Janelle Reinelt and Gerald Hewitt. The Political Theatre of David Edgar: Negotiation and Retrieval. Cambridge Studies in Modern Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. x + 313. $99.00.
Janelle Reinelt and Gerald Hewitt's meticulously researched and clearly argued book offers a timely and refreshing way of looking at a dramatist whose socially committed work over four decades has established him as one of the most accomplished and influential political playwrights in Britain. One of the post-1968 brood of dramatists that includes Trevor Griffiths, Howard Brenton, and David Hare, David Edgar started his writing career with an unflinching socialist perspective and an alternative view of the theater as the very locus of political struggle and social debate. So many years later, Edgar still remains the most prolific and resilient of his generation. Edgar's work, which has long been a source of public controversy, draws a fair share of vigorous criticism from both ends of the political spectrum. His passion for the dynamics and complexity of contemporary political situations, combined with his readiness to tackle urgent, controversial social issues, has provoked much-needed public engagement and social dialogue in a nation where collective activism is being reduced to an issue of private conscience.
Reinelt and Hewitt's book, the third full-length study of Edgar's work to be published, extends far beyond a modest introductory survey of the development of a radical political idiom in Edgar's drama. A successful combination of exhaustive research and argumentative zeal, the volume is designed to revitalize and provide a rich, interactive perspective to "the aspect of Edgar's work that is sometimes considered passe" (11). As the aptly chosen subtitle, "Negotiation and Retrieval," indicates, the primary focus of the volume is on the perseverance and vision of the playwright "committed to celebrating quotidian human gestures of re-engagement with politics and failed political initiatives" (4).
What further distinguishes this monograph on Edgar from previous work is its collaborative approach, combining the disciplines of political philosophy and theater studies. Janelle Reinelt is a renowned theater scholar who has published extensively on contemporary British political theater, while Gerald Hewitt specializes in philosophy and political science. Interdisciplinary collaboration, which integrates different epistemological assumptions of individual disciplines, is not always easy and productive. Reinelt and Hewitt's collaboration, however, works very well. Following from Michael Oakeshott's definition of politics as the attempt to rearrange and change established social arrangements, they apply this rather flexible but fundamental notion of politics to the micropolitical dimension of theater and performance.
As the authors rightfully note, Edgar's work offers "the most comprehensive articulation of major political questions" (1). Making extensive use of contemporary political theories from Chantal Mouffe, Etienne Balibar, Kenan Malik, and Will Kymlicka, just to name a few, the book stimulates and facilitates diverse intertextual readings of Edgar's oeuvre. It provides some creative ways in which political theories and terms can be put to work in reinvigorating Edgar's literary texts. A case in point occurs in chapter 4, where Destiny (1976), one of Edgar's earlier plays, is linked up nicely with Playing with Fire (2005) and Testing the Echo (2008) through Balibar's important notions of ethnos and demos. As this interdisciplinary approach reveals that Edgar's individual plays are firmly grounded in specific sociopolitical contexts, it also underlines that his texts have continuously thrived on the most fundamental and sometimes inexplicable political questions. Thus the book persuasively argues that most of Edgar's plays are "problem plays" instead of "thesis plays" (16), countering a critical tendency to denounce Edgar's politics as peripheral and even dogmatic. …