdom has it that political theatre just doesn't flourish within the US, we have had the extraordinary success of Angels in America on stage and television, and a long-running, award winning network television series-The West Wing. Angels in America, like Continental Divide, is comprised of two plays in epic proportion, and The West Wing has held the public's attention and interest for over four seasons now, rather remarkable for a fast-paced, intricately plotted drama that relies on basic knowledge of government institutions in order to be intelligible. Thus, while the common wisdom seems to be partially right in both the UK and US cases, it does not offer sufficient complexity and insight into the current state of play between politics and the theatre. …