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A Theory of Justice: The Musical!

Ziyad Hayatli reviews a novel work of political philosophy.

As a trio of Oxford PPE (Philosophy, Politics & Economics) students struggled with their studies, they came up with an amusing way to revise political philosophy. This joke grew into a full musical production entitled John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice: The Musical! So thanks to Eylon Aslan-Levy, Ramin Sabi, and Tommy Peto, we have the first ever musical completely to do with political philosophy. As I sat in the small O’Reilly Theatre of Keble College in Oxford, I did not know what to expect. “How are they going to pull this off?” I thought. By the end, though, I was very impressed.

Everything in this show is to be taken with a handful of salt – except the principles and ideas, of course. A professor of political philosophy at Harvard, John Rawls (played by Ollie Nicholls), tries to teach an apathetic class. He finds them all slipping into dreaded relativism. This can be cured only through a theory of his own: a theory of justice. But he lacks inspiration, which he then gains from one of his students, with whom he falls in love. Instead of asking her name, he decides to call her ‘Fairness’. (Creepiness aside, Rawls was known for the slogan ‘justice is fairness’).

Meanwhile, the physicists of Harvard open a time vortex by accident, which Fairness gets sucked into when she goes to the bathroom. Professor Rawls jumps in after her, and so begins a journey through time, visiting many major political philosophers. Not only will Rawls fight for his love, but he will learn from political philosophers across the ages, and this will inspire his theory of justice.

But that’s not all. Philosophical rival and villain Robert Nozick decides to go after him, as he cannot risk Rawls writing a theory of justice that opposes his own. (The real-life Rawls and Nozick had offices side-by-side at Harvard, but widely differing political views.) In the musical, Nozick has a fiesty and demanding mistress, Russian-American Objectivist Ayn Rand, and together they do make an exceptionally evil duo.

Towards the end Rawls finally makes his breakthrough, conceiving one of the best-known concepts in modern political philosophy: the veil of ignorance. Rawls claimes that if an individual was invited to design a society to live in, but was doing so from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ where they did not know who they would be (male or female, an animal, someone poor, part of the upper class, etc), then self-interest would lead them to design a society which ensures everyone is treated fairly. Specifically, there would be freedom, property rights, and equality of opportunity, and inequalities of income would be allowed only insofar as this also benefitted the poorest members.

The musical did a splendid job of presenting historical philosophers in different ways. There could have just been a stream of people in academic uniform lecturing Rawls on their theories. Instead, Plato is presented as a ventriloquist who talks through his puppet, Socrates (Plato used Socrates as his mouthpiece in most if not all of his dialogues); John Locke and Thomas Hobbes go at each other in a rap battle; while the Utilitarians John Stuart Mill, James Mill, Jeremy Bentham and Henry Sidgwick form a barbershop quartet. This is just a small sample of what awaits.

You do have to know a bit about political philosophy to get many of the jokes and references, but with a title like John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice: The Musical!, I think it would anyway mainly attract those who have some interest in philosophy. I discovered this when telling friends what I was going to see, only to receive that guilty ‘I don’t know who that is’ look. Hopefully, this means that no unfortunate soul would stumble in and wonder why everyone else is roaring with laughter when Karl Marx screams “Don’t alienate me from my labour!” as Rawls tries to steal a peek at his unfinished notes.

Although the fairly basic facilities simply did not do A Theory of Justice justice (yes, pun intended), it was still a very enjoyable performance, which is an indicator of just how good a production it was. A live orchestra was miraculously squeezed in to the small theatre, which made the music that much better. But my final thought is that this show needs to go to bigger theatres. I talked very briefly to one of the writers, Eylon Aslan-Levy, and it was good to hear that they hope to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe (and, I guess, many more places) in the future. It is definitely worth keeping an eye out for it. You will be glad you did.

© Ziyad Hayatli 2013

Ziyad Hayatli is a student of Philosophy and Journalism at Roehampton University, London.

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