Globalisation in Theatre in the 20th/21st Century

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Subject: Drama » Drama (general)
Last updated: 20/10/2017
Tags: acting, drama, english, globalisation, theatre

When approaching a subject as vast and current as globalisation in the context of cultural criticism, it is important first to define its manifestations and its effect on contemporary society. The idea of globalisation is one that is recent in academic study and one that we are in the midst of in our current situation; it has a number of labels, often used by the media – "Westernisation", "Modernisation", and most precariously, "Americanisation". What it refers to is the integration of regional economies, cultures and, ultimately, societies across the globe through, at the very base of the process, economics. Shifts in trade patterns that have happened over hundreds of years, from local, regional trade, to trade and commerce on a global level, have led to the modern globalisation we have now. In contemporary society, to refer back to the sensitive idea of "Americanisation", globalisation manifests itself in the spread of capitalism, and most importantly, 'American-style "democratic capitalism"' (Gray, 2003: 3). What this has led to is the culture we are familiar with in the UK today – fast food, Hollywood, Starbucks, the high-octane lifestyle of the city worker and the society that revolves around the generation and consumption of capital; as Friedman notes, '…the spread (for better or for worse) of Americanization – from Big Macs to iMacs to Mickey Mouse' (Friedman, 2000: 20). In a step back to the days of early globalisation – British colonialism, the trade of natural resources such as spices and silk with the East – we are now experiencing a period of neo-Imperialism powered by the United States. Of course, I make the assumption that these processes are inevitable; whether or not they are is not for debate in this discussion – instead, I assess how this apparent inevitability is approached by creative practices.

In terms of culture, like any aspect of life, economic globalisation has a direct effect. Fortier states quite correctly, '…changes in the world are bound to produce changes in theatrical production…culture is thought of as a superstructure dependant upon a socioeconomic base' (Fortier, 2002: 152-154). Here, Fortier uses distinct Marxist terms, and it is difficult to discuss globalisation, capitalism, and economics on a whole without touching upon Marxist ideas. The socioeconomic base that is referred to here is, as Marx puts it in his earliest critique of capitalism, the 'modes of production' (Marx, 1859); that is, the ways in which goods and capital is generated in a given society. So, for example, in the context of the early capitalism Marx was writing about, the modes of production were the factories that came with the industrial revolution, the introduction of wage labour. In a contemporary sense, however, there has been a shift in the modes of production in the UK and the west as a whole; neo-Imperialism and Americanisation has brought about a society in which commercial business is the chief mode of production. Factory lines and industry has been largely outsourced to foreign countries, where it is vastly cheaper to maintain, and the hallmark of contemporary capitalism is "financialisation", where literally making money is the dominant industry.

So what does economic globalisation and Americanisation mean for the theatre? Its effects are very clear to see without delving too deep; over the past two centuries, popular entertainment has drastically changed. The most obvious shift has been from stage to screen; since the introduction of film in America in the late nineteenth century, theatres popularity has been declining. As Nelmes notes, the growth of film theatres was rapid,

Once projectors were available, single-reel films started to be shown in vaudeville theatres as novelties. Exhibition outlets began to multiply…By the end of 1905 there were an estimated 1000 of these theatres in America; by 1908 there were 6000. (Nelmes, 2003: 4)

In terms of the UK, the birth of British cinema is widely acknowledged as 1896, the year of 'the first public cinematograph screening' (Nelmes: 322). Despite initially having a "low-brow" label, cinema soon made its moves on the theatre tradition of Britain, 'Actors were attracted from the stage and literary adaptations (including Dickens and Shakespeare) were filmed in the studio and on location' (Nelmes: 324). Hollywood now dominates our entertainment industry, and has done for the past fifty years or so. There is very little the theatre industry can do in the shadow of the sheer financial and commercial power of the movies, and this effect is not just confined to the UK; a true indication of globalisation, of Americanisation, is simply Hollywood's worldwide status.

Many contemporary performers and theatre practitioners have approached and attacked globalisation and the Americanisation of the world through their work. Some practitioners, such as Michael Landy with his 2001 installation performance, have attacked globalisation's economic affect, taking the view against American "democratic capitalism" (Gray: 3) that Harvie outlines,

…while globalisation's escalating global social interdependence might at first appear to promise to level and democratise global economic opportunity, it seems instead to intensify global economic inequality. (Harvie, 2006: 62)   

Landy's work was an interesting and challenging critique of the consumer capitalist culture we live in today and that is being forced upon the rest of the world by America and the west. Occupying a disused shop on London's Oxford Street, Landy completely destroyed every possession he owned. Meticulously working his way through 7227 of his own belongings, he reduced them to powder by using a conveyor belt machine that destroyed the objects that passed through it. The features of consumer capitalist critique are clear in Landy's work – he took the conveyor belt system, the symbol of factory line production and Fordist capitalism, and inverted its function to that of destruction; the fact he used an empty shopping space that was once the UK flagship store of C&A in the surroundings of Europe's busiest shopping district, Oxford Street, in one of the world's financial, cultural, and consumerist capitals, London, was also highly effective, 'In the context of Oxford Street, any attempt to refuse to buy, let alone destroy commodities makes a strong statement' (Randall, 2006: 57). What Landy created in the space was a sweatshop-style dis-production line, complete with workers, echoing the cheap run factories and slave labour that western capitalism has created in some of the poorest countries in the world. Instead of producing high-street fashion at a very low cost, Landy's sweatshop destroyed the commodities of western culture in the fashion-conscious context of Oxford Street.

However, the most interesting aspect of Landy's work was the more subtle and reflective comment it made on the culture it was critiquing, going back to my earlier comments; the inevitability of capitalist processes in contemporary society, and society's inability to remove itself from the consumer capitalist pattern. As Harvie notes, Break Down is a simultaneous rejection and 'engagement' (Harvie: 64) with capitalist culture. By placing himself in the context of high capitalism on Oxford Street, exhibiting all his belongings, and then destroying them, Landy completes both this engagement and rejection. What his work epitomises for Harvie is the 'seduction and repulsion of capitalist consumerism', and it is this dichotomy, this paradox, that seems to express society's impotence against the western capitalist machine.

The power of Landy's work, one can only imagine, comes from the rather harrowing and disturbing image of a man destroying, to use a common yet interesting term, "all he is worth". It is not only ideas of consumerism and value that are being approached by Landy, but also sentimentality. As Fox states, it was perhaps exactly this that made Break Down so successful, attracting around forty-five thousand viewers, 'sentimentality rather than industrial satire was the mechanism that kept it rolling' (Fox, 2001).  What Landy does here is make a supplementary comment on the effect consumerist capitalism has had on us as people – he questions what we regard as of value, as important in our lives, asserting that perhaps we have begun to place too much worth in the commodities we buy.

Caryl Churchill takes a similar ethical approach to her work with her 2000 play, Far Away. Premiering in the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in 2000, Far Away tells the story of three characters who live in a dystopian world, where, by the end, the entire world, humans, animals and insects, are at war. Far Away is a play of "Yeatsian…terrible beauty" (reviews, Royal Court Theatre, see bib.), but there is very little that is beautiful about the damning message that underlines the entire piece. In the opening scene of the play, after Joan sees her uncle kidnapping and beating what seem to be asylum seekers, her dismissive aunt Harper explains Joan's role in society, a passage that perhaps echoes the ignorant sentiments of the American globalising machine that Churchill is critiquing in her work,

HARPER: …But now you understand, it's not so bad. You're part of a big movement now to make things better. You can be proud of that. You can look at the stars and think here we are in our little bit of space, and I'm on the side of the people who are putting things right…(Churchill, 2003: 20)

Similar to Landy's work, the majority of the drama takes place in a factory production line between the two main characters, Joan and Todd. Again, familiar symbols of consumerist capitalism are used – production, wage labour, consumerism, fashion – as a backdrop against which Churchill creates two characters who seem to epitomise the futility of fighting against the culture they are part of. Despite the macabre business they are in, making hats 'to be worn in a terrible fashion' (reviews, Royal Court) by prisoners on death row, Joan and Todd seem de-politicised, numb even; they are blissfully unaware, if not ignorant, of the inhumanities that they are active in and complicit of. Both characters are too self-centred, they can only engage in superficial, ephemeral conversation. Joan and Todd become a damning metaphor for society – unaware, or ignorant, of the damaging effects that globalisation, led by the capitalist west, can have.

To refer back to the Marxist idea of slave labour briefly mentioned previously, Joan and Todd are also characterised as slaves to their wages – they are so dependent on their jobs to survive, and are too tied down by them to act against them, therefore they are tied down and into the capitalist system. This is epitomised in scene 3, where they briefly complain about their jobs and their situation, but do very little about it, and just continue doing their jobs as they were before,

JOAN: It's just if you're going on about it all the time I don't know why you don't do something about it.

TODD: This is your third day.

JOAN: The management's corrupt – you've told me. We're too low paid – you've told me.

Silence. They go on working.

TODD: Too much green. (Churchill, 2003: 27)

Again here, Churchill uses the characters and their situation to critique the numbing and alienating effects that capitalist wage labour can have. Here again, Marxist theory cannot be avoided, as it is Marx (Marx & Engels, 1996) who first proposes that alienation is a systemic result of capitalism in that workers become a mere cog in a bigger machine; they become commodities, or their services do, to be traded on the market, and they become automatons completing and repeating the same processes to produce capital for their employers, and also little capital for themselves so they can carry on living. Joan and Todd, like many workers in contemporary capitalist society, are slaves to their wages, tied in and locked down by capitalism. 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Churchill's Far Away is the way the play ends. The final act takes place 'several years' (Churchill, 2003: 34) after the main action, and it visualises a world in which everything is at war. The dialogue is bizarre, and describes how 'The cats have come in on the side of the French', 'Mallards…commit rape', and Todd has 'gassed mixed troops of Spanish, computer programmers and dogs' (Churchill, 2003: 35-40). Though it is difficult to find a moral or a message beneath the absurd final scene of the play, it is clear that the mass destruction Churchill imagines is a dystopian metaphor, evoking the negative and destructive effects that globalisation can have. What Churchill is dramatising in Far Away is the power and dominance that western democratic capitalist ideology has over its society; Harper, Joan and Todd are portrayed as pawns in a governmental game of globalisation and exploitation, and the echoes of Americanisation and neo-Imperialism are not only evident, but also disturbing.

Globalisation is a tender and difficult subject to approach due to its political relevance to society today. However, its manifestations in contemporary performance practice are interesting and challenging. As I have previously stated it is hard to analyse the subject without touching upon Marx's theories of capitalism and economics, and from this, it becomes clear that many practitioners' ideas, whether consciously or not, are loosely based on Marxist concepts.

The two works I have discussed certainly have their communist elements, but what neither pieces claim to do, unlike Karl Marx himself, is hold the answer to the questions they pose. Landy's dramatic and rather personal performance of commodity destruction poses its audience with challenging questions about their own ideas of value and importance, and Churchill's fictional representation of a modern global world gone wrong reveals concerns about society's role in global exploitation and hidden destruction. However, both pieces are more observational than anything else – they present the audience with a visualisation of the society they are a part of; they reveal and focus on the unspoken worries of globalisation and Americanisation that contemporary society is perhaps not comfortable with.

Churchill, C. (2000) Far Away, reviews from Time Out & Sunday Times, on
Churchill, C. (2003) Far Away, London: Nick Hern Books
Fortier, M. (2002) Theory/Theatre: An Introduction, second edition, New York, London: Routledge.
Fox, D. (2001) ‘Michael Landy’, in Frieze, Issue 59, May 2001, accessed 12.05.2010
Friedman, T. (2000) The Lexus and the Olive Tree, New York: Anchor.
Gray, J. (2003) Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern, London: Faber & Faber.
Harvie, J. (2006) ‘Witnessing Michael Landy’s Break Down: Metonymy, Affect, and Politicised Performance in an age of Global Consumer Capitalism’, in Contemporary Theatre Review, Vol. 16 (1), pp. 62-72.
Marx, K. (1996) Das Kapital: a critique of political economy, Washington: Regnery Gateway
Marx, K. (1859) A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,
Nelmes, J. (2003) An Introduction to Film Studies, third edition, New York, London: Routledge.
Randall, J. (2006) Art and Architecture, London: I.B. Tauris.

Todd Heppenstall A-level English Tutor (South East London)

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