Friday, October 14, 2005

Theatre and Religion

A friend of mine who has been reading this blog sent me this email privately. I received his permission to share it with you:

I've been thinking about a number of the issues brought up over the past week in your blog. Here are a few of my own thoughts that are, admittedly, not fully worked out yet. I think I will title it: "All We Know of God," when it is eventually finished. I believe that Geurge Hunka grossly underestimates the relationship between theatre and religion. I do not think we, as artists and audience members, can fully address the important questions until the nature of
this relationship is worked out.

Today, it is hard to believe that in ancient Athens an audience would spend a full day at the theatre, arrive at sun-up, see three full length plays (with one or two satyr plays in between), take a break to eat over the afternoon, and then return to see one last full-length comedy at the end of the day. What Greek audiences had that we currently lack in the theatre is a sense of religion. As I pen these thoughts I am reminded of the German poet Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, when he wrote: "let us be honest about it, then; we have no theatre,
any more than we have a God: for this community is needed." The suggestion inherent in Rilke's remarks is that the disinterest in theatre is a symptom of a larger societal disease. This disease is not merely a failure of our culture, it may be the failure of our art and religion to keep up with the monstrous moral crises of our time.

The playwright August Strindberg came to the same conclusion as Rilke, that theatre and religion were the two major casualties of modern civilization: "theatre, like religion, is on the way to being discarded as a dying form..." The feelings of purposelessness and destitution
present in the previous two remarks were also echoed by Arthur Miller when he said, "we have no real theatre. We have shows, which isn't really the same thing."

Given the current state of American theatre, I think we should ask one simple question: why write plays? Tennessee Williams gave his own reason for writing plays when he wrote: "Define it as the passion to create, which is all we know of God." In other words, the dramatic impulse (in its rawest and purest form) is the deepest instinct that we know and our strongest response to life itself- it is a religious impulse. However, in the theatre this instinct is wasted without an audience. For us to have a relevant contemporary American theatre, it is not enough to have important new plays, playwrights, directors, actors, designers and first-rate productions. We also need audiences that are aware of and responsive to the full implications of the plays;
otherwise there can be no real growth, community, or continuity (to use a religious term).
I'm afraid that I am not articulating my position very well, but I can't help but feel that it is the
inability to connect drama with religion that is at the root of many artistic and audience problems today.

I feel that 99% of the issues being brought up in your blog are merely symptoms of a larger problem. This is a problem bigger than NEA funding, new plays, the impact of cinema, or artistic integrity. In The Legend of Bagger Vance, the character of Junuh believes that the only thing at stake as he plays in the final golf tournament is public humiliation. His game only improves when he realizes what is really on the line: his soul. When the larger issue is corrected, the individual and smaller problems all subside. I feel that the theatre is at a similar crossroads right now- that we are not asking the right questions. The simplest question of all is: why do we or should we care? Why do we as a culture persist to write, perform, and attend plays?

Many people answer this questions with pretentious and cliche ridden diatribes that are either heady and cold or superficial and frustrating. Theatre is far too powerful a medium for us to avoid a bit of soul searching when devising an answer to this question.

My frustration with myself and others sometimes makes me wonder whether any of us ever truly devote serious and soul searching time to this question, perhaps the most basic and important question of all...


For my part, I would concur with many of Brian's thoughts, while perhaps defining "religion" to mean the philosophical-moral-ethical basis of our society. I have other thoughts about this that I will probably post later. But thanks to Brian for his contribution. Now, y'all be nice! He's my guest!


Freeman said...

I'm not entirely certain how to respond, as there are a fair number of incomplete thoughts. But I think it's a worthy matter to discuss overall, so I'll add a few questions, and comments, in an effort to bring about a little more discussion. Play (if you'll excuse me) the "Devil's Advocate" in this religious discussion.

Is the question whether or not theatre artists and performers have lost their sense of religion; or that the culture as a whole has lost its sense of the spiritual?

I'm not sure either of these is true.

It's not a question of passion, I feel, that separates a successful play from an unsuccessful one. Passion can be a powerful component, and I prefer to see it, but aesthetic success is what separates a good effort and a great play. One can write a play about being in love with a Goat, and one can write a play about Israel, and one can write a play about their direct relationship to God with a varying degree of success. The desire to wrestle with the angels will not bring about a good piece of art by itself.

As food for thought from me on this issue, check the interview I had with Martin Denton at, way back in 2003 here:

George Hunka said...

Interesting thoughts, Brian; I'm not sure I entirely agree, since the citation of "religion" as a concept incurs the idea of dogma (though I suppose secularism does so just as well). I've responded more fully on my own blog today here and look forward to hearing what you think.

Ty Unglebower said...

My observation is this; presenting that which is to be "sacred", as well as making a concerted effort to locate that which is sacred will at best provide lukewarm results, and at worst, provide frustration based on it's total failure. When theatre makes specific efforts to either regain a lost holiness, or to create a uniquely modern sacredness through the use of specific scripts, lights, or venues it is mostly folly. Just as folly as the ageless attempts to convert people to a religion or spiritual path by use of force and persuasion.

In the end, if theatre wishes to be a consistent conduit for the sacred, it must seek to be as formless and dogma free as possible. By doing so, it, as an institution, is ready and willing to accept any sort of serendipitous sacredness that any given script, performance, scene, actor, or single moment of a production may generate.

When quality and dedication to the truth of any given project is the order of the day, audiences will come. When they do come, they will not be coming under the expectation of experiencing the sacred or the sublime, but merely to witness good theatre.

When an audience finds themselves free of expectations (from a theatre, cast, or each other), they become more open to be touched in ways that they could not possibly imagine when they bought their tickets to the show. That openness leads at times to the very sacredness so many people are trying desperately to obtain through theatre.

In other words, theatre can only be sacred when it is allowed and permitted to be otherwise at times. It is then seen as an offering, as opposed to a lesson or sermon. When this is done, the surprises that seem to appear ex nihilo are among the most sacred of moments, for cast, crew and audience alike.

I would rather be a part of something that was sacred in this very organic way periodically than an institution that usually fails to capture any sense of the mystical, due to the strangling efforts put in place to sanctify itself artificially.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to begin by thanking everyone for the thoughtful feedback and wonderful ideas that have been offered in response to my earlier post. After some consideration, I am now going to try to revisit and articulate the points that have caused some confusion.

"Religion" is a loaded word and I'm afraid that I did not properly define what my own notion of religion is and how this conception relates to my vision of the theatre.

My initial choice to use the word "religion" stemmed from my desire to reclaim (and recapture) what has been lost since the time of Greek theatre. I did not intend for the word to be understood as a synonym for "dogma" or "institution" [i.e. Ty's post]. Nor was the use of the word intended to be strictly literal [i.e. "angels" and Freeman's post].

Instead, my idea of "religion" is associated with what George Hunka described as "the sacred." In his post [which I highly recommend to all of you] Hunka described a recent production of Saint Oedipus as one that offers a "theatrical sense of sacredness appropriate to it, the flesh as flesh, and like any liturgy, the sense and mystery of human suffering is at the core of its ceremony."

Hunka goes on to effectively examine many of the ideas that I was having trouble fully articulating when he writes :

"American attempts to re-spiritualize theater have been half-baked at best, destructive at worst. The idea of site-specific theater is indicative of this. At bottom, the project of taking theater out of theatrical spaces is an attempt to sacralize other spaces with some of the spiritual tradition of the drama, but so far as I can see, this project has backfired. It hasn't served to sacralize those non-theatrical spaces (parking garages, factories, what-have-you), but instead has had the unfortunate effect of de-sacralizing those spaces formerly reserved for the theatrical event; the theater, like the church, is just another big room now. Part of the significance of the ritual is to focus community attention in one place, at one time, in a sanctified location which renders the event, the sacrifice, meaningful. The communicants then depart, bearing this experience into the world and their everyday lives. The tradition of returning to this special place, regularly, is part of the ritual, a part destroyed if you begin to take the ritual to the individual congregation members. (There's more on this, much more, in Peter Brook's seminal The Empty Space.)"

My linking of religion and theatre is rooted in the Greek theatre, which represents for me an ideal coalescence of drama, music, poetry, dance, and religion. The characters that filled these dramas were not viewed as individual characters but as archetypes of mythic heroes and the embodiments of tragic actions. Even so, there was a powerful connection between the ritualistic nature of the stories, the choices of the actors, and the effect of these choices on the community. For instance, Plutarch recorded how the actor Polus played the role of Electra using the ashes of his dead son in the funeral urn that was supposed to contain the ashes of Orestes. The audience was aware of this fact, which set the actor's very personal story against the grand and mythic backdrop of the play.

The tradition of the Greek Theatre resurfaced during the Middle Ages. Despite being restricted to stories that illustrated church doctrine, plays like Everyman and the 1425 version of The Second Shepard's play exemplify a sense of ritual, mystery, and morality. The Second Shepard's Play in particular is brilliant because of the way it effortlessly makes the transition between the secular experience [i.e. the raucous, bawdy, and coarse animal spirits] into the announcement of the birth of the Christ child, and images of the sublime [what I correlate to the theatrical experience].

I do want to emphasize that the the "sacred" theatre that I am describing is not limited to the Western tradition or Christianity- it is much larger. Like the Greek theatre, the Indian theatre of 6 BC (which I have become interested in recently) is rooted in ritual and the sacred. Most of the early Indian plays were connected to Hindu Vedas, which contain dialogue and ritual dances. They were originally performed by Brahmin priests, but as their theatre developed, playwrights organized their stories out of religious ceremonial practices. Plays like The Vision of Vasadatta by Bhasa, The Little Clay Cart by Shudraka, and Shakuntala by Kalidasa retain a sense of sacredness, scope, and wonder by utilizing traditional song, dance, and poetry. The King of the Dark, a twentieth century work, is another example of a play that relies of folk legends and rituals.

There are numerous other examples that could be used, but the end result is the same: a heightened theatrical experience that is rooted in community, ritual, wonder, mystery, morality, and awe. This is an experience that is different from the everyday and maximizes the truly unique potential of the theatrical experience.


Freeman said...


I find your dedication to the idea of the sacred truly quite touching, and I'd say the George H. as usually makes his point eloquently. I'd like to respond to both, here.

George decries site-specific theater because it removes the ritual and ceremony from "the sacred space." There's a strong arugment for this, but as someone who has performed and written for outdoor and site-specific theater, it never seemed to cheapen the experience of attending a play in a theater for me or for anyone I spoke with. In fact, it was a tribute to the idea that any space, imbued with passion and energy, could be transformed into a sacred space. Much can be said about any given production and its success at doing so. But it was amazing how skate mounds in Washington Square Park, flashlights, a park bench in Central Park, could be remade as theatrically magical. I find the experience inside a theater to be particularly special; but it doesn't take away from the transformative experience and audience and performers have when experiencing something new.

Which moves me towards Brians lionization of Indian plays (Such as Shakuntala) and the Greeks. The question isn't whether or not these were once considered sacred and connected to a world of unseen truths, Gods and higher powers. The question is, in a secular society, does this type of theater directly affect an audience?

Joseph Campbell once noted that if you must re-explain a mythology to someone over and over in order for it to make sense to them; then it is a mythology that no longer has true relevance. That is one of the biggest alarms that go off when observing Catholicism; it requires years of indoctrination and repetition in order for a person to make it work in contemporary life. It no longer makes immediate sense.

That is why the "sacred" must adjust to match the audience and contemporary writers. The Greek form is beautiful, but a novelty to modern audiences. It is as relevant to them, I would pose, as ancient suits of armor in a museum. Amazing, powerful, but of no actual use in a time with machine guns and nuclear bombs.

I am perfectly happy to be in an era that wantonly ignores old forms and seeks new ones. I would pose the opposite direction is preferable; to move forwards into modern forms, not backwards toward the Greeks, long dead. To respect our tradition is one thing... to long to return to something centuries dead is suicide to contemporary relevance.

Beyond this, I am not ignoring the meat of your suggestion: that we take theater further from the mudane and use it to elucidate the more powerful and universal themes. When I said "wrestle with the angels" I would referring, broadly, to this... not Jacob in a literal sense.

I still feel that a play about two women in a kitchen can have as much relevance and spiritual power as Brook's "Mahabarata." It all depends on who is watching, and how effectively one communicates with them.

Joshua said...

Wow - can opens, worms everywhere . . . where to begin? I think Matt hit a lot of the same points I might have (and Freeman did it a lot better than I would have, too) - and invoking Campbell is the absolute right turn this conversation should have taken.

Now, that being said - the author wrote -

"My linking of religion and theatre is rooted in the Greek theatre, which represents for me an ideal coalescence of drama, music, poetry, dance, and religion."

We have no way of knowing whether or not Greek Theatre was indeed the ideal coalescence of drama, music, poetry, dance and religion. There is no real way to verify if that is true - certainly there were some great plays written then (which we can read) but how do we know for certain if it was, when performed, better than Jesus Christ Superstar (well, maybe it was, but you get the point) in action? We just don't know it, so to state such is somewhat provocative, don't you think?

We just don't know. For many people who saw the first run of RENT (back with the original cast, who could sing and act and it was important to thme) it was a spiritual, sacred experience.

The tough thing is to define exactly what sacred is and that's pretty effing hard, isn't it?

I don't like most religions, especially Christian ones, because I think they promote ignorance and bigotry (try that for a provocative statement, but somewhat easier to prove or disprove than the one about Greek Theatre) but I will admit, religion is theatre.

But why should theatre bow down and scull with the church and spirituallity and the sacred when it could be so much more? And often is . . .

What I dislike about most religions (or even spiritually paganistic ones) is that questioning is discouraged - you're told that this was what the wisdom of long ago was and to accept it subserviantly.

What I like about theatre IS that, done right, it ASKS questions.

In Christianity, it's often said that "Believing is Seeing" -

I like that theatre, it's "Seeing Is Believing" -

I'm ranting a bit, I just got back from a four hour drive from the mountains, so forgive me if I digress.

Everything else today, from technology to medicine to socialogy and psychology, is far advanced from medeval times - we know more about everthing now, and given the choice between a doctor from the 1800's or a doctor from today, which would you choose?

Why should "spirituality" be any different? Why is it assumed that Paul and many of the other authors of the bible knew more about god or the afterlife than we do?

Maybe the sacred moments are happening now, and we're just not noticing them or talking about them or giving them an audience, maybe the author of such a possible thing is writing for "My Name Is Earl" because he can support his family writing for theatre.

Maybe that's what it is.

Joshua said...

Because I'm doe-eyed with fatigue, I left something out of my post, a rather important point - when I wrote -

"I don't like most religions, especially Christian ones, because I think they promote ignorance and bigotry (try that for a provocative statement, but somewhat easier to prove or disprove than the one about Greek Theatre) but I will admit, religion is theatre. "

I meant to add right after that -

"But WHY should theatre be religion?"

And then segway into the -

"Why should theatre scull about" -

You get the point - my apologies, I'm going to bed and watch UFTV and fall asleep.

George Hunka said...

This comments page is now about three times as long as the original post! My responses to everyone are here, if you're so inclined.

Alison Croggon said...

I think "religion" is entirely the wrong word; it suggests dogma and preaching and earnestness, which in all their forms are death for theatre. But I agree that there is a very deep link between ritual and theatre, and the most interesting theatre acknowledges this: theatre's an enactment, a place of origin that happens now. Like Artaud said, it's the collision of the sacred and the profane that makes theatre alive. You could translate that tension into secular terms as a collision between high aesthetic and physical vulgarity.

Some ritualised forms of theatre are still very much alive. In Japan, for instance, the Kabuki theatres are packed out. The plays go all day and everyone has a great time. There is also, apparently, a kind of theatre that is the equivalent of soap opera, which is also wildly popular (although considered very vulgar). That also goes all day...I d wonder what it's like.

Ariane Mnouchkine's Le Dernier Caravanserail is theatre that understands ritual and the making of a sacred space (the cast built the stage and erected the bleachers, &c) and that certainly accounts for some of its power. It was certainly rapturously received here in Melbourne by the full house audiences, despite its length. No corrupt idea of "religion" here (by which I mean the kind that Blake would have hated) but what you might call, all the same, a significantly spiritual experience. Still, utterly secular.

Anonymous said...

i have found all of these comments interesting and would like to add one of my own, please respond as i am just thinking on my feet.
Religon has a moral code that is rooted deep within it. In Greek theatre when audience's would spend an entire day being entertained by play after play each one had a moral subtext within in it that also educated the audience.
Modern day theatre values entertainment over the story. Even forms of theatre like political theatre now seem to value the aesthetic of the show rather than the message it is trying to convey.
In the mid-70's some theatre companies that were creating Political Theatre decided that a show without artistic value had no political weight. 'works of art which lack artistic quality have no force, however progressive they are politically' (ibid, p 42)
Modern political theatre seems to have gone too far the other way. Now it is about what the aesthetic/surface of the show is made of not what the subtext of a piece is.
I believe that societies obession with being entertained at any cost is what is hindering the 'holiness' of modern theatre. We have lost the value of what the message of a play can be. If the theatre does not ask questions of the audience on a personal level then how is it any different than just escapisum.
I am a strong believer in the power of theatre and its a ability to question and influence a persons choices and decisions the same way a religion does. However in modern society both Theatre and Religon seem to have been lost in modern society.

Scott Walters said...

I would tend to agree with you with one caveat: I don't think it is the audience's insistence, but the modern artists' inability to express holiness that is the problem. Modern artists starting with Ibsen have assumed an aggressive, finger-pointing attitude toward the spectator, to the point where the spectator no longer trusts them to do anything more than entertain. The image of the artist-priest that opens Robert Brustein's Theatre of Revolt, which shows the mutual hostility of artist and audience illustrates this nicely. Without a shared set of values, the connection is broken. And in my opinion, the theatre is worse for it.