We think of politics as an epic battle between ideas, but it’s not. Politics, done properly, is theatre. And theatre involves bodies, expression, movement, speech and action. It is an endeavour which involves the whole human being. It is, in short, a flesh and blood enterprise rather than an idealist one.
Think of Macbeth. The “Scottish Play”—a political play if there ever was one—ends with blood all over the stage. Carl P.G. von Clausewitz, ever the Prussian, is blunter. ”War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.”
But, it can also be comedy. For all the horrible political actions in this world, there remain happy political endings. Think of the smiling faces of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu as the evils of apartheid fell around them and of the peace and reconciliation that followed in their wake. Think of the teenagers taking sledgehammers to the Berlin wall or John Paul II visiting the Polish Parliament.
It can also be absurd.
The connection between politics and the theatre of the absurd typically occurs when there has been a breakdown of some kind on behalf of the ruling party. It places the ridiculous, the nutty, and the outlandish beside those who take themselves and their politics too seriously. Absurdity, I should add, is also a sign of political health; that there is green among the grey of political life.
Vaclav Havel is probably the best example of this marriage between politics and absurd theatre. Faced with the absurd and horrible actions of the communist regime in his country, he took to writing plays. These plays, along with another great example of the theatre of the absurd—the Christian liturgy—ended up taking down communism in places like Czechoslovakia and Poland. This type of politics seems to suggest that if you take your politics seriously, you’d better be able to do something completely unserious to accomplish it. In Havel’s case this involved zipping around the castle which housed the head of state on a scooter, clothing the castle guards in outlandish costumes, and hosting a festival with jugglers and mimes.
This week, Canada is being treated to its own theatre of the absurd. In our case, the absurd involves time standing still and MP’s bobbing up and down 168 times like a choreographed ballet of tired school children. It involves MPs playing with Playdough and stuffed animals and wrapping themselves in Hudson’s Bay blankets. Most interestingly perhaps, it involves MPs noticing the beauty of the early morning sun in the House of Commons. Jason Kenney’s tweet this morning captures the existential nature of the absurd well, I think. In between votes, he writes, “Strange to see the beautiful sight of morning light filtering through the House of Commons stain glass windows”. Yes, strange is the right word. In between the voting, the bickering, the posturing on procedure, the playdough, and the stuffed animals, it is absurdly fitting that our parliament is full of the light which arises from parties questioning a bill intended to hide, and also light from God.