Reaching the parts politics can't reach

Playwright David Edgar explains why the performing arts have become a site for political debate

I went to Manchester University to read drama. I've never regretted going there, though I have often wondered if history, sociology or politics would have been better training for my subsequent career as a political playwright. As my second year was 1968, I became caught up in a social and political movement that felt it was (indeed, really was) making history, so perhaps I had the best of both worlds.

After three years as a reporter on the Bradford Telegraph and Argus, I decided to risk playwriting as a full-time career. While Edward Heath's government provoked an unprecedented level of industrial militancy, I was committed to instrumental agitprop. After Heath's narrow defeat in February 1974, and the subsequent collapse of the militancy that brought it about, I turned back to realism. My play Destiny (about the rise of the National Front in the mid- to late 1970s) tried to explore the psychology of people attracted to the far right; at the same time, I became involved with an anti-fascist movement that was (properly) less concerned with understanding the National Front and more concerned with exposing it. I found that speaking with a single voice as an activist in the evenings freed me from the necessity to do that in my writing during the day.

Since 1979, through the long death-agony of revolutionary socialism, most of my work has been set in its wake. As both socialist practice and socialist theory collapsed, the question of which I was engaged in became somewhat academic. The political theatre that was speaking to its audience in the Tory years - first an explosion of women's theatre, then the work of a new generation of young male playwrights in the mid-1990s - was not a theatre I could contribute to directly.

So why does theatre feel that it is once again a site for political debate, that what happens on our great stages might even affect what's happening in the real world? The stock answers to this question are a) the fallout of 9/11 and b) the fact that drama (particularly fact-based drama) is filling a hole left by other media. The Tricycle Theatre's trompe l'oeil re-creations of major inquiries and tribunals are, in part, a response to the refusal to broadcast the real ones. David Hare's interview-based play about post-privatisation rail disasters, The Permanent Way, is in effect a journalistic exploration of how a contemporary public scandal came about, which in the 1970s would have appeared in the Sunday Times.

But beyond operating as a medium for the dramatisation of political material, the performing arts have become a site for political debate for more complex, cultural reasons. This year's Conservative Party conference was not so much a beauty contest as a theatrical audition. A recent edition of the BBC's Panorama programme dramatised conflict over anti-terrorism legislation as a marital dispute between Tony and Cherie Blair. The personalisation of political commentary that so distresses politicians reflects a reality: politics is decoded as personal narrative and performance because, increasingly, it's encoded that way. When I was researching my 2001 play The Prisoner's Dilemma, about peace processes in eastern Europe, I became aware of how role-play in particular had become one of the prime means of training, preparation and historical evaluation for diplomats and mediators. At the same time, dramaturgical language is used more and more as a metaphor for the theoretical analysis of negotiation.

In that sense, methods and metaphors drawn from drama contributed to the processes that brought peace to South Africa, Northern Ireland and the Balkans. Now performance is reaching out to parts politics is failing to reach. In the aftermath of the Balkans conflicts, drama work is one of the few ways in which victims can come to terms with extreme trauma. Similarly, when I decided to set a play based upon the 2001 northern riots against the background of an intervention by a new Labour fixer into a fictional failing old Labour council, I knew that this process had an underlying generic architecture (as I used to pitch it, Playing with Fire is Cold Comfort Farm meets The Government Inspector meets Heart of Darkness). But as I visited the real places, I was made aware that the most hopeful work of reconciliation is happening not in the political realm, but in cultural work.

Proverbially, drama was part of the democratic process in fifth-century Athens. Paradoxically, the blurring of the borders between politics and culture in 21st-century democracies has allowed drama to provide not just a site for political debate, but a language in which to analyse it. I think I read the right subject at Manchester after all.

Playing with Fire is at the National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000) until 22 October

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Barack Obama