A Theory of Justice: The Musical – a romp through 2,500 years of philosophy

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper is astonished by “A Theory of Justice: The Musical”, a hilarious combination of musical theatre and political philosophy. This article appears in Issue 61 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

The priority of equal basic liberties over fair equality of opportunity and the difference principle might be an important element of a theory of justice, but on the face of it, the subject doesn’t have much comedic promise. I’m pretty certain that the lexical priority of liberty has never caused me to laugh out loud before. Neither has Rousseau’s republicanism, nor Lockean theories of initial acquisition. But that was before I saw A Theory of Justice: The Musical, written, produced and performed by undergraduates at the University of Oxford. On opening night, these ideas and more had me laughing until the tears streamed down my face and my cheeks were aching.

Political philosophy and musical theatre are two of my life’s highest pleasures, but even so, prior to seeing the show, a combination of the two did not strike me as a guaranteed success. A musical romp through 2,500 years of philosophy would probably be highly entertaining; but possibly in a so bad, it’s good sort of way. Well, I was halfway right. The show was highly entertaining, but in a genuinely excellent, astonishingly brilliant sort of way.

The story follows a diffident, tweedy Professor John Rawls who – alongside the object of his desires, the beautiful but elusive Fairness – travels back in time and meets political philosophers of the past. He is pursued by his nemesis and archrival Robert Nozick, who aims to foil Rawls’s plan to write a new and groundbreaking theory of justice. Along the way, the great thinkers share their theories with Rawls in surprising and hugely comical ways: a ventriloquist Plato preaches to the masses at the agora through his dummy, Socrates; ruffian Thomas Hobbes and gentleman John Locke engage in a furious rap battle over the details of life in the state of nature; and a charmingly naïve and tender barbershop quartet of utilitarians espouse their morality of maximising happiness.

All of these scenes are so cleverly and originally interpreted that, as well as being utterly hilarious, they have real pedagogical value. As the oversensitive, childlike utilitarians sang to make themselves feel happy, and cried when hearing of someone else’s unhappiness, through my giggles I wondered why I had never thought of utilitarianism in that way before.

Given the paucity of women in the canon and the neglect of gender politics by most philosophers, I had wondered how the show would deal with this. So I was delighted to see Mary Wollstonecraft and her backing singers of Emmeline Pankhurst and Catharine Macaulay arrive to lambast the men for their disregard for women’s equality (and amused when Rawls dismissively promises to deal with the family in a later chapter).

While there were many excellent performances, for me the show was stolen by the evil libertarian duo of smooth and dastardly Nozick, played by Luke Rollason, and the terrifying dominatrix Ayn Rand, played by Clare Joyce. Their seductive and slightly deranged tango, in which Rand extols to Nozick the virtues of selfishness, was my highlight of the show. But special mention must also go to David Wigley as Rawls’s drag queen fairy mother, Immanuel Kant, who in a climactic scene worthy of a reality television montage, shows Rawls that the theory of justice he has been searching for won’t be found in the outside world; he must search within (but using his reason, and not his emotions, of course).

To create something that has both philosophical accuracy and genuine comedy is no mean feat, and yet Eylon Aslan-Levy, Ramin Sabi and Tommy Peto have somehow managed to write a script that has both, by the bucket load. Admittedly, much of the comedy is of a distinctly geeky nature – in-jokes predicated on our shared recognition and comprehension. I doubt an audience comprised of non-philosophers would have laughed so heartily at Kant responding to Rawls’s “that’s phenomenal!” with the exclamation “No, it’s noumenal!” So this might not be a show to take the whole family to. But philosophy students at university campuses around the world would, I’m sure, pack out theatres and howl with laughter. I hope a longer run, and perhaps even a tour, beckons; I will be taking my undergraduates.

At the end of the show, as he slunk off the stage, vanquished, Nozick promised to return in three years’ time with Anarchy, State and Utopia: The Opera. I think that may have been another joke. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

A Theory of Justice: The Musical was written by Eylon Aslan-Levy, Ramin Sabi and Tommy Peto, and directed by Esmé Hicks and Robert Natzler.

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper is lecturer in political philosophy at the University of Oxford.

  1. Is there any video footage of this musical? I would love to see it!

  2. Thanks very much! I’m gonna watch it right away.

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