Street theatre: the drama of civil disobedience
'Political theatre' has a long and entertaining history, and the line between drama and protest has never been clear-cut
by Sophie Nield | The Guardian guardian.co.ukguardian.co.ukThe Guardian
Friday 26 November 2010
Political protests are often labelled as "political theatre" or "pure drama" – but when property is smashed and violence erupts, many people ask: what are the limits of protest? Where do we draw the line between theatrical politics and "real" violence?
Demonstrators have often used theatrical devices to make their point, and the fact is that the supposed line between theatre and civil disobedience has never been clear-cut. Many this week have drawn attention to the suffragettes in Edwardian England, who, under the eyes of watching police, took out toffee hammers and smashed in plate-glass windows of the new department stores. Abbie Hoffman and the "yippie" movement in 1960s America deliberately used the tactics of theatrical display and culture jamming to maximise attention to their anti-Vietnam protests. In 1967, as 35,000 demonstrators surged towards the Pentagon, Hoffman (with the assistance of Allen Ginsberg, chanting helpfully), tried to levitate the building, later claiming it rose three feet. In May of the same year, several yippies took a tour of the New York stock exchange: once inside, they threw money over the rail on to the trading floor. Hoffman described what happened: "The big ticker tape stopped and the brokers let out a mighty cheer. The guards started pushing us and the brokers booed. Free speech," he added, "is the right to shout theater in a crowed fire!"
Hoffman's aim was to get the Yippie protests on to the television news, providing colourful material for the wacky five-minute slot after the more serious items. But it wasn't ever about pure theatre: two days after the Pentagon protest, protesters walked into an induction centre in Baltimore and poured a mixture of human and animal blood on files belonging to those facing conscription, while young men made bonfires on courthouse steps of their real draft cards. During reclaim the streets anti-roads protest in the late 1990s, figures danced on stilts wearing carnival costumes under which pneumatic diggers tore up the roads. In Sydney in 2007, the satirical comedy group the Chaser drove a motorcade with fake Canadian credentials through the high-security cordon surrounding a meeting of the Australia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group, and were only stopped when one of them emerged from the car dressed as Osama bin Laden. Their fake security passes were printed with the word "joke". But they were arrested by real police.
Yesterday in London, police tactics hardened, and a large group of students and young people were kettled on Whitehall until 10pm. There are more student protests planned for 30 November, and resistance to the cuts is growing across wider society, so this remains an urgent question: what has the theatre to teach us about the line between symbolic action and actual effects? Where does the pretending stop and the action begin? Is theatrical protest going to be enough, or is it time to get real?