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Maria Szasz, 


“Art has a purpose, and that purpose is action: it contains the energy to change things.”

--James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry

            Theatre and Human Rights will investigate the complex and fascinating ways twentieth-century world drama has questioned, probed and pushed forward in the quest for equal rights. This class is primarily interdisciplinary. We will specifically focus on the disciplines of fine arts, history, and politics as we ponder how these disciplines intersect, overlap and influence one another. For instance, we will discuss four plays that have responded to the rampant injustices in some of the most defining wars in history, such as the Thirty Years War in Europe (1618-1648), World War II (1939-1945), the Irish Civil War (1922-1923), and the Vietnam War (1965-1975). Our journey will also take us to the major recent conflict in South Africa, where we will discuss how the dramatist Athol Fugard has used the theatre to chronicle the struggle for equality under the South African apartheid regime (1948-1990).

            We will also read plays from Trinidad and Tobago and Ireland, which scrutinize the long-term impact of British colonialism. In addition, the class will discuss plays that reflect upon the rise of women’s rights, and the search for equality for Hispanics, African-Americans and the First Nations People of Canada. Our discussions will explore how the theatrical genre known as “political drama” has changed during the twentieth century, by comparing Bertolt Brecht’s notion of “Epic Theatre” with the growth of agit-prop drama.

            Throughout the semester, we will consider the particular tactics and styles our playwrights use as they comment on the provocative and divisive issues that underlie human rights. Do the dramatists rely on irony, humor and wry commentary on their particular human rights issue, or do they write more directly, with palpable and undisguised raw emotion? Which approach is most effective from an audience’s perspective?

            This seminar will discover, as critic Brian Crow has stated, “where normal political forms of opposition are ruthlessly silenced, art—and perhaps especially the theatre—may become a means of resistance, however enfeebled by censorship and harassment.” As Paul Rae states in his book, Theatre and Human Rights, “as an inherently social activity, the theatre provides a distinctive platform for addressing human rights issues.”  Please join us in this seminar to see how twentieth-century drama has led the way in the continuing, passionate struggle around the globe for equality and respect for the entire human race.



Sean O’Casey, (The Plough and the Stars) 1926

Bertolt Brecht, (Mother Courage and Her Children) 1941

Samuel Beckett, (Waiting for Godot) 1953

Arthur Miller, (The Crucible) 1956

Brian Friel, (The Freedom of the City) 1974

Maria Irene Fornes, (Fefu and Her Friends) 1977

Derek Walcott, (Pantomime) 1978

Luis Valdez, (Zoot Suit) 1979

Athol Fugard, (“Master Harold” … and the Boys) 1982

August Wilson, (Fences) 1983

Gao Xingjian, (The Bus Stop) 1983

Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, (Miss Saigon) 1989

Drew Hayden Taylor, (Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth) 1991

Tony Kushner, (Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika) 1991 and 1992




1. (Bertolt Brecht: Great Writers of the Twentieth Century) series about the German dramatist, produced by the BBC.

2. The Samuel Beckett-directed (Waiting for Godot)

3. (The Crucible), directed by Nicholas Hytner, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder

4. (Master Harold … and the Boys) by Athol Fugard

5. (Bloody Sunday), Paul Greenberg documentary about Civil Rights march on 30 January 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland

6. Derek Walcott’s (Pantomime)

7.  (Fences) by August Wilson, directed by Denzel Washington

8. (A Conversation with August Wilson), about the African-American playwright August Wilson

9. (The Making of Miss Saigon), the behind-the-scenes DVD of the casting, rehearsals, and opening night of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s musical about Vietnam, Miss Saigon

10. The Emmy-award winning version of (Angels in America), directed by Mike Nichols and starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep Emma Thompson



No special course fee required.



Regular attendance and active, energetic participation in the class; two response papers, two to three pages each, designed for you to comment on a particular play and playwright; attendance at a local production of a play that addresses human rights, and participation in a class discussion about the play; a two to three page proposal for your research paper; a ten minute conference with the instructor about your research paper; an eight to ten page research paper; a group project: a 60 minute presentation about a play, playwright and an aspect of theatrical, political, and/or cultural history relating to human rights from one of the plays we have been studying.



Maria Szasz holds an MA in Theatre Education from Emerson College, and a PhD in English from UNM, where she focused on Theatre and Irish Literature. Her book, Brian Friel and America (Glasnevin Press, 2013) looks at Ireland’s most famous living playwright’s impact on American Theatre.