Social Sciences

Political Drama

Radical theater and revolution in the 1960s

Angela Rothman understands the value of a little drama—as evidenced by her presentation last year for an upper-division history course, America in the 20th Century. 

The Living Theatre urged audiences to challenge “a complacent, capitalist society” in plays such as Paradise Now (two scenes, above), during which actors shouted at attendees and even touched them.

Rothman started her presentation in an unconventional way, convincing her classmates to leave their desks and sit on the floor—it was meant to draw their undivided attention. Then she asked a startling question: “What would happen if the Democrats nominated a pig for president?”

There was giggling and awkward conversation. Rothman let the speculation continue for a while, before informing her peers that, at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a 145-pound pig named Pigasus was nominated for president by the radical Youth International Party, also known as the Yippies. Further, she detailed how, at the convention, the group’s theatrical protests against the Vietnam War led to arrests, trials and media attention.

“There’s theater in everything,” said Rothman, a 2017 graduate with degrees in history and political science. “I’ve learned how to tap into that and make history interesting. You want to catch people off guard and make them a little uncomfortable.”

In her research paper for the class, from which she drew her presentation, Rothman examined four approaches to radical political theater in the 1960s, all of which made people “a little uncomfortable”: the musical Hair, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Living Theatre from New York City and the Yippies.

Angela Rothman received a UO research award and presented her work at a conference in San Diego for women historians.

Each sought to mobilize the public for change, Rothman said, by using unconventional forms of theater to attack the establishment.

Tribal love rock musical

Inspired by hippie counterculture, Hair was a revolt against both mainstream political ideology and mainstream theater, Rothman said in her research paper.

It was the first Broadway musical to feature nudity, and was also filled with profanity, radical politics and rock songs that doubled as antiwar anthems. Though Hair offended some in the audience, the producers didn’t balk at this, a stance that ran contrary to the typical motives of profit-driven Broadway.

As with the other three subjects she examined, Rothman found that Hair deliberately broke the “fourth wall”—the imaginary barrier between actor and audience. For instance, the cast invited theatergoers onstage to join them for a “Be-In” finale that included dancing and singing “Let the Sunshine In.”

Moreover, unlike traditional musicals of the era such as Man of La Mancha or Fiddler on the Roof, Hair defied theatrical conventions of character, story development, costumes and staging. “Though a main character exists—Claude—the other members of Hair’s hippie tribe develop the story directly,” and use Claude as only a reference point, Rothman said.

She found the political impact of Hair to be fairly limited in comparison with her three other subjects. Hair wanted to change only Broadway, versus the other theatrical efforts she examined, which sought to change society.

Roadmap to revolution

The Living Theatre—one of the oldest experimental theater companies in the country—hoped that its audience would be inspired to challenge what Rothman described as “a complacent, capitalist society.”

The group’s most famous play of the era, Paradise Now, began with actors directly approaching the audience and repeating statements such as “you can’t live without money”—first softly, then more loudly, to the point of screaming. The intent was to disturb, agitate and evoke reflection. And it was confrontational—actors shouted at attendees and even touched them, which Rothman characterized as representing violence in society, but not endorsing it.

“Paradise Now also broke the fourth wall of traditional theater through direct contact with the audience as individuals, further revolutionizing the spectators,” Rothman said. When the cast shed their clothes, they invited viewers to join them. When the actors discussed politics with the audience, the theater became a space for what she called “a rare form of theatrical public engagement.”

“The actors of Paradise Now wanted the audience to critique the government and society,” Rothman said—the play was a “roadmap for achieving revolution.”

From the theater to the street

The San Francisco Mime Troupe also asked audiences to question established political and social values, Rothman said. The troupe started in the 1960s and continues today, combining political satire with musical comedies.

At the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Yippies’ use of street theater earned them the spotlight among demonstrators against the Vietnam War.

The troupe adopts classic productions and reworks them as biting commentaries on society. For years, the company recast the 18th-century Italian play L’Amant Militaire as a mockery of the Vietnam War, with puppets and masks. The troupe performed in streets, parks and other open, public spaces—often without permits, which led to run-ins with the law.

The troupe’s founder, R. G. Davis, viewed “both traditional theater and contemporary politics as impotent and in need of radicalization to create change,” Rothman said. His contribution to radical political theater was this creation of “guerrilla theater”—the dramatization of political and social issues outdoors, out in public, as a means of protest.

“The radical performance venues of outdoor theater appealed to the group’s artistic values as guerrilla fighters and reinforced their rebellion against the ‘system,’” Rothman said. “The police could challenge the Mime Troupe in parks and streets. This communicated the troupe’s general theme of rebellion against the establishment and its conformity.”

Pigasus for president

In her paper, Rothman argued that Hair and the two theater groups created a model for protest that was adopted by the Youth International Party, or Yippies. Not so much a theater company as a loosely knit group of radicals, the Yippies nevertheless used street theater and political pranks in an effort to create change.

Rothman focused on the Yippies’ activities during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. They were hardly the only group protesting the Vietnam War, but their theatrics put them in the spotlight.

The Yippies staged a weeklong Festival of Life, a counterculture celebration meant to bring attention to their frustration with the state of the nation. The high point of their theatrical creativity was the selection of a pig as their nominee for president,
announced amid much fanfare at the Chicago Civic Center.

It was a none-too-subtle poke at the establishment—Yippies derisively referred to Chicago police as “pigs.”

Along with other political demonstrations, the group’s theatrical protests triggered a forceful response by the authorities. Millions viewed the clashes on TV, and key protesters—the infamous Chicago Seven, which included three Yippies—were charged with conspiracy to incite riots, although all convictions were eventually dropped.

The saga was “a testament to the power of Yippie theatrical protest and other groups’ political demonstrations,” Rothman said. The response of the Chicago police reflected the impact of “the dramatic revolution happening in its streets.”


—Ed Dorsch