Book Review
The Aesthetics of the Oppressed. Augusto Boal. Trans. Adrian Jackson. New York: Routledge, 2006; pp. vii + 133. £65.00/$120; Paper £16.99/$30.95.

In The Aesthetics of the Oppressed (2006), his sixth book, Augusto Boal provides us with the set of principles underlying his Theatre of the Oppressed. Boal’s deft fingers explore a vast array of subjects, plucking ideas like candies from a bowl and then letting us suck on the sugared morsels until we understand his background, beliefs, and the points he tries to get across. Boal divides his deceptively thin book – a mere 133 pages – into sections that discuss issues such as theatre as a martial art, theatre in prisons, and the impact of globalization on culture and art. But before he does so, he provides us with a theoretical foundation in which he explicates, in philosophical terms, the ideas that background his work. Using simple language, he explains complex theories that he has developed about the way in which the human mind works, how we perceive the world and all that is in it, the function of words and the power that they take away from us, the aesthetic process and the work of art, and the intricate workings of aesthetic neurons.

Boal’s work is an assortment of theory, essays, stories, and detailed descriptions of experiences he has had with theatre all over the world. Boal makes a concerted effort to relate the Theatre of the Oppressed to contemporary society and make his work relevant to a wide audience. He uses examples such as the December 26, 2004 tsunami, reality television, and the Iraq War to illustrate his points.

Boal’s attitude toward the modern world is visible throughout his treatise. He condemns television as a tool that promotes capitalism and destroys the individual, denounces the state of the world that allows an overwhelming percentage of the human population to live in abject poverty while rich countries control the economy and directly affect the health and well being of people in third world countries, and argues for change, which he firmly believes can be brought about through theatre. Boal’s Marxist ideals are visible everywhere in the work, but although Boal condemns a large proportion of the practices and the state of modern society, he clearly sees hope in change. This hope is reflected in both his optimism and confidence in the power of theatre, and his frequent – and rather annoying – use of exclamation marks. Boal recognizes that capitalism has always censored theatre, from the time of Thespis and Lord Maecenas to finding sponsors for contemporary productions of SambÓpera. Nevertheless, he continues to – regardless of whether or not one can acquire funding – believe in the power of theatre to effect social change.

Boal’s writing is clear and straightforward, with a witty voice, approachable and earnest tone, and a smattering of self-deprecating humour. The sections that describe Boal’s experiences with the theatre and his encounters with people are fresh and lively, belying his advanced age (he turns seventy-six this year). Boal has obviously not lost his touch and is still intensely active in the theatre.

Boal discusses a wide variety of subjects but the organization of his book is confusing at times. Chapter division is not clear; chapters are composed of a series of essays that in some cases build upon the ideas set out in one anoter, but in other cases are not related. Further, Boal does not consistently relate the subsections of chapters to one another, which makes the reader’s task more challenging. The chapters on the theoretical foundation of the Theatre of the Oppressed and theatre as a martial art comprise half of the book, while the other sections are short – the chapter entitled “Seventieth Birthday – 2001,” whose status as a chapter is not perfectly clear, is only 4 pages long. Pictures of scenes from theatre festivals and shows are also interspersed throughout the text, but they are not directly relevant to the subject matter. And while Boal attempts to make his subject matter accessible to a wide audience, using simple language and numerous examples taken from both his experiences with theatre and his own life, the complex ideas would be difficult to grasp for someone unfamiliar with the Theatre of the Oppressed and Boal’s teachings. Moreover, while a number of subsections, such as that on Thespis and the origins of the theatre and the story of mankind’s evolution from ape to hominid, are told in an engaging and sometimes even playful manner, other sections are composed of pure theory. The latter are difficult to grapple with and require an astute, open mind familiar with theatrical practices and accustomed to reading dense philosophical treatise.

Boal simplifies the reader’s task by italicizing significant points and repeating them again and again from slightly different angles, but the repetition is not always effective and often acts as a hindrance. Nevertheless, it is easy to find truth in Boal’s statements and apply them to both society and one’s own life.

Although Boal’s book focuses on theatre, Boal manages to relate his theory to a strikingly wide array of domains and experience, from man’s origins through to the present day, to people in every country. Its notions reach into every corner of being and comment on every aspect and detail of life. From a description of the performativity inherent in the first morning yawn of King Louis XIV to the globalization of mummies in Guadalajara, Boal’s theories comment on the world, showing a depth of understanding seldom seen in the average theatre practitioner.

It takes time to fully understand the ideas expressed in The Aesthetics of the Oppressed, but it is worth the effort to grasp them. Boal’s most recent book contains nuggets of sound knowledge, truths that apply to theatre and societies everywhere, and theories that, if accepted, have the potential to change the way we live. Boal makes his readers think, and the best way to delve into this work, like any theory, is to let it sit and ferment into a fine liqueur. These morsels should be savoured, at most one or two essays a day, like bits of apple scrunched between sweetened teeth. Only by repeated, heightened exposure will we be able to fully appreciate Boal’s powerful theory and reach its core.

     —Isabella Drzemczewska Hodson, University of Calgary

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