Amy M. Sutherland
The Meaning Behind the Mask: Social Activism Through Theater


“The magistrates haven’t come, but when they have—late—they’ll shove each other about in thronging bunches for the first seat; they won’t give a thought to making peace. Oh, my city, my city!”—Aristophanes, “Acharnians,” 23-27

In 425 BC, not long after the start of the Peloponnesian War, Aristophanes’s “Acharnians” premiered at the Athenian Lenaia, a January festival whose highlight was a competition among playwrights. The play follows the travails of the citizen Dicaeopolis (a Greek compound meaning “the just city”), who, having grown weary of the strictures imposed by the war, draws up a separate personal treaty with the Spartans and flourishes among many wine- and sex-fueled hijinks.

“Acharnians” can be identified as the earliest extant piece of activist theater: a play with an overt social and especially political message, striving to persuade as well as to entertain. Having grown out of the archaic lyric tradition, which included works of early social philosophy (for example, Solon) and blistering diatribes against individual leaders (for example, Alcaeus), Greek theater had a natural political bent. Indeed, of Aristophanes’s 11 surviving plays, only two, “The Birds” and “Thesmophoriazusae,” do not deal directly with political themes. Social conditions and influencing social change were primary concerns for ancient drama. How do Greek drama’s modern descendants follow in this path? While there is much contemporary theater devoted to political and social topics, the approaches vary, as do the philosophical implications. In particular, activist theater on college campuses provides interesting illustrations of these variations.


The thread from Aristophanes to modern theater is far from unbroken. Athenian democracy, a tenuous institution in the best of times, soon gave way to the Hellenistic kingdoms that followed in Alexander’s footsteps. Under these new regimes, dissent from imperial ideology was not permissible, and drama turned its eyes from the public sphere to the private. It is in this “New Comedy” period that the comedy of manners was born, the form that was imported to the Roman stage. Political and social discourse in Rome was limited to the genres of oratory, history, and satire, and after the emergence of the principate, the scope for criticism in these was increasingly limited.

In the medieval period, aggressive social commentary again appeared on the stage. The Goliards, a class of impoverished scholars and minor clergy, would set up elaborate liturgical parodies lampooning the ecclesiastical elite. The “Gamblers’ Mass” featured a mock liturgy with dice-playing on the altar instead of the consecration of the host (a detailed discussion of these phenomena can be found in Martha Bayless’s book “Parody in the Middle Ages”). Under the increasingly powerful national secular governments of Europe and in the midst of serious religious strife and reform, this give-and-take tradition was largely lost. By the time of Marlowe and Shakespeare, the political teeth of the theater had almost disappeared, and the official ideologies of patrons and potential patrons were given unquestioned pride of place. In the midst of the spirit of post-Enlightenment liberalizing, controversy gradually returned to the stage through the nineteenth century, overcoming censors and obscenity laws. It is from this renewed freedom that the modern strand of political theater descends.

There are numerous ways to convey a message, but theater has particular advantages. “The live experience you get from theatre is really unparalleled in other forms of art. Being in the room or the theater or the black box with other people and seeing another real person do things can really cut right into someone and really affect them,” says S. Jumai Yusuf ’16. Yusuf directed last semester’s “Negative,” a play that explored racial dynamics on Harvard’s campus. “Going to the theater also has this social aspect because you’re surrounded by other people [in the audience],” she says.

Magdalene M. Zier ’16, president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club, agrees that political issues can go hand in hand with good theater and are considered when HRDC reviews show proposals for the Loeb Experimental Theater and the Loeb Mainstage. “We do like someone coming in with a very strong vision; like if they’re saying, ‘I feel very passionate about this issue and I want to use this show to discuss that,’ and they articulated that well, that can only add to their application,” she says.


It is one thing to choose a message to present; it is another to choose the method of presentation. One approach to political theater is typified by devoting the lion’s share of attention to the quality of the play itself as a piece of art.

Erin Murphy is a senior majoring in theater at Mount Holyoke University and the current chair of Project Theatre, Mount Holyoke’s main extracurricular theater organization. Project Theatre drew national attention late last year for cancelling a production of “The Vagina Monologues” in favor of a trans-inclusive play. Murphy says the selected work, “Student Body,” an original play, examined issues of more pressing interest to the student population, while “The Vagina Monologues,” which has traditionally been performed annually, would not necessarily spark the same sort of discussion. She believes that activism is central to campus theater. “Mount Holyoke is a community that is really dedicated to social justice work and being really conscious in whatever you’re doing, whether it’s theater or science or anything,” she says.

At the same time, her focus is on the show itself. “I hesitate to say I do activist theater because I do all theater. Any theater that I’ve done that’s had any activist bent or social justice bent to it is because that’s the show that we’re doing,” says Murphy.

Similarly, Yusuf’s play “Negative” pursued the end of examining and promoting discussion of Harvard’s race and class dynamics. It accomplished this through an interesting structure: In the first act, the two protagonists, one from a wealthy and privileged background, one poor and disadvantaged, were first played by a black actress and white actress respectively; in the second act, the actresses changed roles and played out the same events. Beyond this interesting internal structure, however, the play sought to convey its message by directly engaging the audience. Viewers were given index cards on which to write their reactions to the first and second acts. These were collected and, in a talkback moderated by Sustained Dialogue, the audience and the staff and actors in the production had a discussion about the play and the audience reactions to it. “It really surprised me to see how emotional some people got,” Yusuf says. “The whole talkback thing got really personal for them—they talked about experiences they actually had freshman year at Harvard with their roommates or something like that.” This entire process was heavily oriented towards maximizing the audience’s interaction with the text and its message.

At the same time, a balance must be maintained between the clarity of a play’s point and its virtue qua art. “I don’t think I would choose a show just based on the fact that it’s well-written, but it’s also bad to just choose a show based on the message if it’s just not a good play,” Yusuf says. “It’s better when the message comes off more subtly.”

Murphy and Yusuf typify a particular way of dealing with socially conscious theater: While message is important, they believe that the play itself must be worthy art to best convey that message.


A different approach is to elevate the message to the place of importance, putting all other aspects of the play in service to the desired moral. Carolyn Levy is a professor of theater at Hamline University, where she directs the student-manned Making Waves Social Justice Theatre Troupe, whose website declares that it “uses the art of performance to provoke dialogue about race, gender, class and other issues that can threaten our diverse and collaborative community of learners.” Levy came of age at Cornell during the anti-Vietnam War movement and participated in the 1970 national student strike.“One of the things I had to do and I had to go and tell each of my professors what I was doing.… I went to my acting teacher, and my acting teacher, whom I considered my mentor at that time, told me I could either be committed to my politics or to my work in the theater, but I couldn’t do both,” Levy says. “I was very young and very much believed him and so kept those two parts of my life very separate for a very long time.... It was probably about 10 years later that I began to figure out that using theater around issues of social change was important, that that’s what I wanted to do.”

Perhaps due to this background, Making Waves takes a more radical approach to provoking social change than many theater practitioners do. First, all of its plays are based on direct experience. “We do all the writing and just about everything we do is based on something real, some story that a student as shared with us,” says Levy. More importantly, the troupe’s work is philosophically grounded in the direct involvement of the audience. “The Theatre of the Oppressed is a way created by Augusto Boal, a way of engaging the audience and not allowing the audience to maintain themselves as spectators,” says Levy. “Boal called them ‘spect-actors’ instead of spectators, and really had this idea that if you sit back as an audience member and just watch the play, it’s too easy just to say, ‘Oh, that was neat,’ or, ‘Oh, that was interesting,’ or, ‘Oh, boy, that was moving,’ or, ‘Oh, that was tough; they were talking about some really heavy stuff,’ but not engage any further than that.”

Instead of this passive reception of a play, the audience members are given the opportunity to ask questions of the actors while they are still in character. Viewers then re-enact scenes from the plays, trying to take a better approach to a situation than the character whose place they are taking. While Levy still uses talkbacks as Yusuf did, she feels that the direct involvement of the viewer in the story is far more important. “Talkbacks, in my opinion, only go so far,” she says.

The group’s productions are sparse to the point of austerity: In lieu of costumes, actors wear T-shirts with the troupe’s logo, and props are limited to backpacks or books that the actors happen to have on hand. This sparsity grants the troupe a high degree of mobility, allowing them to perform easily before classes, conferences, and professional meetings—roughly 30 times per year, Levy says. In short, the productions are designed above all to convey their educational point directly and in any context; they have a singular, pedagogic purpose. This purpose is centered on the community at Hamline University but is generalizable to society at large.

“We do have a mission, and our mission is very much to help the campus address some of these issues—not just to learn about racism, but so that people are actually changing how they’re acting and making the campus a better place,” Levy says. “We can make the community a better place, and that may be what some people call propaganda.”


Theater, and all art, can be put in service of a cause. Indeed, perhaps all art is in service of a cause, intentionally or not; perhaps art for art’s sake is a meaningless slogan. There is an inherent discomfort with the idea of propaganda; but, at the end of the discussion, is it really different from any other literary or artistic product? Or is it the limiting case, the most effective form, of what other works try to do anyway? “We are about changing the campus, we are about changing the way people are treated,” says Levy. Theater is a powerful tool in swaying opinions and effecting political change, affecting even issues of life and death: Plato cites Aristophanes’s caricature of Socrates in “Clouds” as a decisive factor in poisoning the Athenian citizenry against the philosopher. Determining the most effective methods of persuasion within the art will help us better understand how it can be used responsibly.

Staff writer Jude D. Russo can be contacted at