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Who Are We Now? Theatre Alberta Essay Series – Theoretical Foundations with Eric Rice – Critical Theory

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Who Are We Now? Theatre Alberta Essay Series – Theoretical Foundations with Eric Rice – Critical Theory


Critical Theory and Theatre in Edmonton: A Foray

By Eric Rice

I’ve played roles as administrator, playwright, and producer in Edmonton theatre since 1985 — I’ve come to acknowledge these roles from the standpoint of being an aging cis-gender white male. This is all the more pertinent since I’ve recently seized the opportunity to study a range of theoretical lenses for theatre critique as part of a Master of Arts ‒ Interdisciplinary Studies program. This short essay introduces one such lens, that of Critical Theory.     

Critical Theory should be differentiated from theatre criticism. A theatre critic is someone who evaluates the artistic merit of a play. Critical Theory is historically tied to the work of the Frankfurt School — a group of German philosophers and social scientists who critically inspected dominant and dogmatic ideology in the industrial propagation of culture and in the instrumental use of reason through the use of social critique to effect societal change and intellectual emancipation — and in other cases this term refers to a broader and more diffuse body of work that centres the critique of society and its cultural/political/social activities inside the imperative to make the world a better place. For theatre, this means that every play can be analyzed as a cultural product, and productions featuring professional actors, sound, music, lights, set, and costumes can be seen as powerful tools for the dissemination of ideas inherently tied to material organization of their given society. This is not so much that every play is clumsily trying to pound propaganda into the heads of a hapless audience, but every play is about something, and being about something can’t help but include assumptions, morals, and rules about life that it either validates or questions.

Critical Theory, with its roots in societal critique, sees all cultural products as either supporting or questioning the domination of one group over another in society. As Christian Fuchs explains in Foundations of Critical Theory, “domination means in this context that there is a system that enables one human side to gain advantages at the expense of others and to sustain this condition” (p. 23). Critical theorists don’t assume that cultural products produced within a society such as ours are free to say whatever they want; they would argue that plays are created to support those with power and that they are structured around that power. They might point to the many ways that plays are subject to manipulation on their way to the stage: every play is developed in a system that favours certain stories over others, theatres are supported by government funding and private sponsors that require adherence to specific criteria, and there is always the economic necessity to please the ticket-buying public, who are primarily older and better-off and who have benefited from the current economic and political system. Critical theorists would argue that most, if not all, the cultural products that we see are designed to make the current economic and social system seem inevitable and unchangeable.

For an illustration of this theoretical approach (with apologies to my friend Patricia Darbasie, who was excellent as the leading lady), we can use Northern Light Theatre’s production of Donna Orbits the Moon by American playwright Ian August as an example of how Critical Theory might analyze a play. Donna Orbits the Moon played January 19 – February 3, 2024, at the Studio Theatre inside Fringe Theatre. It follows the journey of a middle-aged woman as she experiences a series of unexplained outbursts of rage, and a bout of what seems like mental illness as she hears the voice of Buzz Aldrin in her head. The play dramatized the strain this caused on her relationships and daily life, and how it provoked the dissolution of her marriage. It ends with the audience’s realization that this was all due to a tragic injury her son sustained in war, and with Donna’s acceptance of this tragedy. In the penultimate scene she hugs her brain-damaged son, her husband hugs them both, and tears flow.

From an entertainment perspective the play is very well produced, with great acting, direction, sound, lights, and projections. From the perspective of Critical Theory, the play does exactly what cultural products are intended to do: to make the current United States militarism and its consequences seem inevitable. The character, Donna, towing the audience along with her, undergoes ninety minutes of conflict, sadness, and pain, with multiple violent outbursts of rage at the people in her life, all to reach the point of acquiescence to her son’s fate. There is no energy or time spent on questioning why her son was taking part in military exercises in a foreign country. The country where it took place is not even mentioned, as if it is of no importance. The only thing of importance is that Donna should put aside her rage and accept that her son will be a vegetable for the rest of his life.  

While Critical Theory examines this play as a cultural product that supports the dominant values of militarism and foreign intervention in American politics, there are, of course, many other possible interpretations under different theoretical frameworks. It is not the point of this article to make you analyze every play you see through the lens of Critical Theory, or to argue that this interpretation is correct: the point was simply to share how looking at theatre through a theoretical lens can yield a different perspective and therefore enrich everyone’s theatre experience. More looks, through more lenses, will be coming along.


Works Cited
Fuchs, C., 2021. “What is Critical Theory?” in Foundations of Critical Theory: Media, Communication and Society Volume Two. Routledge.


Further Reading

Horkheimer, M., 1982. “Traditional and Critical Theory” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays. Trans. O’Connell, M.J., et al. Continuum.

Marcuse, H., 2007. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Routledge. The first two chapters are particularly illustrative “The New Forms of Control” and “The Closing of the Political Universe” of the themes in this short essay.

Benjamin, W., 1969. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations. Ed. Arendt, H. Trans. Zohn, H. Shocken Books.  

Adorno, T.W., and Horkheimer, M., 2010. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Verso.

Fromm, E.H., 1994. “Mechanisms of Escape” in Escape from Freedom. Henry Holt and Company.

Eric Rice (he/him) is currently pursuing a Master of Arts ‒ Interdisciplinary Studies degree through Athabasca University. Eric has a long background in amateur and professional theatre, educational television, and communications. Currently working with  Taproot Edmonton on a series of articles around housing and with the Postmarginal Edmonton collective, he’s grateful for the opportunity to share some of his learnings through the Theatre Alberta blog, and grateful for a vocation in the arts that constantly challenges perceptions of the self and identity.

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