Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Review: Radical Acts by Martin Duberman

Radical Acts: Collected Political Plays
Martin Duberman

Published by The New Press

Reviewed by Jonathan Statham


Martin Duberman is perhaps best known as a historian, biographer, political essayist and gay activist. Radical Acts is his second collection of plays and brings together four plays written and re-written between 1963 and today. Jointly they show the historian’s ‘attempts to make theatre and in particular political theatre, out of historical materials’; more particularly, the history of slavery (In White America), the life of Emma Goldman (Mother Earth), the trial of Newton Arvin (Posing Naked), the relationships of Jack Kerouac (Visions of Kerouac).

Certainly, each play takes a different political issue as its central theme, but being about politics is not the same as being political. For what Duberman’s writing signally fails to do is to carry over his acute political analyses of history into a politicised theatrical praxis: instead, with the exception of In White America to which I will return, the plays are written in the twentieth century’s most hegemonic, bourgeois form: realism.

Having said that, these are by no means kitchen sink dramas. Their locus is the podium, the courtroom and the street. But then why not explore the inherent theatricality of these forms more directly? For example, some of Duberman’s stage directions are rather more cinematic or novelistic: ‘scene shifts to Emma on another lecture platform, in midspeech’ might be effective editing but on stage it interrupts the embodied performance, defusing the performative power of her political oratory.

Implicit in his preface is Duberman’s failure to acknowledge that playwrights never write for ‘the’ theatre but only for ‘a’ theatre, a specific practice in a specific politico-economic world. Thus, Mother Earth, even as it hymns anarchism, requires a revolving stage, the kind of stage machinery typically found at the heart of the capitalist entertainment complex. As such, these plays run the risk of being not ‘radical acts’ but containment strategies, offering up the lives and ideas of radicals like Goldman and Ginsberg within the confines of the conventionally well-wrought realist drama. After all, Goldman famously declared that if ‘I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution’. And in Mother Earth, she does not dance…

At this juncture, however, let me note that as historical essays in dramatic form these texts function very beautifully: they demonstrate the double insight of a powerful historical mind combined with passionate imaginative empathy. In many ways, these texts would be make neat codas to academic studies. This would allow them to illuminate that which internally they never resolve: the relationship between history and histrionic individuality (which characterises Duberman’s protagonists).

It is in this that In White America remains a notable exception. Far from being classically realist, it is what we now call a ‘docu-drama’, a form of increasing popularity in the twenty-first century. As an historical collage, it manifestly exposes a relationship between individual experiences and the vast historical sweep of events. This is what the realist form of Duberman’s later plays cannot do: it cannot recognise the political character of history, its mosaic form; that it is, as Duberman puts it, ‘only fragmentary traces, and not the whole record of what happened’. Realism and the well-made play, however, inherently claim to tell a whole story. (This can of course be subverted; as Duberman begins to do in Posing Naked, setting the final in ‘the courtroom but not entirely a naturalistic setting’. This is nonetheless a restrained effect.)

Duberman is still perhaps right in his preface when he considers In White America only a partial success in its dramatisation of historical material (particularly, the use of narration is flawed). It is just a shame that this self-analysis pushed him not to experiment but to retreat to more conventional staging. (In this regard, if space permitted, it would be worth drawing comparison between Radical Acts and Richard Norton-Taylor’s plays for London’s Tricycle Theatre.)

The plays in Radical Acts, then, do make fascinating reading, evoking the personalities of historical figures with compelling ease. As performance texts they may not quite find a theatrical register, but as historical essays in dialogue form they provide insights which complement the more traditional forms we give to our histories.


Jonathan Statham lives and writes in Manchester.

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