E ve Ensler has been thinking about torture. Probably this should be no surprise. Since The Vagina Monologues began its march across the globe, she has made a steady habit of writing plays about important public issues, like women’s self-image and the plight of Bosnian war victims. And torture is certainly an important public issue—you can’t argue with that.
In fact, you can’t argue with any of it. Ensler’s two-hander, The Treatment, gives us a soldier (Dylan McDermott) just back from torturing detainees, and a therapist (Portia) trying to soothe his unquiet mind. Director Leigh Silverman tries to sculpt some drama here, yet the play can’t help but feel like a deposition. So torture is an abomination? Absolutely. It hurts both the victim and the perpetrator? No question. It has been inflicted on us by officials in Washington, who deserve our censure? Hear! Hear! But doesn’t that leave you feeling bad at the end of a play? It does—and doesn’t that feel great?
With all due respect to the mild virtues of Ensler’s play, I have had enough of inarguability. I’m tired of affirmation—I want an argument. At this point, I would very keenly like someone to write a play defending the tragic necessity of torture. I’d like someone to convince me that Dick Cheney genuinely has our best interests at heart and that Jesus really wants me to be rich. At least I wish someone would try. But until Karl Rove puts some playwrights on the payroll, I bet I’ll go on wishing.
Because while you can find many issue plays in New York, there are almost no political plays. The issue play dramatizes (or merely presents) a problem that has been in or near the headlines. Sometimes it suggests a solution, but almost always it points us toward a villain, if we can’t spot him already. This identification with the good and dislike for the bad renders issue plays essentially sentimental. Make no mistake, there’s room for such plays in the theater. Being part of a like-minded audience can build a sense of community and stiffen people’s spines. That has real value; sentiments, as Lionel Trilling wrote, have a way of becoming full-fledged ideas in time, and with work.
But a genuinely political play does more than affirm. It doesn’t just ask for our attention, it demands our engagement—moral, emotional, and intellectual. Paradoxically, it draws us out of ourselves to take us into ourselves, forcing us to rethink what we think we know. Mother Courage makes an overwhelming case against the horrors of war; it also features several very compelling arguments against the graver injustices of peace. You, in the audience, must adjudicate. The character in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt who won the sympathy of all us lefty New Yorkers was an old-school nun, a strident conservative who explained her preemptive actions in what might be interpreted as a coded defense of the Bush Doctrine. If she is right, was he?
You’d think that if any city would be full of heterodox dramas, it would be great, disputatious, liberal New York, but this is only one of many ways in which the theater seems sealed off from the energy of the city around it. So while I’d like to believe that everyone is right to be so excited about all the putatively political theater on tap this season, I’m going to need some convincing. It’s encouraging to see that the National Theatre of Greece is presenting The Persians at City Center this week: In the oldest surviving play in the West, Aeschylus took Athenian audiences into the camps of their vanquished foes—a radical gesture in the aftermath of a brutal war. I’m also eager to see Heartbreak House, soon to be revived by the Roundabout. No one has ever enjoyed deflating a conventional piety more than Shaw. That may help to explain why he’s been so unpopular in Manhattan lately, and so sorely needed.