Plague on Stage: How theatre helps us in times of crisis


People have been turning to the theatre for help during times of crisis ever since theatre began. Pandemics and illness have featured on stage as far back as the ancient Greeks (think of the plague in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and subsequent search for an allegorical cure), and occupied space in folklore throughout the globe even before then. There is something unique about the art of theatre that directs us towards the form not only when we each experience suffering, confusion, crisis, or celebration individually, but also as a collective society. 

The stage is an integral element of history

Great moments of upheaval in history have been marked by reactionary theatrical productions exploring the fallout, how people think and feel about the history that has just been made. The stage is an integral element of history, of understanding the societies of situations past and present. It is not simply hard facts we see on stage, but human emotion and human processing. The nature of a theatrical production is unique in that the actors, creators, and the audience experience the journey all together, at once, in the same room. Their joys are your joys, their sorrows yours to also experience. This makes it a space for pain to be shared, and perhaps collectively understood. 

If there’s one thing to be sure of at the moment (amidst the global pandemic crisis of our own times), it is that theatre has always been very good at bouncing back from temporary closures, such as the quarantining the UK is currently experiencing. There is a temptation to worry about the survival of theatres when no one is visiting them, or when productions have to be postponed. However, I believe we can take comfort in the knowledge that there’s no disregarding people’s sustained pull towards the stage. Take for example the theatre companies in London, of the 16th and 17th centuries – they determinedly weathered multiple closures due to outbreaks of plague. The proliferation of such iconic productions as Shakespeare’s King Lear (which was, incidentally, written under quarantine), or Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, which were cut short in their initial runs due to plague closures is testament to the survival ability of drama. 

What these performances have in common is an anxiety over forces beyond our control

We can trace the presence of plagues or plague allegories through the history of stagecraft to see how people have used drama to process such events. A pandemic is often used to express concerns over other issues, too. Sophocles’ plague has already been mentioned, for example, and we can continue on to see productions such as Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (and novels such as A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe) that are preoccupied with pandemic anxieties tied up in the advent of mercantilism and industrialisation. Albert Camus’ La Peste was adapted for the stage and was recently revived in the Arcola Theatre in 2017 – this production uses disease to explore reactions to the spread of Nazism across Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. 

One of the most striking presentations of a pandemic on stage, I believe, is Tony Kushner’s Angels in Americawhich depicts the HIV/AIDs crisis of the 1980s. A combination of magical realism and starkly confronting moments of realism create a near 8-hour production that directly reflects the difficulty of comprehending such global situations. Yet what I find best about the work is its almost reverent treatment of the idea of progression; a determined delight in life is what carries the play. 

What all these theatrical responses have in common is an anxiety over forces beyond our control. Perhaps the space of stagecraft encourages this – the shared experience. It could also be the blending of fiction and reality, the agreement to suspend disbelief and consider things beyond what we may think in the day – to – day. At the moment the global crisis can feel unbelievable or hard to comprehend. But we are beginning to see the importance of remaining connected through self-isolation, and this can be done through the arts. It is interesting and wonderful to see that the arts are what people are turning to in this time.  

The arts also allow us to seek reprieve from a real world that seems beyond our control

Companies such as National Theatre Live are making recordings of past performances available online, and film festivals are posting archives. People are sharing recommendations for TV shows and favourite movies, best novels and plays to read. The arts do not only allow us to explicitly present and explore things like a pandemic, or other difficult community – wide crises, but the arts also allow us to seek reprieve from a real world that seems beyond our control. And so, to the creatives that feel lost or directionless in this time, know that your work is important and valued even (especially) in crises. The arts are there to help people process unprecedented times, and the theatre will irrepressibly continue to exist. 

Image: Simon Price on Flickr

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