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Class Politics in America: A Fashionable Consumer Item


Cynthia Peters

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.

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