Bearing Witness and Taking Action: Audiences and Morality in Renaissance Tragedy and Activist Street Theater


Horacio Sierra


This article focuses on the ethical, social, and political didactic elements of plays in both Renaissance tragedy and post-modern street theater so 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. The performances discussed in this article 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.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.