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Political Drama




Admission Requirements



Homo Politicus on Stage: Introduction to Political Drama

“Power comes only with the death of politics”, one of Wole Soyinka’s characters reflects in A Play of Giants; and that is where a certain kind of theater begins, one might add. In this course we will read and discuss some thought-provoking twentieth-century plays that engage with political themes – portraying not so much those famous historical individuals whose grand visions shaped the course of events (although a Hitler or some thinly disguised African leaders do occasionally grace the stage), but common people who played a role (or hoped they did) in events ranging from the French Revolution to the war in Afghanistan. Our interest in shedding light on historical events as diverse as dictatorship in Chile or in Romania, or on the psychological intricacies of obsession with power, will be on equal footing with an examination of the plays in their generic specificity, tracing lineages and influences among various playwrights. Our map of twentieth-century drama will thus include Brecht’s epic theater, the theater of the absurd, the theater of cruelty, and various other forms of what some critics identified as “post-dramatic” theater. In addition to the plays listed below, students will draw their ideas for presentations from various sources on the historical background of events, political documents and reports, the dramatic genre, reviews, and other critical literature.

Primary texts include:

  • Bertolt Brecht, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (a play about the rise of Hitler in Germany cast as a parable featuring Chicago gangsters inspired by Al Capone)

  • Jean Genet, The Balcony (a subtle meditation on power as illusion and performance)

  • Peter Weiss, Marat/Sade (a play-within-a-play about the French revolution, devised by the Marquis de Sade and performed by the sans-culottes as asylum inmates)

  • Yukio Mishima, My Friend Hitler (German-Japanese relations, Japanese nationalism, and Hitler)

  • Caryl Churchill, Mad Forest (a play about life in Romania before and after 1989, vampires, stray dogs, and exhilarated crowds)

  • Wole Soyinka, A Play of Giants (a tragicomedy about megalomaniac African dictators, the United Nations, and the West)

  • Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden (on the difficulties of post-dictatorship reconciliation in Chile; on history, trauma, and the healing power of art)

  • Tony Kushner, Homebody/Kabul (on Afghanistan and the lost illusions of the West)

  • Tom Stoppard, Rock’n’Roll (the failure of Communism, moral exhibitionism and rock music)

Course Objectives

The aims of the course can be outlined under two related headings:

  • familiarize students with some major political plays of the twentieth century and the historical events that constitute their background.

  • introduce students to a technical vocabulary and aesthetic history that allows them to discuss such texts competently and with elegance.

Mode of Instruction

Classes will typically be opened by student presentations introducing and contextualizing the text(s) for the day, followed by a discussion involving the students, partly based on their written responses to the readings. A thorough engagement with the readings, a thoughtful manner of presenting and discussing one’s ideas in class, as well as respect for our differences of opinion are crucial for the optimal unfolding of the course.




Required literature:

  • Bertolt Brecht, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

  • Jean Genet, The Balcony

  • Peter Weiss, Marat/Sade

  • Yukio Mishima, My Friend Hitler

  • Caryl Churchill, Mad Forest

  • Wole Soyinka, A Play of Giants

  • Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden

  • Tony Kushner, Homebody/Kabul

  • Tom Stoppard, Rock’n’Roll

Contact Information

Please address any course-related questions to

Weekly Overview

  • Week 1
    Introduction to 20th-century drama; a major influence: Brecht’s epic theater. Play: Bertolt Brecht, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

  • Week 2
    Brecht’s legacy transformed: the theater of the absurd. Play: Jean Genet, The Balcony

  • Week 3
    Brecht’s legacy transformed (continued): distanciation and raw experience? Artaud, the “theater of cruelty” (excerpt from The Theatre and Its Double). Play: Peter Weiss, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade

  • Weeks 4-7
    “Post-dramatic” theater. Plays: Yukio Mishima, My Friend Hitler; Caryl Churchill, Mad Forest; Wole Soyinka, A Play of Giants; Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden; Tony Kushner, Homebody/Kabul; Tom Stoppard, Rock’n’Roll.

Preparation for first session

Students will most benefit from the class-experience if they read at least some of the plays before the start of the course. At a minimum, they should come to the first day of class prepared to talk about Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and Jean Genet’s The Balcony.