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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Steppenwolf on Patriotism

What follows is an incredible meditation on the role of theatre in people's lives.


Posted by Martha Lavey on 7/09/2008

I’m thinking about patriotism. I write this on our Fourth of July weekend as our final production of our “What does it mean to be American?” season is on the Steppenwolf stage and our presidential candidates exchange assertions of their patriotic pedigree. I find the whole discourse about their relative patriotism mad. Mad. And distracting. Two men who have devoted their lives to public service, two men who are willing to endure the ridiculous scrutiny of the electoral process–the enormous personal sacrifice of putting themselves on the line on a daily basis in front of the American electorate–and anyone is questioning their “patriotism?”

What it provokes in me is self-examination. How am I asserting my patriotism? I consider myself patriotic. Which is to say: I think that the principles upon which this country is founded are majestic and that the documents that encode those principles are breathtaking in their wisdom. I think there are many moments in America’s history when we have, as a people and as a government, risen to that majesty. And moments when we have miserably failed those ideals. I believe my responsibility as an American citizen is to continue to examine our behavior against our ideals and as a theater artist, to use my work to encourage that inquiry.

I guess I believe that the central contribution that we, as theater artists, can contribute is to keep asking our audiences to see themselves, first, as citizens. Not consumers, not taxpayers, citizens. Which is to say: people whose primary relationship is to community; people who are negotiating their behavior in relation to the well-being of others. Not a person in relation to the acquisition of stuff (a consumer); not a person in relation to the government (taxpayer); a person in relation to the well-being of others. Others: both fellow American citizens and fellow citizens of the world.

How do I think theater can do that? By keeping us in touch with our humanness. By making us feel more alive. By touching the deep parts of ourselves–our sadness, our joy, our humor, our intelligence, our shame, our love, our fear. Because when we get in touch with those parts of ourselves, we open onto our compassion, we see ourselves in relationship to the great stew of human thought and feeling.

If everyone who left a Steppenwolf play feeling that life is complicated and rich and that they, themselves, are part of that complicated richness, I would feel that we are doing our patriotic part. Because experiencing one’s own complexity and depth is to experience one’s self as a citizen–a person in relationship to other people. A person engaged in the world, a person capable of compassion.

It’s an honor to play to you. I’d be really interested in how you think about patriotism and what it means in your life.

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