Theatre as Political Method: Reflections on the Theatre of the Oppressed

Sophie Coudray


This paper aims to clarify the original Marxist project of Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed, which could be defined as a poetics of the transfer of theatre’s means of production to the people. The Theatre of the Oppressed is a set of dramatic techniques whose purpose is to bring to light systemic exploitation and oppression within common situations and to allow spectators to become actors. Comprising historical, theoretical and aesthetic dimensions, the issue here is to understand the core of this political theatre by exposing its historical roots in the progressivist Brazil of the 1950s up until the military coup of 1964. Influenced by Marxism, Boal's project arose from agit-prop and popular theatre, joining radical pedagogy with an innovative aesthetic in order to break with the institutional bourgeois theatre and to perform for the people by creating plays that “adopt the viewpoint of the people in respect to the analysis of social phenomena”. Boal developed a poetics of the oppressed as a method and a praxis. As an activist theatre, the Theatre of the Oppressed presented itself as a “rehearsal of revolution”; it encouraged the development of class-consciousness amongst the people, and theatrically elaborated collective strategies with a view to implementing in real life, in concrete political struggles, what was first attempted within the safety of a dramatic fiction. Similar to Brechtian Lehrstücke and intended for non-artists, this practice has clear links with Marx and Engels’ dictum that “[t]he exclusive concentration of artistic talent in particular individuals, and its suppression in the broad mass which is bound up with this, is a consequence of division of labour.” However, Boal's exile in Europe induced profound changes in the Theatre of the Oppressed. The French Socialist Party's urban policy and its promotion of liberal democracy in the 1980s led the first professional group of practitioners to evolve from a radical activism connected to trade unions, feminists and the radical left, to agents of liberal democracy, promoting a “théâtre citoyen”. Moreover, Boal's legislative theatre – elaborated while he was a Brazilian Workers’ Party MP – appears as a reconciliation with institutional politics. Ultimately, it seems that the political and ideological context for the development of this theatrical practice in western Europe entailed its evolution from a radical and marxist activist theatre to a humanistic and civic one.

Boal - Theatre - oppression