Scott Walters is standing at the side of his blog, paring his fingernails, as a passionate discussion is underway about religion (more specifically, spirituality) and theater at Theatre Ideas. That such a conversation has emerged over the weekend in the blogosphere is testimony to the very same deep, considered thinking about theater that's been missing from the culture generally (not to mention in the traditional media and even magazines like American Theatre). So good for him, and his guest-poster Brian, who started the conversation.
The clearest common thread to emerge from all this is a fear that in seeking this sacredness we are somehow not being modern enough. On his own blog, Matthew Freeman warns that, "Wishing for yesteryear [when theatrical practice was more specifically rooted in religious ritual] is not the way [to sell tickets]" (and I hope that these brackets don't misstate Matt's argument; if they do, he's sure to tell me). He adds, "There has to be a middle ground between the hopelessly arty and the utterly pedestrian. I think this conversation about moving towards Greek theatre and the ritual of theater is a bit, if you'll excuse me, self-righteous." At Theatre Ideas itself, Matt offers this:
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.
I'm worried about that "wanton," because I see the same attitude in Joshua James's response:
Everything else today, from technology to medicine to sociology and
psychology, is far advanced from medieval times–we know more about everything
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?
Well, if being self-righteous isn't considering ourselves rather more spiritually advanced than Paul, Augustine or Aquinas, I'm not sure what is. (I mean, maybe I'm just being old-fashioned, but give me the gospels or the Vedas instead of Battlefield Earth or Tuesdays with Morrie any day.) While I have no intention of leaping to the defense of Christianity or any other dogma or theology, I will respond that this disregard of the nexus between spirituality and the theater, a nexus that we can trace through dramatic history, is indeed wanton, destructively so.
Obviously, Brian isn't arguing that, like the Greeks, we should push the altar to center-stage again, rebuild the amphitheaters and set God a-talking downstage. (The gods didn't often appear in the ancient Greek tragedies anyway, any more than the gods appear in 'night, Mother.) My argument with Joshua is that science and spirituality aren't the same thing, that an advancement in our knowledge of the material world does not necessarily indicate or parallel an advancement in our knowledge of the metaphysical world; nor can it, since you can't use the same instruments of knowledge. What is wanton, and destructive, is to think that they are the same thing.
That theater or any of the arts can be an instrument of metaphysical investigation, though, is quite true, and this metaphysical investigation doesn't necessarily lead to dogma any more than surgery necessarily leads to vivisection. But, in our particular era, this requires the same new forms that Matt and Joshua think they're so assiduously defending. I get the feeling, though, that for both of these writers there is a sense in that a form can be too new, and that Brian is indeed thinking far more imaginatively about the potential of theater than any of us.
This kind of imagination is innovative in our time because it doesn't spoonfeed its audience what it wants to hear; it is a distinctly non-commercial endeavor that challenges prejudices about the secular sphere; indeed, it challenges secularism itself. There can be no more revolutionary act for theater now than to echo Artaud's cry of "No More Masterpieces" with a cry of "No More Audiences": that is, to strike out from the idea that, through conjuring up with our audience consultants and marketing and development people a magical formula, a philosopher's stone, for getting people into the theater by offering it whatever it was we think they'll want to consume, we provide them with the potentially liberating experience of theatrical practice. But I get the idea that, as some forms can be too new, some revolutionary slogans can be too revolutionary for theaters and marketing departments, no matter how figuratively they're meant to be read.
Audiences will find us, as audiences found the spiritual work of artists like Robert Wilson, Reza Abdoh, Peter Brook and others, so long as we conscientiously develop our craft and think deeply about our own relationships to the world. We reach out to our audience as churches do: by living in the community, by providing it with something they can't get in their own homes, in their movie theaters or at dance clubs, and, yes, by commenting on the world poetically, in newspapers and magazines, as some recent Nobelists are wont to do. Church attendance is dipping as well, but one thing is worth remembering: regardless of the number of people in the pews, the miracle of transubstantiation occurs during the mass whether or not there's anyone there to see it. That's why the theater isn't merely another vocation, nor a play merely another product to be sold.