All art is political. Whether it is a deep, poignant drama or a flighty, effervescent musical, the performing arts in particular, including theater, has a uniquely political and socially vital point of view. There is something to be said for even the most lightly entertaining fluff piece, but even those can have very strong political overtones. Theater, to me, is a vehicle for conveying themes and subtext through the vitality of a live performed work; in a good work, all elements of a production must come together perfectly to provide substance about our lives and the world around us. I believe this is what separates effective theater from ineffective theater; when a play is over, and its messages and characters remain with you and resonate deeply within your consciousness, it has done its job.
There is nothing wrong with a play being seen as pure entertainment, of course - many people choose to see The Sound of Music, for instance, as fun love story and romp, and do not think about its themes of oppression and its portrayal of the tense world of Nazi-occupied Austria. Some people see The Odd Couple as merely a fun romp with wacky characters, not the sweet story of male bonding and the inability for the American male to take responsibility for their actions that lies under the surface. These elements are there for those audiences, certainly, and this allows them to have a basis by which to enjoy the humor, the romance or the suspense; however, I like to explore what the actions and the characters in the play represent from a literary level, as well as how those elements are conveyed through the acting and production elements.
The Tracy Letts play Bug, for example, can on its surface be seen as a twisted love story between two people that quickly turns into a psychological thriller. However, there are also themes of Gulf War PTSD in there (in the form of Peter's paranoia and conspiracy theories), as well as middle America's isolation and social upset (Agnes' rough divorce, the low income of all the characters, the dirty hotel room in which the play is set). The play itself likens the American experience to a complete and total nightmare, and comments on codependent relationships as toxic and even deadly as Agnes and Peter turn their room into a domestic, filthy lair isolated from the rest of the world. These themes are evident in the play, and I take great enjoyment out of recognizing and thinking about those themes as I recognize them.
The recognition of these themes is the hallmark of good theater; their presence elevates perfunctory, by the numbers dramas into meaningful works that contribute to your understanding of the world around you and the human experience. The technical aspects and acting of a brilliant play only add to that, and make the messages that much more effectively told. Plays like Black Watch comment on the futility of the Iraq War and its toll on young soldiers, while Stones in His Pockets shows the effects of a blustering, arrogant film company on a quaint small Irish town. My definition of theater, then, has to be that of live-performed works that convey significant political and social messages, even if just in a subtle manner that allows it to also be enjoyed as light entertainment.