Of course, in Part 2 of his essay, Isherwood proceeds to undo everything he wrote in Part 1, so it is hard to know what to think.
But very often the issue of "preaching to the converted" comes up when discussing political theatre, and in fact George asks, "But if the people who form that society don't show up for the performance, who is confronted? If agit-prop is performed in an empty theatre, is ti still agit-prop?" My quibble to that question might be whether political theatre and agit-prop are synonymous -- the latter might more usefully be defined as a subset of the former. But let that go. The dismissal of theatre that preaches to the converted is a topic I encountered just this morning in Jill Dolan's brilliant Utopia in Performance.
Dolan speaks about having Holly Hughes perform her Preaching to the Perverted (her one-woman show that examines her experience as a member of the NEA Four) at the University of Texas at Austin. She writes:
"Hughes remains an activist artist, who performance work and public presentations insist on examining culture and politics through art. She was eloquent in her meeting with my class and in her public interview. She deconstructed the notion of 'preaching to the converted,' an issue that already concerned my students, who feared that political work reaches a too narrow audience of people already persuaded to think progressively. How, they wondered, could more people be persuaded, so that performance and its potential for social change wouldn't be ghettoized far from the notice of those who perhaps need to see it most? Quoting theater scholar David Roman and performance artist Tim Miller's writing on this issue, Hughes proceeded to shake up some of these notions by suggesting that 'conversion' is always unstable, that people are never, finally, converted to anything; there's always ambiguity, ambivalence and doubt. Performance, Hughes insisted, is a renewal of faith, and progressive politics are always faith-based."
In a footnote in which she provides the citation for Tim Miller and David Roman's "Preaching to the Converted" in Theatre Journal 47, no 2 (1995), she also notes Vicki Patraka's interview with performance artist Robbie McCauley, in which McCauley says about preaching to the converted:
"I think that criticism is a cop-out. First of all, how much fo the converted know? And things resonate, ripple out. This is not to say that you do not work constantly for audience development; we need to grapple with ways to expand audiences. But we don't need to put that problem in the way of doing the work, making our work clear and beautiful for our audiences. The whole issue is just a block."
To be fair, Isherwood says just that:
"“Preaching to the converted” is the dismissive epithet easily hurled at plays that air a social ill in front of audiences predisposed to share the playwright’s view. But why shouldn’t theatergoers draw the same kind of sustenance from the collective experience of theater that congregants do from sermons at church? We all have spiritual lives of some kind, beliefs that are articles of faith more than reason. And they are nurtured by a sense of common feeling, the knowledge that we are not alone in our perceptions, whether they consist of general religious tenets or specific moral stances on social or political issues."
But he precedes it with this declaration, as if to put this thorny question finally to rest:
"Can art save the day? More specifically, can theater rouse the populace from a sense of numbed anxiety? Can a stage play change minds, or help channel passive beliefs into active commitment? Short-term answer: a resounding “Nope.” Long-term answer: a less resounding if hardly less dispiriting “Probably not, alas."
"Does this mean that theater has a perceptible or quantifiable impact on the issues raised? As I suggested earlier, not necessarily, or not much. I haven’t rushed to the barricades, hand in hand with the fellow in seat G102, any time recently. But I have left the theater with a more vivid sense of the painful human cost of public policy or a deeper knowledge of the gritty specifics of a specific historical event."
This is a red herring. To charge any individual event, artistic or not, with causing people to rush to the barricades is nonsensical. It is, as McCauley notes, a block -- an attempt to dispirit those who care by undermining any sense of hope that one's actions might make a difference. If political theatre does nothing else, it can serve to recharge the reserves of courage and commitment required of those who would enact social change. The changing of minds is a slow process of building empathy, making arguments, and exerting peer pressure (and probably the latter is the most important). Political theatre can be a player in the first two, and can provide courage and persuasive power for the last.
An additional red herring is to bemoan the lack of "masterpieces" in political theatre. The first critical question Geothe propounded was "What is the work trying to do?" The purpose of political theatre -- what it is "trying to do" -- may promote the expression of a clear and powerful message over artistic issues. While it is true that a combination of political power and artistic power might lead to a production that would be able to reach beyond the "converted" to touch a larger number of "average" theatregoers, this does not diminish the usefulness of those works that do not. I am not a fan of the aesthetics of plays like The Exonerated or Guantanamo, but I do value their power to bolster outrage and moral fervor. There is no doubt in my mind that Weiss' The Investigation or Kipphardt's In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer are much better plays, but every once in a while, when the chips are down, we need to trot out Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been to remind people that America has a history of political bullying and a tendency toward fascistic behavior -- even though Bentley's play is, aesthetically, a rather flat affair.
The problem lies, it seems to me, in "One Size Fits All" theatre criticism that wants to measure every production using the same critical yardstick. When that yardstick measures the inches of "pleasant entertainment," what goes unmeasured is a powerful giant whose practical effectiveness may tower over the Liliputian entertainments being worshipped as aesthetic gladiators.