Street Theatre: Agit Prop British Style

Dreamer: Unnamed, British

For the last six months I've dreamed I'm trapped in a city, trying to get home. The city has grown very big, has places I visit regularly, is a mix of cities I've actually visited, and I have by this time explored many buildings, finding secret passages, underground chambers, and also I often end up in a vast network of sewers where I find others who are trying to escape. We haven't yet. Do I want to escape, or is this an asylum?

Mr. Hagen's Reply:

Why do you think this is an asylum?

Dreamer's Reply:

This may or may not be relevant but I usually see these cities in a particular light, as I'm an organizer of direct action campaigns - although this isn't in my dreams - I've been involved in street protests, sit ins, and stopping the traffic - once at Trafalgar Square. I live in Birmingham which is undergoing massive building works. Asylum because it seems to be a place I keep going back to in my dream, asylum because I can work with it then, but as a prison I must only try to break free of it.

Mr. Hagen's Reply:

What are direct action campaigns?

Dreamer's Reply:

Street protests. Sit ins. Traffic blockades. Oh. I have just thought of this. A few years back, when I was often involved in blocking traffic - I remember the best moments for me were when we had stopped the flow of traffic at a major thoroughfare and brought the city to a standstill. Birmingham 95. London, countless times - spilling out into the roads from the four corners of Trafalgar Square. Leeds - you could hear a pin drop. Maybe that means something.

Mr. Hagen's Reply:

Have you seen the film "The Matrix"? Of course the resistance movement against the Matrix lived in the service and away systems (a euphemism for sewers).

Dreamer's Reply:

Matrix. Yes, I took my children. It was clever hokum. If you're looking for references - go back further - I was a fan of The Prisoner - the village - who is number one. All of that. When computers were computers - filling whole walls and studded with flashing bulbs, and with names like Wotan.

Mr. Hagen's Reply: Street Theatre or Agitprop

The In-Mates: Anthropological Theatre

Every performance (action) has the imprint and import of cultural conditioning (learning). Theatre provides the testing ground for cultural assumptions and performance expectations in terms of social roles, rules (i.e. boundaries) and values which a culture idealizes or abhors. Freud, in "Civilization and its' Discontents" provided access for anthropological theatre studies into the "malaise of culture". Cross-cultural investigation of dreams can reveal the folk-ways and sub-stratum (collective unconscious) of all human beings and experience.

British Dramaturgy: British Folk-ways

The British stage imprints a distinct language and socialization pattern on its children. With its own communal frame-work of political, economic, religious, domestic and ethnic institutions the everyday drama of British life is lived. The communal British dreamscreen reflects the folk-ways and the unique social problems of the British life-cycle.

Understanding the social roles, rules and values projected on the stage provides transparency to the audience of how social reality is brought to life and how life conforms to this constructed social reality. Understanding that social reality is an informed creation of the cultural stage one lives in is paramount to freeing one's mind from conformity to it.

Underground Literature

Your dream is situated in the sewers (i.e. sub-way/underground). The adjective "underground" connotes something illegal, subversive and deviant. The so-called underground poets were anti-war, anti-establishment and non-traditional; they in effect created poetry of social protest and resistance. As a deliberate policy the underground poets declined to go through the established publishing channels. One notable exception is "Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain".

Street Theatre or Agitprop

Street theatre involves a stage outside the traditional buildings, in the street, at a university, in a marketplace or in the sub-way (under-ground). The desire is to create a place which reaches a non-theatre-going audience. This in-turn creates an atmosphere of direct sociopolitical action. One is joining a social demonstration and becomes culturally animated. The sense of social role and place in street theatre is located somewhere between provocation and conviviality in the urban environment. Agitprop (short for agitation and propaganda) theatre is a form of cultural animation designed to raise the audience's awareness of a political or social situation. Agitprop is more radical than street theatre in its desire to serve as a political and ideological instrument. There is a clear leftist political agenda involved, which serves as a form of life-style criticism of capitalist-bourgeois domination (inequality). Agitprop proclaims its desire for immediate social action by defining itself as social information plus stage effects. Your street protests and traffic blockades seem more oriented to and driven by the agitprop form of cultural animation than ordinary street theatre.

Political Agitators

In the classic "Psychopathology and Politics" Harold Lasswell remarks, "The essential mark of the agitator is the high value which he places on the emotional response of the public." Your criticisms of the institutional system seem to combine "material criticism" - i.e. production and consumption of things and money - and "sociocriticism" which criticizes the institutionalized practices of urban capitalist cultural staging and living.

Asylums: Total Institutions

Erving Goffman's "Asylums" attempts to classify social establishments and the cultural stage from a sociological perspective. Institutionalized spaces are places such as homes, railway stations, hospitals, universities, factories and buildings, in which particular activities go on. The cultural stage is shaped by the social codes which define the roles, rules and values of a situation. Post offices, for example, have community members who provide services to a continuous flow of members who receive them.

Reviewing the social institutions of Western society, one discovers physical and psychological barriers to social interaction such as class, race, gender, dress codes, private property, security systems, guards, locked doors, high walls and barbed wire. Goffman defines such social operations as "total institutions". Asylums, prisons, army barracks, POW camps, boarding schools, members-only clubs and old age homes all carry the imprint of the closed nature of the social establishment. The barriers or boundaries that total institutions place within the community can lead to alienation when they become too rigid and/or oppressive.

Your activity in the "underground" and protest against the establishment seems to be voluntary and as such you have withdrawn with others of a similar ilk from your home world.

Psychological Survival

Since the early beginnings of Western literature, children have grown up hearing adventure stories set on battlefields, oceans, islands, mountains, jungles and deserts with the essential themes of struggle and survival. Stanley Cohen and Laurie Taylor, in "Psychological Survival", list five techniques of self-defense and psychological resistance against total institutions such as prisons and asylums: self protection, such as body and mind building; campaigning, such as petitions, writing letters to MPs, legal appeals; escaping, such as break-outs; striking, include hunger strikes; and confronting, forcing the problem into public consciousness.

The Prisoners: Escape or Resistance

Adolf Hitler, John Bunyan, Arthur Koestler, Alexander Solzhenitzn, Robert Straud (Birdman of Alcatraz), Timothy Leary and Nelson Mandela, to name a few, all survived their imprisonment and brought forth differing visions and careers as a result. Erich Fromm, in "Fear of Freedom", discusses the meaning of freedom in democratic and authoritarian political systems. For Fromm the democratic regulation of the marketplace of thought is driven by the need for self-realization. When this desire is thwarted, individuals can become driven by a need either to conform and/or escape the perceived oppressive and closed system. There are many forms of escape and flight such as crime, mental illness, drugs and suicide. We all need escape. Clinical studies by Martin Seligman has shown that when all perceived avenues of escape are blocked the tendency is to become seriously depressed.

The Prisoner

This Sci-fi TV series was a follow-up to the "Danger Man" series staring Patrick McGoohan. The main character (McGoohan), whose name is never given (although believed to be Secret Agent John Drake), abruptly resigns from a sensitive British Intelligence position. After being abducted, he wakes up in the mysterious community known as The Village which he searches to learn more about and from which he attempts to escape.

Of interest is that in all 3 e-mails you sent, not once did you mention your name or even use a pseudonym.

Some literature that might be of interest includes:

  • Gresham Sykes, "The Society of Captives"
  • Fredric Jameson, "The Political Unconscious"
  • Georg Lukacs, "History and Class Consciousness"
  • Norman O. Brown, "Life Against Death"
  • Howard Levy and David Miller, "Going to Jail: The Political Prisoner"
  • Paolo Freire, "Pedagogy of the Oppressed"
  • A. Boal, "The Theatre of the Oppressed"

Hope these thoughts are of help and provide some insight,
Mark H.

All material Copyright 2006 International Institute for Dream Research. All rights reserved.