Social Imaginaries and Theatre

Social Imaginaries and Theatre
September 24, 2018

Essay by Robert H. Leonard published in Theatre, Performance and Change. Woodson, Stephani Etheridge and Underiner, Tamara (editors) Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.


All theatre is political. This assertion is the best way I know into the complicated matter of theatre’s relationship with social change.

It is often said that we are the stories we tell ourselves. Narratives of me, and narratives of you, define how we understand each other, how we recognize each other, how we manage our relationships. I would add, too, that image is as much a part of story as narrative. Stories—narratives and images—are how we make sense of the world we encounter, how we construct our reality, or perhaps better said, our realities. The intersection of our stories with one another, where we find common narratives and images, or where we find dissonant imagery, or formerly unheard of narratives, and all the complicated, human range in between these polarities is the realm of social interaction.

We are all, individually, expert in our own ways of wending our way through the maze of these intersections. Many of our stories, narratives and images, reside within our minds and imaginations. They constitute our fundamental assumptions about the world we live in. Often, they are altogether unvoiced or rarely voiced. Moreover, when actually spoken, they are voiced in environments we believe to be safe, with people with whom we have special trust. This bed of stories that we each hold within ourselves is often experienced as strictly personal, sometimes even secret, not public. We ground ourselves, and orient ourselves in these personal habits of mind and imagination to make navigation through our daily experiences of social interaction in relative ease. This is not unusual. This is a normal part of what it is to be human, at the personal level.

Humans are, of course, also public creatures. We exist and maneuver in public realms, as well as in the personal and interpersonal. We form groups and communities - small and large, religious and secular, temporary and long-lasting, informal and formal - looking for safety, for protection, for assistance, for comfort and fulfillment. We gain a sense of belonging in these groups. We identify other groups, in which we do not see or imagine ourselves, in which we do not feel we belong. Things of this public realm, matters of our groups and communities, of our relationships within our communities and of the relationships between groups and communities, these all constitute what we know as the political—all matters pertaining to organized groups and their citizens.

The social dynamics within and between these groups and communities, as well as the origins of their very formation, are things political. Curiously, they are in large part the product of the narratives and images of the people who made and live within them, and who struggle to keep them whole and functional. The collective whole of these narratives and images can be seen or understood as the binding element or social imaginary of the group. Political thinkers and philosophers have developed extensive inquiries into the concept and consequence of the social imaginary, deepening its meaning and extending its pertinence to our common experiences in social life.

In his book Modern Social Imaginaries (2004), the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor applies the concept of the social imaginary to a particularly revealing analysis of Western history from the Middle Ages into the modern development of democracies. In doing so, Taylor unpacks and explores the complex and fertile inter-relationship between the human imagination and the political orders humans make, between the stories we tell ourselves and the societies we construct. He traces the emergence of Western democratic impulses from the medieval era into the modern era through changes in the social imaginaries that preceded revolution, sustained revolution, and allowed for effective social change to follow revolution. Further, he explores how differing evolutions in social imaginaries do not sustain, and do not allow for effective social change. Taylor’s analysis reveals, among many other insights, that the social imaginaries shaping our societies are often held just as unvoiced, as secret, as the personal stories we hold. Of course, much is actively spoken by leaders and voters and preachers and sinners. But some of the most basic assumptions we make about “how things are” are unspoken. These tenets are the very binding elements of our societies, yet left unspoken they are also often left unrecognized, un-critiqued. They simply constitute “the way the world works” for us. Yet, when these stories (of an imagined future, as well as of the imagined past) and their respective underlying assumptions are brought up into the light of actual expression, they become available for critique and offer the opportunity for social change. This is what was happening in the 17th and 18th century English coffee shops that refined the emerging concept of people creating government, rather than believing it was divinely ordained.

            Art and artists live, thrive, and give expression in the space between the imagination and the world – natural and constructed. Whereas all humans fill this space with narrative and image privately, the theatre artist fills it publicly, and as such the theatre artist is deeply and essentially political. Hence my assertion, all theatre is political. The theatre puts a particular way of seeing into the public space, an other way of knowing. This act of publicly offering a perspective that is unique provides an exercise of the imagination for the audience, calling on and strengthening the capacity to find value and fulfillment in difference. This capacity is essential for citizen engagement with democracy, for healthy civic discourse, collaboration, and relationship building.

            Of course, it must also be acknowledged that the political comes in all stripes and, while any given theatre expression may offer dissenting perspectives on accepted realities, others may offer new affirmations of the established order. More about this later.

            The hope contained in this thinking about art and social change links with Herbert Marcuse’s thick investigation, The Aesthetic Dimension ([1977] 1978), in which he counters the Marxist aesthetic, which would have art functionally demonstrate the precepts of the particular political line of thinking: art must tell the story of the proletariat overthrowing the forces of oppression or it is neither subversive nor worthy. Rather, Marcuse asserts,


…the radical qualities of art, that is to say, its indictment of the established reality and its invocation of the beautiful image (schoner Schein) of liberation are grounded precisely in the dimensions where art transcends its social determination and emancipates itself from the given universe of discourse and behavior while preserving its overwhelming presence. Thereby art creates the realm in which the subversion of experience proper to art is recognized as a reality, which is suppressed and distorted in the given reality. This experience culminates in situations (of love and death, guilt and failure, but also joy, happiness, and fulfillment) which explode the given reality in the name of a truth normally denied or even unheard. (6)    


His former student and longtime loyal but sometimes skeptical protégé, Carol Becker critiques, explicates, challenges, and advances Marcuse’s arguments in her chapter of the book she edited, The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society, and Social Responsibility (1994). Despite her acknowledged reservations about his thinking, she contends that Marcuse is, after all, right in his assertion that “within the creative process is resistance.” Developing his view, she states,


In the process of making images, they can be transformed, utilized, co-opted, inverted, diverted, subverted. The personal becomes political; the political is appropriated as personal. ….the sheer act of concentration necessary to produce art resists the diffusion and fragmentation characteristic of postmodern society. Also, the labor in which artists engage is in many instances nonalienated, because it is true to a particular vision–of historical reality, their own psychic world, or the intersection of the two. (114)


Marcuse and Becker both recognize that the subversive nature of authentic art resides in its innate capacity to offer new, even unique perspectives and ways of knowing the world, views that exercise the imagination of the receiver, who has never considered this understanding, but is drawn to take it in by the very act of experiencing the art embodying it. Marcuse claims that this is, in essence, the core value of the aesthetic experience and that it is fundamentally subversive in nature. A corollary to Marcuse’s proposal is that art is able to transform hidden assumptions about the world we believe we live in into identifiably separate, highly visible, accessible expressions, allowing “the way things are” to be challenged directly, to be seen as assailable, to be mutable. Art insists, Marcuse concludes,


…on its own truth, which has its ground in social reality and is yet its ‘other.’ Art breaks open a dimension inaccessible to other experience, a dimension in which human beings, nature, and things no longer stand under the law of the established reality principle. Subjects and objects encounter the appearance of that autonomy which is denied them in their society. The encounter with the truth of art happens in the estranging language and images, which make perceptible, visible, and audible that which is no longer, or not yet, perceived, said, and heard in everyday life. (Marcuse [1977] 1978, 72)


He proposes that this kind of exercise of the imagination in the giving and receiving of narrative and image subverts habits of the mind and opens the way for potential change.

            All this said, I do not believe it should be construed that the subversive nature of art always advocates for change. Much of art is, in my judgment, strongly supportive of the status quo, and therefore may be said to subvert or otherwise negate an individual’s impulses to deviate from “the way things are.” That does not mean, however, that such art is not political. It is, rather, highly political in providing a tightly woven, intuitively generated support system for the maintenance of the established, dominant social imaginary, reinforcing its assumptions, and denying the need or even the possibility of an emerging new way of knowing that could take society into a new future. To this point, critic John Lahr as quoted by Todd London (1994) has observed, “Musicals are America's right-wing political theatre because they reinforce the dreams of the status quo" (Lahr/London 1994, 56). Note the importance of Lahr’s reference to “dreams” here, rightly reinforcing the idea that even “the status quo” dwells in the realm of the imaginary and is not immutable. It seems to me that artists, playwrights and theatre makers contribute to the subversion or the maintenance of the current social imaginaries depending on whether their aesthetic choices come out of an instinct and/or a will either to voice dissent and imagine alternative worlds or to reinforce the status quo.

            Taylor’s explication of social imaginaries and how they have changed during the past 1000 years, however, suggests that change occurs regularly within them by dint of dynamic social processes. Acceptance of the “divine right of kings” gave way to the “rights of man.” New social orders arrive before our birth and we believe they are the way things are, and have always been, until, of course, they are not the way things are. In my own lifetime I have experienced a generational sea change from President John F. Kennedy’s call (1961), “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” to the current railing against all government as an imposition on individual rights—an outright denial of the once venerated idea of the common good—and a turning away from a deliberative government of the people, by the people, for the people to the economic market as the ultimate source and arbiter of justice, putting profit before human respect, dignity, and even life.

            The question I have come to consider is not so much whether social change is possible, but rather whether intentional change can be effective in the onward rush of social redefinitions of the realities we, the people, collectively make, claim, and accept. I find inspiration and faith in the power of art, of theatre, of narrative and image to articulate and hold up in a container, not so much where we might go, but the dizzying complexity of where we are—an idea I first heard articulated by Brent Blair, theatre maker and professor at the University of Southern California. Augusto Boal (1931-2009), the extraordinary man of theatre from Brazil, worked for a lifetime to generate acts of theatre that give expression to wildly differing perceptions, conflicting experiences, myriads of difference—all at the same time—so that participants might begin to identify where they might go, out of an expansive, comprehensive understanding of where they are. His techniques, offered in his book Theatre of the Oppressed (Boal 1985) can be remarkably effective at supporting, even generating public deliberation. I have found considerable success using Boal’s approaches. Yet, I believe there is more.


Fueled by a continuing investigation into Marcuse, Becker, Taylor, Boal and many others through a regular application of these theories in as rich and varied an artistic practice as I can manage, I believe that the exercise of the imagination made public by authentic acts of art making—regardless of particular techniques, approaches, methodologies, styles, or forms—contribute directly and powerfully to the constant shaping and re-shaping of the many social imaginaries that we both create and rely upon to give order and meaning to the world, and that undergird our society and our civilization. As quoted in Performing Communities (2006), Ron Short, Roadside Theatre’s veteran ensemble member, thinks of theatre as “the last public forum for common people” (Leonard and Kilkelly 30). In this context, I feel the challenge facing all artists is: how to mix personal intuitive impulses with an ever increasing awareness and knowledge of the complexities of human and social realities—a lifelong endeavor of fervent, passionate inquiry, not into political ideologies or partisan positioning, but into the private and public, social and political dynamics of what it is to be human.




Becker, Carol. 1994. The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society, and Social Responsibility. New York and London: Routledge.


Boal, Augusto. 1985. Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group.


Kennedy, John F. Inaugural Speech. Washington, DC: January 20, 1961.


Lahr, John. As quoted by Todd London. 1994. “I have often walked...” American Theatre. New York: Nov 1994. Vol. 11, Iss. 9; pg. 56.


Leonard, Robert H. and Ann Kilkelly. 2006. Performing Communities: Grassroots Ensemble Theaters Deeply Rooted in Eight U.S. Communities. Oakland, CA: New Village Press.


Marcuse, Herbert. [1977] 1998. The Aesthetic Dimension. Boston: Beacon Press.


Taylor, Charles. 2004. Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.