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Bearing witness and taking action: audiences and morality in renaissance tragedy and activist street theater.

The first time I realized I was an actor in an interactive drama was during a Palm Sunday Mass the year I was preparing for my First Communion. My fellow parishioners and I were instructed to participate in the reading of the Gospel by reciting the lines of the crowd that called for Barabbas's freedom and condemned Jesus to death by crucifixion. The guilt I experienced in this performance, however briefly it lasted, was profound. I realized how Mass had the potential to be a transformative event rather than just an hour of contemplation. Although the Gospel readings can be uneventful, when imbued with such an interactive element, the Church manages to make parishioners, their voluntarily captive audience, bear witness to the ethical and spiritual elements of the Passion and its central characters. By blurring the lines between actor and audience, the performance becomes visceral, intimate, and personal in a way that compels the audience to be active agents in the moral drama in which they are now participants.

I begin with this childhood memory to underscore the thrust of my argument about how drama that ruptures the symbolic and physical distance between actor and audience can make viewers agents for positive moral change in their lives and those of others. By focusing on the didactic ethical, social, and political elements of plays in both Renaissance tragedy and postmodern street theater, we can understand how the interactive elements of street theater from political groups such as ACT UP are indebted to and follow the same ideological drive of the more understated interactive elements of Renaissance-era English plays such as Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy and William Shakespeare's Hamlet in calling audience members to bear witness and respond to the themes explored in the spectacles before them. While the writers and performers of both eras take different approaches to metadramatic moments and breaking the fourth wall, their underlying purpose revolves around an ethical charge to provide provocative, uplifting, and life-changing inspiration to an audience that can be disinterested, uninformed, jaded, and/or reluctant about the issue at hand.

In her study of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, Meg Pearson asserts that to "term a spectator a witness is to draw attention to the moments in a play when the viewer engages not only with the play before them but with the contemporary discourses surrounding the judicial practices of the period and the lively debates surrounding the significance and credibility of vision and watching." (1) I am utilizing this interpretation of "witness" as both a noun and a verb. After all, without an audience a play is in some vegetative state bereft of its revolutionary power to transform the lives of its viewers. The performances discussed in this essay ask the audience to bear witness to the human condition through metatheatrical tools both subtle and explicit, depending on the historical moment and limits imposed on the social negotiations with which the playwright can invite the audience to respond. After all, drama, perhaps out of all forms of literature, is the epitome of a communication structure that ruptures a sender-receiver binary that posits the latter as passive. Live theater is corporeal. Whether the audience laughs, boos, cheers, claps, or remains silent, the presence and absence of sound is a form of dialogic, symbiotic communication. The actors and playwright, if present, can detect whether audience members sympathize, empathize, or recoil from the characters and the emotions played before them. All such interactions, auditory or not, are dependent on a shared set of experiences, values, and beliefs. When the audience is asked to bear witness, they must contemplate. When they become involved, they must make decisions.

Drama that includes explicitly interactive elements may sound like a relatively recent invention to many people. But its genesis in Western theater is far older. Not even the creative fecundity and influential creativity of Renaissance-era plays can lay claim to such a development. Medieval religious drama must be recognized as the post-classical source for metadramatic elements we now regard as being interactive in respect to asides and direct address to audience members. Medieval dramas are typically listed chronologically in respect to development as: mystery and miracle plays, morality plays, and folk plays. As the drama moved outside of the church and into the hands of the citizens, particularly workers' guilds, the plays used the vernacular and took on a more secular tone. However, moral quandaries, forever rooted in the Judeo-Christian principles of the Church, were part and parcel of nearly any dramatic performance. Equally important to these staged performances was an interactive element wherein actors and/or their characters spoke directly to the audience. Gabriella Mazzon's thoughtful study of interactive dialogue sequences in Middle English Drama clearly posits that there were not only many such instances of direct address but even different kinds of interactive drama. Mazzon details "cases in which the audience is addressed by the performers, with phatic utterances stressing the relationship entertained by the two sides of the 'interaction,' trying to capture the audience's benevolence or attention" and "cases in which characters address the audience, usually to impart some didactic instruction or to emphasise the moral teaching and the religious attitudes drawn from the biblical episodes represented." (2) Looking at plays such as Mankind, Everyman, or the Chester Cycle of Noah, we can see contrasts between these two forms of interactive dialogue that are underscored by differences between employment of the first-person plural form that work to establish either a bond between performers and audience or for the actors to speak on behalf of authorial voices--both secular and divine.

These dialogic, as opposed to monologic, elements in the scripts became less common in Renaissance-era dramas as playwrights invested an aura of naturalism into the voices of their more three-dimensional characters, which necessitated the construction of a stronger fourth wall. However, the reliance on the audience's suspension of disbelief only served to entice playwrights to challenge such fictions. Two well-known English Renaissance plays, The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet, allow us to understand how these tragedies invite their audiences to interact with the play as reflective moral beings. By highlighting the ways in which these dramatists accomplished as much and helped revolutionize Western theater, we will lay the groundwork for linking such artistic practices to the street theater of ACT UP to unveil a theatrical genealogy wherein audiences are constantly asked to bear witness to the morals and ethics of the issues explored before them.

If we think of the spectacle of Mass and the aims of medieval mystery and miracle plays, we see that early modern theaters indebtedness to religious drama is invested in the idea that plays can have a transformative power to influence spectators. After all, even the Puritans, who regularly railed against the alleged social ills of the theatrical world, would agree that live drama significantly influenced the morality of its audience. Such a perception, however, is one that renders audience members docile subjects into whom the playwright injects ideologies, beliefs, and values as if with some hypodermic needle the spectators are unable to fend off. By focusing on the idea of the spectator as a witness to and in drama, we see that from the Renaissance to today, theater is concerned with moral outcomes as much as aesthetic frameworks; drama is an agitator for positive social change by interacting with the audiences ethical constitution and asking them to improve their lives and those of others.

I Write Sins Not Tragedies: Revenge and Responsibility in the Renaissance

Kyd penned The Spanish Tragedy sometime between 1585 and 1587. The blood-soaked revenge tragedy proved to be immensely popular and influential, particularly during its multiple revivals in the 1590s. It became such a well-known play that it developed a nickname, "Jeronimo" (after its protagonist Hieronimo), and was much alluded to and parodied in dozens of dramas. As the first of its kind with stunning verse, engaging pathos-ridden monologues, and undeniable visceral thrills, The Spanish Tragedy carries a punch. Bubbling under the play's portrayal of murders, betrayals, jealousies, and vendettas lies the audiences focus on how to respond to instances of wrongdoing. Kyd is able to have his audience confront profound moral problems from the outset by opening the play in medias res with two characters who are about to witness a murderer suffer the consequences of his crime.

Andrea, a Spanish courtier, is killed in a battle against Portuguese forces before the play opens. His murderer, Balthazar, now woos Andreas former lover, Bel-Imperia. Andreas ghost is accompanied by the allegorical figure of Revenge as the two sit down at the end of the first scene to watch the rest of the play unfold. The presence of Revenge is a clear tie to the allegorical, stock characters of medieval morality plays. When these two later comment on the actions of living characters, they take on the role of the chorus of ancient Greek drama. However, when they sit on stage and watch the play, they also create an indelible connection with the audience in the theater. Andrea and Revenge, much like that audience, sit (or stand) and watch. The onstage characters are not just actors but spectators. The offstage audience cannot help but feel a connection with these quasi-audience members who, presumably, have seats on the stage. One can only guess as to how and where these two were placed there. Arthur Freeman hypothesizes how the set may have been designed based on explicit and implicit blocking directions in the script and theorizes that "a section of the gallery or a corner of the main stage [may have been] reserved for Andrea and Revenge." (3)

Whatever the spatial arrangement may be, Revenge and Andrea explicitly link the offstage audience to the plot and characters of The Spanish Tragedy, which can be considered a play-within-a-play because it is framed from its first moment by characters who are at once spectators and auditors. If we consider the Latin roots of both words, specere (to see) and audir (to listen), we can see the dynamic role that the onstage and offstage individuals in the playhouse embody. Although Andrea was once of the world he observes, now he is unable to interact with the other actors of The Spanish Tragedy. Ironically, this lack of corporal interaction forces Andrea and Revenge to do what the offstage audience does: bear witness. The witness is not an actor. The witness sees and listens. The witness contemplates.

As Steven Young argues, the "meaning of the play, then, arises from the play itself; the frame works as a catalyst, releasing the meaning, but not expressing it directly." (4) Kyd, like any good playwright, influences, inspires, and prods the audience to contemplate rather than telling them exactly what to think. As Andrea and Revenge sit quietly onstage, the audience can imagine that the characters' frustrations mount just as much as theirs, if not more, as Balthazar gets his way throughout the first few acts. As a conduit for what we can assume is most of the audiences feelings, Andrea complains: "Come we for this from depth of underground / To see him feast that gave me my death's wound? / These pleasant sights are sorrow to my soul" (1.5.1-3). (5) However, as much as the audience members hear Andrea voice their concerns, they are just as powerless to physically interact with the living characters. Hence, they must bear witness to the atrocities that unfold onstage just as Andrea must. After he repeats a similar grievance at the end of act 2, Revenge sagely counsels him on the virtue of patience: "Thou talks of harvest when the corn is green. / The end is crown of every work well done; / The sickle comes not till the corn be ripe" (2.6.7-9). Andrea does not verbally respond to Revenge, implying comprehension of the advice he has just been given. As he silently proceeds to watch the next act along with the audience, he and they have been equally encouraged to continue watching, seeing, and contemplating.

By the time the drama reaches its climax, Andrea is in a frenzy of consternation and worry that the revenge for which he hopes will never come to pass. Although Revenge has continually promised that vengeance will run its course, he now offers a more enigmatic form of guidance: "Behold, Andrea, for an instance how / Revenge hath slept, and then imagine thou / What 'tis to be subject to destiny" (3.15.26-28). But who is "to be subject to destiny"? Andrea? Hieronimo? The other characters? Everyone in the theater--actors and audience members alike? Whatever the answer may be for this vague decree, the audience and Andrea are firmly linked and the whims of Fate are the same for all.

If The Spanish Tragedy is innovative for creating a frame narrative from its first line, it is brilliant for its use of the play-within-a-play-within-a-play structure that occurs during the catastrophe of the tragedy's final act. In order to murder Balthazar and Lorenzo, Hieronimo creates a production about a devious Turkish emperor wherein he, along with Bel-Imperia, will take on characters who murder those played by Balthazar and Lorenzo. Hieronimo's trick is that fiction becomes reality when the murders portrayed on stage are real, not feigned. As a playwright, Hieronimo now mimics Kyd. As an onstage spectator, Andrea is twice removed from Hieronimo's play while the offstage audience is thrice removed. The primary audience members of Hieronimos play are the Spanish and Portuguese courts, who unwittingly witness the murder of their younger generation. Kyd ingeniously has the Spanish King commend Hieronimo, "Well said! Old Marshal, this was bravely done!" (4.4.68), unaware that his nephew has been murdered in front of him. As corpses litter the stage through either murder or suicide, even including the ostensible "good guys," Hieronimo and Bel-Imperia, the audience cannot help but be aghast, riveted, and morally stupefied.

What is key about Hieronimo's production is that the primary audience, the onstage one of the royal court, is involuntarily involved. As they realize that the murders they have witnessed are real, they seize Hieronimo, who in a moment of fury bites out his own tongue, which temporarily distracts everyone just long enough for him to stab the Duke of Castile. Although the play has ostensibly finished with all of the actors, save Hieronimo, dead, the moments after the dramas conclusion can be considered as including a kind of audience interaction as spectator and actor charge at each other after the performance. Still dressed as the Bashaw, Hieronimo violently forces the Duke to confront the realities of the play he has just witnessed by thrusting him into the afterlife with a jab of the knife. The speed with which this surprising act occurs warns the audience to take stock of what they witness and contextualize it within their own mortality and morality. After all, the Duke's final line, "Oh, he would have a knife to mend his pen" (4.4.200), can be read beyond its literal meaning. The pen with which Hieronimo has written and staged his play is no longer enough. His rage, his fury, and his thirst for revenge demand more than that the royal court bear witness. The knife will substitute for the pen in a grisly act that ruptures the line separating art and reality. Robert Watson comments upon this "invasion of reality into Hieronimo's fiction" as a danger "because it revives the recognition of our mortal destiny that had been systematically repressed through drama, role-playing, metonymy, substitution." (6) With the play-within-the-play-within-the-play finish, the offstage audience has been returned to being only twice removed and thus that much closer to being victims of the actors and would-be murderers before them--if only creatively. Hence, they are more forcefully prodded to contemplate their own morals, and failings thereof, before they meet an untimely death.

The fact that Hieronimo feels that a play is not a sufficient way to amend his wrongs belies the Aristotelian philosophy about the healing and cathartic nature of drama. In Hieronimos play the actor must interact with his audience to make the point clear. Consequently, as the numbers and dimensions of audiences ebb and flow, Kyd's ticket-purchasing audience undergoes a transformative relationship with other levels of spectatorship throughout the play. Underlying such mutations, however, are the conventions of tragedy that have been upheld, challenged, and finessed, none more so than the location of the physical and metaphorical memento mori that is continually transferred between actors and artificial audience members. The corpses before the original audience are their reminders of mortality. The fact that the onstage audience members are the deceased embodiments of this memento mori after Hieronimo's assassination of the Duke further solidifies the anxiety the audience should feel about their pending death and their responsibility in cycles of revenge.

As we return to Andrea in the final scene, we see the pleased ghost not just anticipating reunion with his loved ones but also instructing Revenge how to punish his enemies once they enter the underworld. Taking into consideration the Christian ethics of the sixteenth-century English audience, however, we must contemplate Revenges final pair of couplets that conclude the play: "Then haste we down to meet thy friends and foes, / To place thy friends in ease, the rest in woes. / For here, though death hath end their misery, / I'll there begin their endless tragedy" (4.5.45-48). The play has concluded, but "endless tragedy," true tragedy, is the future of the play's antagonists--including the Duke of Castile, who for some time was simply a theatergoer like Kyd's audience. The swiftness of his demise stuns spectators. Their connection to him as fellow play-watchers would parallel their identities so that their role in the drama as witnesses has become more complex, corporal, and inconclusive. Their ability to experience "endless tragedy" is just as real once they exit the playhouse and face their own mortality. The Christian ethics that informed so many people's lives--Protestant or Catholic--would emphasize a clear link between one's behavior in life and one's place in the afterlife.

This fluid relationship between actors and audiences seen in The Spanish Tragedy's frame narrative structure is finessed in Shakespeare's Hamlet with an equal attention on showcasing and gauging how drama can create an immediate reaction in spectators who are witnesses prodded to testify. Since the metatextual features of Hamlet have been well covered by many scholars, I simply want to bring our attention to the way Hamlet's self-consciousness and his utilization of the traveling players highlights how audiences are not just expected to bear witness but also react--mentally and physically--to the production before them so as to elicit a dynamic change in their behavior outside the enclosed environment of the theater.

When the players arrive on stage during Hamlets conversation with Polonius, the prince makes humorous references to the cross-dressing nature of English Renaissance theater and convivially asks the actors to offer a "passionate speech" (2.2.414). (7) Foreshadowing his use of the plot of The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet mentions a performance that cites the murder of the Trojan king Priam as well as Pyrrhus, who avenges his father's death. In the soliloquy that concludes the scene, Hamlet laments that the actor could feign more intensity in performance than he can muster in real life as he continues to mope, overthink, and hesitate like a socially inferior "drab" or "scullion" (2.2.564, 565). He is inspired by the actor's thespian fierceness and resolves to invoke such inspiration to "catch the conscience of the King" (2.2.582). Although Hamlet is plotting his revenge, this moral and educated Renaissance man wants to verify that the ghost's story is credible. Since regular routes of justice are not an option for him, Hamlet uses the theater as a place where he can put Claudius on the witness stand by forcing him to observe a murder similar to that for which he is unknowingly under investigation.

We are deprived (or blessed) that Shakespeare did not leave us treatises of his thoughts on drama, but perhaps Hamlets instructions to the players are modeled after the Bard's sensibilities. The prince informs them that he detests the thespian who "out-Herods Herod" (3.2.12) because acting should be modest, natural, and do nothing but "hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure" (3.2.20-22). This naturalistic view emboldens maxims about art imitating life and vice versa. Hamlet's hopes that the verisimilitude of Gonzago will visibly unfetter Claudius's guilt underscores a belief in the transformative aspect of theater, one that can involuntarily force the audience member to act as a result of what he/she witnesses. By inviting Horatio to be his confederate in observing Claudius's reaction, Hamlet asks his friend to bear witness as well--not to the performance so much as to the audience. Hence, Claudius unwittingly becomes a performer and the dramatized world of

Elsinore has become an interactive theater where everyone is performing and bearing witness. Just as in The Spanish Tragedy, Shakespeare's tragedy creates different levels of performers and audiences so as to challenge and legitimize the authenticity of drama while simultaneously forcing the real-life Elizabethan audience to ponder their role as auditors and performers. If Hamlet and Horatio can witness Claudius's guilt simply by observing him during a theatrical performance, then Shakespeare's audience--groundling and courtier alike--can be both witnesses and culprits when the moral failings of humanity are performed before them.

As Gonzago unfolds, Hamlet asks Gertrude what she thinks of the play. Her ironic and off-quoted "The lady protests too much, methinks" (3.2.210) hints that Hamlet's production is working. Underscoring his belief in the ability of the audience to feel emotionally invested in a performance that mirrors their lives, he attests that neither he nor his mother should be disturbed by the play: "'Tis a knavish piece of work; but what o' that? Your majesty, and we that have free souls, it touches us not. Let the galled jade wince, our withers are unwrung" (3.2.219-22). According to Hamlet's chorus-like commentary, Gonzago's nephew, Lucianus, pours poison into his uncle's ear. Claudius witnesses a fictionalized regicide similar to that of which he is guilty. He rises, asks for lights, and storms out of the theater. As everyone exits save for Hamlet and Horatio, the evacuation of the courtly audience has caused The Mousetrap to end, which, in some way, is a kind of interactive theater wherein the departure of the audience causes a performance to be cancelled in medias res. A pleased Hamlet sounds like a "Jeopardy!" contestant as he gloats to Horatio, "O good Horatio, I'll take the Ghost's word for a thousand pound" (3.2.263-64). Assured by Claudius's reaction to the play that he is guilty of murdering King Hamlet, Hamlet now has more conviction to enact his revenge. The fact that art and life are indelibly linked is emphasized later in Hamlet when the prince murders Claudius and mirrors the avunculicide portrayed in The Mousetrap. Having penned the players' script, Hamlet's playwriting and the audience's reaction is what emboldens him to become a murderer. In Elsinore, theory and praxis exist symbiotically.

As many linguists and etymologists have noted, the word "play" has roots in the Anglo-Saxon "plegian," which entails bestirring oneself or doing something. Of course, the active nature of a play clearly links it to the verb form of "play." All the same, Claudius's conscience has been stirred and he has acted, if not to plead guilty then at least to flee the scene of the reenacted crime in a moment of guilt. After all, it is only after The Mousetrap that Hamlet's audience witnesses Claudius's confession and gets firsthand, non-supernatural, non-circumstantial confirmation of the king's guilt. As the play-within-the-play disappears, the original audience return to their proper position in bearing witness, but having seen how Claudius's fate is sealed after serving a turn as a spectator, they are aware that the moral quandaries regarding betrayal and revenge performed on stage also apply to their own lives.

Kyd and Shakespeare master drama and advance it beyond the norms of medieval theater in a way that is almost modern in its self-awareness. The inclusion of a play-within-a-play in both tragedies creates multiple levels of performers and audiences. The moral and ethical issues with which all levels of audiences are confronted are harrowing and horrific. Both playwrights utilize a medieval idea of the auditors bearing witness to drama and force them to become actors--in fiction and in real life--by reminding them that not all murders are fictional and not all drama is a work of fantasy. The Elizabethan groundlings should be shaken up and concerned that the blood they see on the stage may soon be their own. They are asked to witness the death of others as a memento mori that surreally ushers them into a self-consciously aware world where the difference between actor and auditor is thin and perilously close to nonexistent. As such, they must follow their moral compass so that they can remain witnesses to sin rather than enactors of it. The monarchy supported the proselytizing of such a message since duels and vigilantism threatened the increasing powers of the nation-state to administer and execute justice over the people. However justified audiences may have thought Hieronimo and Hamlet to be, the protagonists have to be punished for the murders they commit--not just because of their sinful nature but because the courts and political powers that be must make such decisions.

Talkin' About a Revolution: Street Theater and Moral Imperatives

Reality mirrors art when Hieronimo murders his royal audience and Hamlet demonstrates how the audience can and sometimes should react to the sins performed before them. In the context of these Renaissance icons, street theater seems indebted to the earlier period's conceptions of an audiences role in drama. In the politically minded street theater of ACT UP in the late 1980s, the audience is no longer called to just bear witness but to also take action and be ashamed of their sins, a la Polonius, or force the powers that be to respond, a la Hieronimo's assault on the Spanish monarchy.

Because both Hieronimo and Hamlet are tragic heroes for whom traditional venues of justice are unavailable, it is worth considering how the courtroom as a place of justice is similar to a theater. This comparison is valuable because the plays under consideration in this essay seek to showcase how social injustices that are not repaired through official channels of authority must be rectified through the power of theater. If Claudius will not turn himself in, then Hamlet must put him on trial and evoke the king's guilt. If the US government will not responsibly deal with the AIDS crisis, then ACT UP will force them to by performing on the streets and disrupting quotidian life. The similarities between the courtroom and the theater usually depend upon a physical spatial location where all actors and audience members can gather at an appointed time to witness the production. Each member has his/her own role and exists in a symbiotic relationship with the other participants. Depending on your view of the subject matter at hand, the prosecutor or the defense can be seen as the legal embodiment of good or evil. The judge directs the proceedings, the bailiff manages the stage, witnesses and references take supporting roles, and the jury and/or public make judgments about ethical and legal issues. In his discussion of theater and its similarities to trials, Rabih Mroue asserts that the theater "is a place for uncertainty, a place for the struggle of ideas; it is a space for open discussion concerning an unresolved issue, in the presence of an alert audience, which is listening to the different voices and the conflicts between the characters." (8)

But what happens when drama leaves the confines of the theater and social injustices cannot be tried in a courtroom? What happens when such complexities force themselves onto the public in the form of street theater? The dynamics are radically altered and the line between an engaged and a captive audience disintegrates. And what happens when a community of individuals feels ignored, ostracized, and subjugated by the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government? They put their oppressors on trial via street theater.

Street theater that is concerned with making positive and immediate changes in the extra-dramatic world follows the precepts of the feminist maxim that "the personal is political." As Jan Cohen-Cruz defines it, "Street performance creates a bridge between imagined and real actions, often facilitated by taking place at the very sites that the performance makers want transformed." (9) When a group of activists join forces to organize and execute a public protest, in many ways it resembles a team of actors who come together to design and present a staged performance. The protest and the performance are both a form of spectacle intended to engage the audience. Street theater, by eschewing the confines of a permanent theater and its capitalist trappings, invokes the spirit of the mystery and miracle plays performed by guilds in the public space during the Middle Ages. If theater is an "art form operating at the charged point where lives are given voice and experiences form" so that "representatives of one group can make their address to others" in order "to bring to light behaviour that contests or contravenes human rights standards," (10) as Paul Rae argues, then non-traditional theater is the epitome of an artistic medium that not only asks the audience to bear witness but to also respond, even by force, to the message and goals of the drama unfolding before them. Hence, ACT UP took to the streets of New York, Washington DC, and dozens of other cities because lives were at stake. Hence, the sidewalks and thoroughfares they traversed everyday alongside people whom they saw as the enemy were the logical site for their theater, for it was quotidian life and peoples perceptions that needed to be transformed.

ACT UP--an acronym for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power--was founded in 1987 as an advocacy group seeking to improve the lives of individuals living with HIV and AIDS by publicizing the need for a more forceful approach to combating the disease through public awareness and compassion, medical research and treatment, and governmental respect and legislation. As AIDS claimed the lives of thousands of men and women, the disease and its lethal effects made national headlines. However, because the majority of people infected by HIV were socially stigmatized members of society--namely gay men, low-income ethnic minorities, and/or illegal drug users--the mainstream media and the US government neither expressed compassionate views nor took appropriate actions to care for those with the disease or offer sensible solutions to stymie its spread. The members of ACT UP were cognizant that holding meetings and disseminating information within their own communities was not enough.

The impetus for the street theater tactics for which ACT UP would become known originated in two spheres committed to social justice: public protest and traditional theater. From the civil rights movement for equal treatment of African Americans to the anti-Vietnam War protests to the sexual liberation/feminist rallies to the Stonewall Riots of the 1960s and 1970s, many members of ACT UP were veteran activists or grew up aware of the impact people-powered organization could have. Furthermore, traditional plays such as William Hoffman's As Is (1985) and Larry Kramers The Normal Heart (1985) had already offered poignant and pathos-rich portrayals of the lives and travails of those living with HIV and AIDS. Alisa Solomon published a firsthand look at the actions of ACT UP in a 1989 issue of American Theatre, explaining that the activists were "hitting the streets to educate Americans about [AIDS] and to shake some movement out of bureaucratic government agencies that tie up experimental drugs in astonishing tangles of red tape--while the number of AIDS cases rises past 100,000." (11) The dedication and passion of Solomons essay, written in the midst of the AIDS crisis, are palpable. And so, like the passion plays performed on the streets during the Middle Ages, or Hamlet's decision to recreate the murder of his father in front of the accused assassin, ACT UPs theater forced the public--from the random passerby to Wall Street tycoons and government officials--to bear witness to their story and suffering. They would go to their audience and make them captive to their message by disrupting their commutes and forcing them to arrest the actors.

On March 24, 1987, ACT UP hit the streets with a demonstration wherein approximately 250 activists sat down in the middle of traffic on Wall Street and hanged an effigy of Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Frank Young in front of Trinity Church in order to "protest against drug-company profiteering from the exorbitantly priced AZT" drug. (12) Seventeen protesters were arrested for civil disobedience. But what exactly was theatrical about this demonstration? The effigy of Young is the clearest tie-in to traditional theater, as it was a puppet constructed in the prop shop of the New York Shakespeare Festival. From seventeenth century Japanese bunraku to the Bread & Puppet radical theater of New York and Vermont that originated in the 1960s and is still active today, effigies, puppets, commedia dell arte-style masks, and other such figurative representations of recognizable figures are a staple of dramatic practice. The ability to portray, scold, satirize, or violently pummel such figures allows actors and audience members to experience a cathartic purging of their anger, frustrations, and violent urges in a comparatively peaceful manner. The fact that the reprimanding of Young occurred in such a public venue and in such an ostentatious style differentiates ACT UP's performance from what would have been seen in a private theater without media attention. The result? Young, even though he was not present, was forced to bear witness to the protesters demands. He relented. The FDA agreed to shorten the approval process so that experimental drugs could reach AIDS patients sooner. Youngs hanging was an artistic expression of ACT UP's fury and perhaps a release of many members' personal desires to force a man untouched by the AIDS crisis to physically suffer like those who were. Just as the Duke of Castile and Claudius get their comeuppance, Young must be attacked for the ethical good of all involved. The revenge ACT UP dramatically demonstrated was even more intimate than that of the Renaissance performances because they had the freedom to name names that Kyd and Shakespeare did not.

We cannot lose sight of the fact that Young's effigy was hanged in front of Trinity Church. Just as the liturgical dramas moved from inside the church to the public square and shifted from a Latin script to one written in the vernacular during the Middle Ages, ACT UP's decision to hang Young's effigy outside of a church reminded its viewers that while its actions were loud and the people it sought to help were demonized, their roots lay in a history of compassion and good will for all. ACT UP not only created a public spectacle that attracted the attention of onlookers, it also sought to educate its captive audience by distributing thousands of copies of a fact sheet entitled "Why We Are Angry" along with a New York Times op-ed piece penned by Kramer. (13) These texts are perhaps akin to the program distributed at most traditional theatrical performances. However, while theater programs, even for shows as politically oriented as Gore Vidal's Best Man (1960) or Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon (2006), can discuss the sociocultural context and importance of the play, their texts' prosaic tone and style and lack of overt didacticism render them mostly banal puff pieces that ask a bourgeois audience to consider the topic but not do anything about it. Kramer and his hundreds of fellow protesters fill the streets, risk arrest, name names, and implore their audience to join them and/or take direct action by contacting legislators or immediately changing their moral compass. Like Hamlet hoping that Claudius will show his true colors, ACT UP demands that its audience witness its pain and then become actors, or rather active agents, in their everyday lives.

ACT UPs decision to protest the FDA at its headquarters in Rockville, Maryland on October 11, 1988, underscores the ties between political street theater and Renaissance-era drama that ask the audience to consider moral imperatives. Having learned from its successes and failures with past demonstrations, ACT UP's activists organized workshops in nonviolent civil disobedience. These workshops, much like a rehearsal for actors, trained teams known as "affinity groups" how to adhere to the script of unfurling their trademark "SILENCE = DEATH" banners and block entrances into the FDA building. Although ACT UP successfully disrupted the day's activities at the FDA within half an hour, they continued their performance for another eight hours. In addition to preventing the FDA workers from doing their work, ACT UP forced their captive audience as well as the mainstream media to see them hang an effigy of President Reagan, stage die-ins, and block the buses taking those who were arrested to jail. (14)

One of their more poignant performances was the die-in wherein every thirty-two minutes a random member of the affinity group "[fell] dead to the pavement" amid chanting and air-raid whistles. (15) The temporal interval of thirty-two minutes represented the interval at which an American died of AIDS each day. As actors would cease their chants and whistles and fall on the ground in their fictitious sleep of death, their stillness embodied the "SILENCE = DEATH" posters, or backdrops, that served as their props in an otherwise real-world setting of the FDA headquarters.

Like Hieronimo, who cannot help but make sure the royal court understands the meaning and depth of his revenge as he breaks character and speaks with the Duke, the ACT UP performers forced their audience, or at least one sector of their audience, to engage with them in the flesh. Since any large-scale street performance or political protest that occurs without a government permit is certain to meet police resistance, ACT UP could guarantee part of their audience would be a hostile crowd of officers waiting to arrest them at any chance. The ACT UP performers, however, were trained in dealing with such forces. At their FDA performance, 180 were arrested. Any time a police officer would grab an actor, whether he or she was in the midst of performing a role as a boisterous shouter or an unresponsive corpse, the actor would "go limp" and be "dragged off, just as they rehearsed it." (16)

This interaction between the performers and their audience is unique to street theater. Police forces know that their arresting of protesters is essentially part of the script. When such a real-life audience becomes an actor in the drama, the distinction between the two becomes blurred. Hence, just as the valences of audienceship shift with the plays-with-in-plays in The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet, so it does with such street theater. Although ACT UP protesters may hope that their actions will inspire the police to join their side, the officers must follow their own protocol, or script, and arrest as deemed necessary by the political powers that be. However, the everyday citizens can bear witness to the police response and see their force as symbolic of the oppression the ACT UP members are protesting. By way of their performance, the protesters engender a new consciousness in a realm that is not so much make-believe as a mirror of the harassment and hate they face every day.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest employment of the word "performance" in the English language in the fifteenth century meant "the accomplishment or carrying out of something commanded or undertaken." It was not until the seventeenth century that it was used for staged artistic works, in the sense of "the action of performing a play, piece of music, ceremony, etc." as in George Chapmans use of the term in his translation of Homer's Odyssey. (17)

The wording of the first definition has connotations of actions undertaken because of sacred or divine inspiration. This characterization of "performance" ties drama to its roots in medieval society and Judeo-Christian tradition. For me, that memory of a Palm Sunday Mass is a reminder of how an interactive script can force audience members to consider, perhaps for the first time in their lives, the magnitude of the drama before them. Hieronimo and Hamlet do not rest on their laurels as playwrights and directors who eschew or are indifferent to their audience s reactions. Hieronimo's performance destroys the divide between art and life when his actors are murdered or commit suicide. He then literally kills his audience members in a rage of fury that is unquenched by the catharsis that drama can offer its participants. The "real" audience in the theater realizes that their morals are on display, that they too can go the way of the royal court. Although Hamlet succeeds in seeing Claudius run out of the theater, it is not enough. He too hunts his audience. This is the stuff of tragedy. In the twentieth century, ACT UP's highly educated and self-conscious activists knew the value of performance to change the minds and hearts of viewers. But infused with Hieronimo's righteous fury and Hamlet's wrenching intellectualism, ACT UP also knew that the traditional theater is not the place to save lives. By taking their performance to the street and disrupting the lives of strangers and forcing the government to respond, they fully upended the division between actor and viewer. The two meet, forcefully so, and are driven to interact. Just as lives were at stake in the Renaissance-era tragedies, so they are in the ACT UP performances, but these are the lives of the troupe rather than those of fictional characters.

Kyd, Shakespeare, and ACT UP seek to challenge and depose the status quo. In performance, their protagonists successfully topple authority figures--be it through characters dressed as monarchs or effigies in the likeness of public officials. But the authority figures under attack are not the sole focus of the performances' plots and themes. The morals underlying the feelings and actions of each performer are on display. Frustration, fury, sadness, and revenge are given full weight. By constantly blurring the boundaries between actor and audience, each playwright forces the viewer not only to bear witness but to make a decision. The audience members should leave the spatial location of the performance-be it theater or street--and reckon their moral bearings, for if not, their lives, consciences, and afterlives are at stake. Ultimately, the revenge enacted in performance is not about violence and getting even, it is about asking the audience to utilize these shock tactics to consider being more compassionate.

Bowie State University


(1) Meg F. Pearson, "Audience as Witness in Edward II," in Imagining the Audience in Early Modern Drama: 1558-1642, ed. Jennifer A. Low and Nova Myhill (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 94.

(2) Gabriella Mazzon, Interactive Dialogue Sequences in Middle English Drama (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2009), 169.

(3) Arthur Freeman, Thomas Kyd: Facts and Problems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), 112.

(4) Steven C. Young, The Frame Structure in Tudor and Stuart Drama (Salzburg: Salzburg Studies in English Literature, 1974), 35.

(5) Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, in English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology, ed. David Bevington (New York: Norton, 2002). All quotations from The Spanish Tragedy are from this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text.

(6) Robert N. Watson, The Rest Is Silence: Death as Annihilation in the English Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 72.

(7) William Shakespeare, Hamlet, in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: Norton, 1997). All quotations from Hamlet are from this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text.

(8) Rabih Mroue, Foreword to Theatre and Human Rights, by Paul Rae (Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), xi.

(9) Jan Cohen-Cruz, ed., Radical Street Performance: An International Anthology (London: Routledge, 1998), 1.

(10) Paul Rae, Theatre and Human Rights (Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 22.

(11) Alisa Solomon, "AIDS Crusaders ACT UP a Storm," In Cohen-Cruz, 42-43.

(12) Ibid., 43.

(13) Randy Shaw, The Activist's Handbook: A Primer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 216.

(14) Deborah B. Gould, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP's Fight Against AIDS (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 401.

(15) Solomon, 45.

(16) Ibid.

(17) Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. "performance," accessed March 22,2014,
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Author:Sierra, Horacio
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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