We are considering the argument against theatre as a medium. We have seen that the creators of theatre saw it as an instrument of moral catharsis. Though we do not believe in the possibility of moral catharsis, we find certain Christians in history nevertheless objecting to theatre as a kind of manipulative and somewhat deceptive art form. They portray it as evoking pseudo-emotions unfitting of a Christian.
What we are dealing with here is a principled objection to what theatre does. That is, regardless of content, theatre evokes emotions which are not what they seem to be.
Such objectors see the medium as wooing a soul into a complete immersion into it, where the spectator is absorbed into the spectacle and experiences what he thinks is a full identification with the characters of the story. However, because he is viewing this spectacle for his own pleasure, he is in fact not experiencing those emotions, but something quite different. His position as a hedonistic spectator changes the moral character of what he experiences. He, unfortunately, is not able to tell the difference. One might, with something of a wince, suggest it is somewhat masturbatory. The fantasy is self-deluding. And in theatre, little distance exists between ourselves and the story we are observing, and thus no space is given to reject or accept its emotions. We are only feeling, and doing so viscerally and immediately.
Perhaps an illustration will help shed light on the objectors’ point. Is there a difference between marital intimacy and watching marital intimacy? Yes. One is blessed and commanded by God. The other is an act of adultery. It is not merely a difference in perspective – i.e. doing vs. watching. To partake in sexual union within marriage is fine; to observe others in that act is evil, regardless of what the pervert thinks he is feeling at the time. I am not here merely rehearsing the content argument. I am pointing out that the position of spectator for certain things can be a questionable position to be in. You think you are simply ‘watching’ a story; whereas you may be committing all sorts of emotional sins, because you cannot view yourself taking pleasure in such things – you are so deeply embedded in the story. In other words, your emotions are not what they seem to be during the act of watching. If theatre places you in a position where you cannot recognise pity from compassion, narcissism from benevolence, envy from respect, self-love from joy, then the form itself is a problem.
This is one major difference between theatre and other art forms. Other art forms are deliberate in placing an imaginative distance between the things portrayed and the people seeing or hearing the work of art. The person reading a poem or a story, studying a painting or a sculpture, or listening to a piece of music must seek to understand what he is hearing or seeing. He must recognise the analogies, and consider their aptness to what they claim to represent. A distance exists between person, work of art and reality. Bridging the distance through the understanding and imagination is the delight of good art. Good art deliberately minimizes the immersion in matter, and seeks to point to something beyond, something invisible. In a sense, good art humbles itself under its own medium, and does not attempt so brash an exercise as a total mimesis of reality. Only materialists believe that reality can be perfectly mimicked; Christians of all ought to know that the truest realities can only be pointed to.
Of course any art form can be manipulative. Aesthetes typically denounce music, poetry, painting or literature that stoops to decreasing that distance for effect, and grabbing people by their gut for an ephemeral reaction. The issue we must wrestle with is if drama is manipulative by nature and design. If drama can do nothing except evoke pseudo-emotions, then no matter how sanitised the content might be, the spectators are probably always experiencing something they are not completely aware of.
If theatre is indeed a manipulative medium, what possible signs might exist to verify that it is so?
One might be what we have already considered. Of all art forms, theatre places the least distance between itself and those that watch it. Very little space exists between the viewer and theatre. Theatre is not static like painting or sculpture. It moves through time, like music. However, it is not abstract, requiring a careful listening ear. All is done for you. Every scene is portrayed as realistically as possible. Symbolism is minimised; mimicry is maximised. Mood music enhances the sense of what you ought to feel. The goal of theatre is not for the viewer to consider and imagine, but to watch and absorb. The size of the screens today calls for a total sensory bombardment, to the exclusion of rational consideration. There is little to no time to make considered judgements leading to affections. Instead, the emotions come at us as quickly as if we were in the action ourselves. A director who cannot make you forget you are watching a story has failed, at least by Hollywood standards. You ponder a poem, and repeat it. You listen intently to a symphony, and follow it. You read a narrative and put the book down and think on it. But you do not typically pause the DVD and think. (At least, if you do, you’re rare kind of chap).
Another sign might be its ability to change our affections without our reason’s consent. How disconcerting to discover that you were hoping that the heroine would leave her abusive husband and elope with the kind hero. How unnerving to find that you are longing for the badly beaten hero to get his hands on a weapon and take full revenge. How disturbing to find that you are reluctant to turn away from blood, immorality, and lust once you are into the story. How frightening that we admire the cocky, proud and self-sufficient hero, or the street-smart and sexually loose heroine. When does this happen? During a lecture on why eloping is a serious option? While reading a book on the merits of revenge? While reading a poem on matters of pride and humility? No. In those situations, our reason would consort with our nobler affections to reject adultery, revenge, immorality, impurity, arrogance and blood-lust. The fact that we all have had these experiences during watching some kind of enacted story ought to tell us something about its power.
I end with the same position I began with: I treat theatre with guarded suspicion, and sometimes overt scepticism. Here and there, I’m occasionally pointed to what is supposed to be a well-done film, or some animated feature that my children are supposed to like, and I tentatively participate, watching with guarded suspicion, trying to analyse and understand. Inevitably, my critical faculties buckle under the strain of such a powerful medium, and I walk away pleased with the experience, and sometimes, disappointed with myself. I’m nearly always softened, weakened and less serious when I’ve viewed some enacted story, which is worrying enough.
So we try to navigate this minefield. I do not want my children to develop an appetite for the most visceral of art forms, but it’s just about impossible for them to see none of it. I’d like my church members to love the kind of things that will build their religious imaginations, but what is my squeaky voice against the roaring tumult of the Fireproofs and Love Comes Soppilys? I want my affections formed through means which the Spirit will bless, but I am undecided what part spectacle plays in the life of a Christian, and not used to its total absence. I’d prefer to be so acquainted with the beauties of better art that my problem would be an embarrassment of riches. But that will take some years. In the meantime, I try to minimise the encroaching effect this medium has.