New York and After

Gassner, realism, and the “method”

Authored by: Frances Babbage

The Routledge Companion to Theatre of the Oppressed

Print publication date:  February  2019
Online publication date:  February  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138291027
eBook ISBN: 9781315265704
Adobe ISBN:


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Augusto Boal’s Games for Actors and Non-Actors (1992) carried a bold endorsement on its back cover: for Richard Schechner, Boal had “achieved what Brecht only dreamt of and wrote about: making a useful theatre that is entertaining, fun, and instructive.” 1 Where Bertolt Brecht sought a new kind of audience appropriate for the “scientific age,” profoundly involved yet skeptically alert, Boal took that impulse further by proposing a “spect-actor” who would not just deconstruct the dramatic scene intellectually, but could remake it actively. 2 His indebtedness to Brecht is plain; further, Boal’s reminder that Brecht “wanted the theatrical spectacle to be the beginning of action” implicitly upholds Schechner’s distinction. 3 Yet an equally important, if less obvious, influence on Boal’s developing practice was the realist tradition associated with Konstantin Stanislavski. Boal undertook formal theatre training in New York, at a point when “serious” drama—as opposed to Broadway musicals, then enjoying a “golden age”—predominantly meant psychological realism. Many of realism’s core tenets seem antithetical to the Theatre of the Oppressed: emphasis on subjective experience, rather than social image; empathic identification, rather than objective analysis; and above all, faithful representation of the world as it is, rather than a resistant staging which reveals that world as dynamic and changeable. Nonetheless, while Boal recognized the limitations of realism, he did not react against the version he encountered on the US stage. Indeed, he took inspiration from it: Boal’s early work at the Arena Theatre put principles of realist drama and rehearsal directly into practice. In his 2001 autobiography Hamlet and the Baker’s Son, he emphasized that studying Stanislavski had been a “cornerstone” of his career and would “always […] be [his] main point of reference as a director.” 4 This affirmation should draw our attention to the ways in which even the activist, participatory, and concertedly “anti-illusionist” Theatre of the Oppressed system developed subsequently still bears traces of the realist model.

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