With reference to at least two plays of your choice by different authors from different periods of theatre history analyze in what ways they reflect the social and political context in which they were written.
“In the theatre, every form once born is mortal; every form must be reconceived, and its new conception will bear the marks of all the influences that surround it.”(Peter Brook) William Shakespeare takes the story of Julius Caesar and expresses his ideas about Queen Elizabeth, and the political atmosphere of Elizabethan England, using Julius Caesar himself as a metaphor for the growing Elizabethan empire, and the fears concerning the death of an heir-less Queen. Arthur Miller infuses the story of the Salem Witch Trials with sub textual references to the McCarthyism and Red Scare, which were going on in America in the 1950’s. In 2013, Anne Washburn sets her story, Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, against a nuclear post-apocalyptic backdrop, using a popular television show, The Simpsons, as a catalyst, which in itself is a reflection on her ideas of modern American society, and society in general, as throughout the play, one bears witness to an old civilization unraveling, and a resorting to story-telling in it’s most basic beginnings. This essay is a discussion on in what ways Julius Caesar, The Crucible, and Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play reflects the social and political context in which they were written.
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Julius Caesar was first performed in 1599, the first show to be performed at the Globe Theater in London. Though the text was not released until 1623, it is Shakespeare’s shortest play. Shakespeare is thought to have been heavily influenced in reference to the historical context by Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, which was written by Plutarch in the first century. In the play, Julius Caesar has just overthrown Pompey, who was threatening the republic. In the opening scenes, the people of Rome are seen celebrating Caesar, and try to crown him multiple times. This troubles many people in the shadows, who begin to whisper about the integrity of Caesar, and whether he will take the throne for his own, or honor the democratic republic, which Rome was in 440 B.C. These whisperings concern his peers, such as Cassius, who convinces Brutus that Caesar must be taken down before he becomes more powerful than the Republic. Ultimately, Caesar is assassinated, which results in mass chaos, as the entire country breaks out in civil war. In the end, almost everyone dies.
Queen Elizabeth became Queen in 1558, forty years before Julius Caesar was first performed. “The Virgin Queen”, as she was commonly known, was the daughter of Henry VIII, and the last in the line of the Tudor monarchy. Queen Elizabeth ruled very strictly, and was extremely paranoid, therefore many people were imprisoned and questioned all the time for treasonous activity. “This was a meticulously recorded Police State, comparable with Hitler’s Germany, Pinochet’s Chile, the former Soviet Bloc or Saddam Hussain’s Iraq. Almost all the major players in Shakespeare’s life – including the poet himself – would find themselves on the wrong side of the law at some point during their life… And so England was a land of clear divisions: between the old faith and the new, between the cities and the rural communities, between the known and that which was unknown and therefore frightening.”(pbs.org) It was urgently necessary that if Shakespeare had a political view to share, he must share it very subtly.
“Early modern writers frequently compared the English Parliament to the Roman republic’s Senate and popular tribunate. The English were also mindful of Rome’s role in their early history: Julius Caesar successfully invaded Britain in 54 BCE and the Roman Empire, which succeeded the republic, controlled Britain from 77 to 407 CE. At the broader level of political culture, English people strongly identified themselves as “free” in ways that (they believed) citizens of the Roman republic had been and others in Europe were not.”(newberry.org) In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare remarks on the political unrest of Elizabethan England in his portrayal of the rebellion and assassination of Julius Caesar. Throughout her reign, Elizabeth I thwarted many assassination attempts, as well as attempts at overthrowing her strongly Protestant rule by the Catholics. Shakespeare also comments on the impending future of England, as Elizabeth was very much like Caesar in age, and had no heirs to carry on her rule. He uses the Roman civil wars as a vehicle to perhaps predict a post-Elizabethan England, one that did not bode well for the English mass, as the eco-system that was Elizabethan English politics disintegrated into mass chaos.
Hundreds of years later, Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, in 1953. The Crucible is about The Salem Witch Trials, which happened in 1692 in Puritan Salem, Massachusetts. In the actual trials, young girls began accusing people of witchcraft, which led to mass hysteria, the persecution of over 200 people, and the execution of 20 people. In The Crucible, Arthur Miller adds dimension to a historic event, by adding his own ideas as to why and how the whole thing came about. He created answers as to why the girls began the dangerous façade. He also combined historical figures as characters to create a clear and concise storyline. He took many artistic liberties. “For example, many of the accusations of witchcraft in the play are driven by the affair between farmer, husband, and father John Proctor, and the Minister’s teenage niece Abigail Williams: however, in real life Williams was probably about eleven at the time of the accusations and Proctor was over sixty, which makes it most unlikely that there was ever any such relationship. Miller himself said, “The play is not reportage of any kind …. [n]obody can start to write a tragedy and hope to make it reportage …. what I was doing was writing a fictional story about an important theme.”“(ukmc.edu)
In the 1950’s, the United States of America was going through a similar mass hysteria as during the Salem Witch Trials. After World War II, there was a huge anti-communist movement, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who famously brought in many people in the artistic and intellectual community and interrogated them about being communists. Americans were afraid of communism, or radical leftism, because of the belief that communism was in direct opposition to American values. This was the second time in the 20th century, that America had a Red Scare, the first being in the 1920’s. However, in the 1920’s the suspicions revolved a social movement, and in the 1950’s the fears stemmed from fears because of the conflict in Korea and China, and espionage based upon confessions by government officials of spying for the Soviet Union, the most famous being the trials of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for passing on secret information to the Soviet Union about the atomic bomb. Senator McCarthy headed the Congress’s House Un-American Activities Committee, which “launched an investigation into purported Communist influence in the movie business. HUAC subpoenaed writers, directors, actors and studio executives and inquired whether they “were now or had ever been a member of the Communist Party.””(collin.edu)
Although there is much speculation as to the exact mirroring of The Salem Witch Trials in The Crucible to the McCarthyism Red Scare hysteria of the 1950’s, “Miller writes, “These plays, in one sense, are my response to what was ‘in the air,’ they are one man’s way of saying to his fellow men, ‘This is what you see every day, or think or feel; now I will show you what you really know but have not had the time, or the disinterestedness, or the insight, or the information to understand consciously.””(Steppenwolf.org) Arthur Miller himself had been brought in for questioning about being a communist, and among many others in the Hollywood and theatre scene. He was actually blacklisted at one point. The mass hysteria spread throughout the country, just like in Salem in The Crucible, and people became suspicious of everyone. “One group collected and published the names of people in the world of the arts and entertainment thought to be un-American in their politics. The most famous were able to successfully fight off such attacks butRed Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, ruined or harmed many people’s careers.”(Collins.edu)
Anne Washburn wrote Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, which was performed at The Playwrights Horizon studio in New York City in Fall 2013. In the play, which is three acts, the show opens with a group of people sitting around a fire, in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, trying to recall an episode from the popular TV series, “The Simpsons”. Throughout the whole first act, the audience watches what was an actually word for word transcription of the cast during one of the first workshops try and remember word for word the episode, “Cape Feare”. In the second act, time has moved forward ten years and the audience learns that this new world has evolved into a place where people barter with memories of Simpsons episodes, with different troupes going around performing them, along with commercial breaks.
It is as if any fragment of the ‘old’ world is cherished, if not quite misunderstood by this new civilization. People are willing to trade food and shelter for missing pieces of the stories, and there is somewhat of a rivalry between the different troupes, a competition for how many stories each has collected. The second act ends in bloodshed, as people become violent in trying to attain as many recalling of Simpsons episodes. In the third act, it is hundreds of years later, and the audience watches a bizarre performance of what was being rehearsed in the second act, except it is now revered, almost religious in the manner it is being performed. The whole act is culmination of years of retelling and evolution into a masked performance that at the same time is almost an exact retelling and something completely different.
Anne Washburn’s use of the post-apocalyptic theme is smart, as the idea of post-apocalyptic society has taken America’s imagination by storm. “We use fictional narratives not only to emotionally cope with the possibility of impending doom, but even more importantly perhaps to work through the ethical and philosophical frameworks that were in many ways left shattered in the wake of WWII.”(livescience.com) In a post 9/11 society, after two wars and a financial recession, America needs the catharsis that comes with an imagined world after the end of the world. “The image of New Yorkers fleeing the crashing towers and the toxic clouds of the death was broadcast over and over until the image was emblazoned in indelibly in nation’s collective psychic. America’s exalted sense of invincibility came crashing down with the WTC, our feeling of security forever buried underneath metric tons rubble.”(ipharoah.thoughts) With Mr. Burns, Anne Washburn has also commented on the influence of pop culture in America, and the trend towards escapism in American society. Television especially is embedded into the American culture, and many Americans use television as a way to block out the impending bills, and declining health, and general disarray of their lives.
“That single “Simpsons” episode becomes a treasure-laden bridge, both to the past and into the future. And in tracing a story’s hold on the imaginations of different generations, the play is likely to make you think back — way back — to narratives that survive today from millenniums ago. Every age, it seems, has its Homers.”(nytimes.com) Throughout history, playwrights have continued to give us a snapshot of the world from which they are writing. Whether it is about a specific person, a movement, or the society as whole, Julius Caesar, The Crucible, and Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play are three examples. All three plays reflect the social and political context in which they were written with the use of metaphor and symbolism, and sometimes just a straight up comparison. The interesting thing about these three plays, is that not only are they allegories for the time in which they were written, but they can also be related to on contemporary terms. In turn, the three plays not only comment on a social and political context, but on the human condition, which never changes.
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