Class Politics in America: A Fashionable Consumer Item
I spent $44.00 recently to see Dario Fo's farce about hunger, free-market injustice, sexism, and class injustice at the American Repetory Theater in Harvard Square. Dario Fo, "who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden," won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997 for his ability to "open our eyes to abuses and injustices in society."
"We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!" is the story of Italian housewives' rebellious response to spiraling inflation. Unable to afford even the most basic necessities, they spontaneously revolt and simply take what they need from the store, many of them stuffing the food in their dresses so that they look pregnant. What follows is a slapstick two hours of political satire about the nature of work, authority, overbearing husbands, and women in the final stages of "pregnancy" who leak pickle juice and olives instead of amniotic fluid.
The play miraculously meshes great comedy and class politics. Although set in Italy in 1974, the ART production weaves in contemporary U.S. references - including out-of-character impersonations of Nixon, Reagan and Clinton - that work to jolt the audience out of its reverie and remind U.S. theater-goers of the relevance and urgency of these same issues today. As the Nobel Committee said, "Fo's strength is in the creation of texts that simultaneously amuse, engage and provide perspectives. As in commedia dell'arte, they are always open for creative additions and dislocations, continually encouraging the actors to improvise, which means that the audience is activated in a remarkable way."
So, I wonder, how was the Cambridge audience activated that night?
At intermission, a well-manicured woman wearing tasteful jewelry and expensive clothes, tapped a roll of dollar bills on the bar. There was a long line. She exuded impatience. Finally, the bartender - dressed in an ill-fitting red vest that was part of his ART uniform and a symbol of his "place" in the theater - asked her what she wanted. "Bottled water," was the reply. "We're all out," he answered. Long pause. "That's impossible," she said, still tapping the bills, "I've come here many times and you've never been out of bottled water before!"
It was a ludicrous statement, and the bartender let it hang in the air for a while. Maintaining a neutral expression, he then pointed to where she could find the water fountain.
I watched this well-off member of the audience bring all her class privilege to bear on the situation. She was outraged. She wanted bottled water. She was accustomed to getting what she wanted. She was willing to PAY for what she wanted. She did not seem to be willing to take no for an answer.
The irony of her actions seemed to completely escape this woman. While inside the theater, the story unfolds of desperately hungry people demanding their rights and their dignity from the powers that be, outside the theater at the concession stand, an upper class woman demands overpriced bottled water from a worker with no power.
The episode at the concession stand underscored what was discordant about the whole night. What was this play doing at the high-brow ART? Who were the attendees, and what did they make of the radical politics, the explicit descriptions of rote deadening factory work and powerlessness on the job? I believe that theater has the power to affect people and prick their consciousness and even inspire them to action, but on this night I wondered if theater wasn't more of an opportunity for wealthy people to consume a point of view. The play takes place in Italy, after all. Far away and a long time ago. And the show's sidesplitting comedy makes the evening extremely enjoyable despite what reviewers considered the annoying preachiness of the political message. Ed Siegel in the Boston Globe felt that the "message" of the play distracted from its entertainment value. "You may not rise to your feet yelling `Vive La Revolution' at the end . . . A simple "Bravo! Brava!" would be entirely appropriate."
Like the recent expensively produced coffee table book version of The Communist Manifesto, "We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!" came across, at least in this particular production at this particular location, as an opportunity to dabble in but keep your distance from the "other" class. It reminds me of the Gap, selling pricey versions of construction workers' clothes, while at the same time featuring models in vests with the caption, "Everyone in vests." Perhaps "everyone" who shops at the Gap does invest. And they wear pants with hammer loops while they do it.
Oscar award winning lead actress Marisa Tomei seems to have been affected by Antonia, the character she plays. In her interview with Cate McQuaid in the Boston Globe, Tomei says of Antonia, "What she's saying, I believe. It's an anarchist's point of view. If we're not getting what we want from the government, it's OK to break the rules and cause a riot. It's where you'd get so frustrated, you'd act out of a place of just needing to survive. My sympathies are there."
What I wish for Tomei is that she take her sympathies back to Hollywood and find a way to distribute some of the wealth of herself and her peers to neighborhood and grassroots theaters and theater troupes. Put "We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!" on the road. Get it out of stuffy Harvard Square and share the wealth of its comedy, satire and political message with people in diverse communities, union halls, and schools. Let it be not a $44 night on the town for those who can afford a brush with class politics, but an affordable experience of entertainment and enlightenment shared by a wide range of people. Perhaps people who are actually engaged in a struggle to get real needs met - beyond the occasional scarcity of bottled water, that is.