Secret Messages in Service of Hope

Nov 09, 2021

In September of 1970, at the age of 19, I traveled to Athens, Greece to spend a year studying archeology, Greek history, ancient Greek theater, and modern Greek language. At the time, Greece was ruled by an oppressive junta that had taken power in 1967 supposedly to quell demonstrations and riots of leftist radicals. What followed were seven years of limited freedom that led to a society full of fear and oppression. Political opponents mysteriously disappeared, were murdered, or banished to remote islands in the Aegean Sea. Torture during imprisonment was common. 

Due to the repressive government, I had been warned not to go to Greece, but I went anyway. It turned out to be an extraordinary year full of insight into Greek history and culture, many new friendships, and plenty of adventure.

During my first week in Athens, I went to the theater of Herodes Atticus, at the base of the Acropolis, to see Aristophanes’ The Clouds.  The ancient theater, with a seating capacity of about 6,000, was built in the Roman times, in about 161 A.D., by the Roman philosopher, teacher and politician Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife.  

The city of Athens turned out in droves to see the production. New to both Greece and the Greek language, I did not understand a lot of what I experienced. But the atmosphere at this outdoor theater was electric. Something monumental seemed to be happening and from time to time, swells of vocal response broke out in waves through the audience.  And this reaction did not appear to be solely about the audience’s empathy for the ancient Greek story. Something else was at afoot. 

The play was not performed in ancient Greek, rather in Katharevousa, a highly formal version of the modern Greek language used for official and ceremonial purposes. Even though not spoken in Demotic Greek, or the Greek spoken in daily life, the audience responded as if the play had arrived hot off the presses. I learned later that the reactions, that seemed so kinetic and explosive, were rejoinders to many veiled references implanted in the production that referred to and addressed the oppression of the junta government’s political machinations. The vocal resistance was palpable, but no one could be prosecuted for responding to an ancient Greek story. Classical theater, which might seem innocuous to the government censors, provided a great way to criticize the regime and avoid censorship.  

What I experienced that evening at the outdoor theater, although I did not know it at the time, was an example of cultural resistance under totalitarianism, using hidden meanings imbedded in a public discourse. Throughout history, the theater has been one of the most coherent and imaginative oppositional platforms against inhumane totalitarian regimes.  When theater makers find themselves under an oppressive system, they are put into a position to envision novel ways of addressing the most salient issues.  The point is to criticize contemporary political conditions while at the same time circumventing censorship. The spoken text might be juxtaposed to contrary actions revealing multiple meanings to audiences who are able to interpret the aural and visual languages of the stage. Using hidden messages embedded in ritual, gesture, spectacle, rhetoric, and theatrical conventions, the theater becomes a unique site where individual and collective resistance could meet.

In eastern Europe during the Soviet era (1947-1989), theater was often used as a potent political strategy to secretly criticize contemporary political conditions and to foment hope and community. Drawing on old stories to tell new ones, political subversion was channeled through allusions, metaphors, and taboo references that the authorities generally overlooked. The use of the absurd, or irony or intertextual distancing (alienation) were used not as aesthetic choices, but rather as political strategies, using misdirection to say what could not be said directly. 

Resistance under Joseph Stalin’s regime was dangerous. Many writers and artists were exiled or exterminated under suspicion of sending secret messages.  Stalin understood the particular threat that the theater posed to his regime. His actions, directed against the emergence of any ideas likely to disturb and so divert attention from the communist agenda, stripped dissident artists from public life and sometimes even from life itself.  Rigid censorship shut out all but a carefully selected group of artists. Stalin had the director Vsovolod Meyerhold arrested, subjected to excruciating torture, and executed in the basement of the notorious Lubyanka prison. 

When not able speak overtly about the structures of inequality and constraint, it is possible, nevertheless, to communicate with others and find solidarity and hope in the face of power. It is the genius of artists and writers to be stimulated by the very degree of ingenuity which they must exercise in order to express dangerous ideas without breaking the framework of orthodoxy and punishment.

African American theater has historically always been a site of resistance and a source of community-building. The implied threat of physical or socio-economic repression required a hidden strategy of resistance that allowed for a critique of power spoken under the very nose of those who dominate, through which both rage and hope could find expression. Productions containing a “hidden transcript” of social activism can appear opaque to audience members with limited cultural grasp of the community. The hidden transcript is infused with information and cultural capital when the impulses, rituals and assertions that might otherwise be censored are instead coded through linguistic, physical, or other strategies in the face of power. 

During the two hundred plus years of slavery, drumming was forbidden because it was recognized by enslavers as an integral part of the African system of communication and therefore banned on most plantations. Because the drum had been used as a countdown to the Stono Rebellion in 1739, the implementation of basic African rhythms in America were covertly transformed into handclapping, body-patting, and feet stomping. Dancing and merriment in public provided hope, assurance, and a sense of group identification.  

African American theater can be traced from the comedic parodies developed in the slave quarters, to the minstrel period and its development of stereotype, caricature and the “negro icon,” to the development of Black musical theater and rich dramatic texts. The dominant white theater culture has consistently benefited from the innovations of the vast talents of the victims of enslavement, racism, and social and economic injustice.

In India, the theater constituted an important aspect of cultural life from pre-colonial times, whether performed in enclosed theater houses or on the street, in the form of puppet theater, folk or mythological drama. In 1858, as the transfer of power to the English Crown led to the Indigo Revolt, the imperial authorities declared drama as potentially a threatening mode of anti-colonial communication.  The lieutenant-governor of Bengal made the following remarks about the need to regulate theater in India:

There is the special consideration … against representations on the stage. Such dramatic acting conveys ideas in a manner quite different from that of any other sort of publication, and among other things has a much more vivid effect.

Plays were considered dangerous because they tended to raise awareness of existing social evils, forging community bonds, and mobilizing collective action. The theater in India had become an expression of political struggle against colonial rule and a space for staging scathing critiques about the ongoing oppression and atrocities inflicted upon colonial subjects by rulers on the plantations and tea estates. Theater’s visual focus, emphasis on collective participation and representation of shared histories, were seen as potentially disruptive. Hence, the institution of oppression and restrictions against the art form. 

In Czechoslovakia, the dissident playwright Pavel Kohout and actress Vlasta Cromostova founded the Living-Room Theater Project after they were both banned from the state theaters following the Prague Spring of 1968. They formed their theater by necessity and solved the issues of repression by gathering in living rooms to perform. While the Living-Room Theater was a local event, Czech dissidents used available media – sound and film recording – to bring their performances to a wider public, beyond the barrier of state censorship. Their production of Macbeth was filmed and smuggled to London and exerted a huge influence on the subsequent plays of Tom Stoppard. In 1978, Jindrich Cerny wrote a review of the Prague apartment production, “Their theater is an act of creating freedom … It is a space where we come to realize our freedom: you, the actors, and we, the spectators.” 

The Belarus Free Theater was founded in 2005 by Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin to challenge the iron rule and oppression of Aleksandr Lukashenko.  Kaliada said, “We didn’t have a physical space, but we had an idea: to create a theater where you could say what you think and make art out of that. We didn’t exist for the authorities of our country but existed for the people of our country and for the outside world.”  The intent of the Belarus Free Theater was to create a performance space where audiences could think honestly about their conditions. They found their audiences via text messages and performed in apartments, garages, and forests. 

Currently in Hungary, under the increasingly authoritarian far-right regime of Viktor Orban, theater artists are finding that any political stance that opposes the government results in funding cuts or job loss. Left wing and Avant Garde artists are being ousted from theaters and academies and replaced by nonthreatening individuals. Despite the immense obstacles, there is a great deal of underground activism and independent productions that covertly speak to power. Some examples are the Bela Pinter Theater Company, the Katona Jozseff Theater, the Orkeny Theater, and the National Theater of Miskolc. 

Throughout history, theatrical performances have provided a way for people to examine their social systems and find commonality. The possibility of actively challenging the status quo under totalitarian regimes require artists who are willing to encourage audiences to realize their positions as individuals and as collectives and to regain the capacity to act and to resist. In the face of a totalitarian regime, a secret coded language can oppose suppression and inspire hope. The theater is an explosive device that is detonated by an audiences’ ability to interpret its secret messages, thereby finding unity in the act of being present together.