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In ancient Japan they had a highly ritualized form of theatre called Noh, in which actors in masks enacted standard story lines using stylized dialogue. In the first act an aspiring politician would come on stage in a smiley mask and promise to balance the budget, a chorus of voters would shout "Hooray" in unison, and then ... Hey, wait a minute. This isn't a textbook on ancient Japan. This is the daily newspaper. See here, in the second act the politician appears in a mask whose mouth gapes in amazement and horror, and intones "The situation is far worse than we thought." The chorus of voters goes "Oh goodness me, we had no idea." There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then they hug and the stage goes dark. The format is not totally rigid. While it is habitual for the politician to blame his budget woes on his dishonest incompetent predecessors, propriety permits a preposterous variation, known as "Ottawa City Council," in which the horrible situation is revealed to be the work of the very same politicians now shocked to discover it. But such opportunities for artistic licence are few.

When the lights come up on act three the politician inevitably returns in a mask expressing grim determination and a new robe whose sleeves are rolled up, pushing a wheelbarrow containing an immense report. "Good heavens, people," he recites. "We have consulted the experts and they say we can keep our pledge to you to balance the budget, which we made with no idea at all that it might be hard, but regrettably we will have to close all the facilities that make our community kind and vibrant, let rubbish accumulate without end on our pathways, cease to ship useless plastics to foreign lands, and quite possibly sever both your legs just above the knee."

At this point another chorus of activists in bright costumes leaps on stage and shrieks "Better that you drop a big bomb on our beloved city than do those terrible things of which you speak." Then a wise advisor comes forward to say "O politicians, O people, heed me. For a small sacrifice, no more than two cups of your favourite stimulative beverage per week, our centres of learning and compassion can be saved and the crisis averted forever." "Hooray" shouts the chorus of voters. The whole thing is staged again the next day, or even in another theatre on the same day, and the audience never seems to get tired of it.

Now I know people find repetitive ritual performances soothing. But I've been examining the fundamental tenets of modern art and it seems that shocking the bourgeoisie is the shortcut to money and fame. I'm not suggesting you could get away with, say, pickling a shark. But within reason, I gather, upsetting convention is the standard path to success. So here goes.

First, wouldn't it be weird to stop having the entire populace speak with one voice? Theatre-goers find it comfortingly familiar when a character in the disappointing role known as "the McGuinty" says things like "What I hear from Ontarians is that they are not overly concerned about how long it takes us to balance the budget." But at the risk of cluttering up the stage, maybe we could have more than one kind of Ontarian up there. And when the politician wheels out the barrow full of recommendations from the experts we could get really wacky by having one, in a jester's costume, ask why he didn't consult the experts before making the promise.

We could even shatter the standard format entirely, à la Rites of Spring, and have the jester deliver a soliloquy on the question of why it is that, as society becomes fabulously more wealthy, it should become harder rather than easier for governments with ballooning tax bases to meet what ought to be the shrinking rather than growing needs of the populace. The jester could quote a mysterious figure known as "Citizen Arts Editor Peter Simpson" that the locals already deliver some 20,000 cups per year of their preferred stimulative beverage to various politicians, and say it might explain why the latter find it hard to concentrate on line items in the budget.

To be safe, the jester could conclude his soliloquy by suggesting that social problems expand to meet the number of subsidies and social workers available. Having everyone enjoy a hearty laugh at the concept of handouts creating dependence would relieve the tension. Then we could go back to good old act one, where the aspiring politician promises to balance the budget. And the audience could join the chorus in shouting "Hooray."

Except me. I'd be at the back, shouting out the name of that old Japanese type of theatre. "Noooooh."

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson