Thinking About Theatre – 2

When a man makes something, he usually thinks carefully about its intended function. The first man who made a device to kill a fleet-footed deer probably thought long and hard about how he could propel a sharp object faster than his arm could throw it. The results of his ruminations were probably the first bow.

When theatre as we know it today (that is, an enacted story) was first developed, there was certainly a goal in mind. The first occurrence of drama in Western civilisation was in ancient Greece, somewhere around 550 B.C. Theatre was not an occupation of the ancient Hebrews, nor did any ancient prophet or teacher make use of drama. (I have heard some strained comparisons of drama to the actions of prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel or even Agabus in the New Testament. I think it’s safe to say that making oneself an object lesson is a far cry from hupocrites [Greek: actors] enacting a story which immerses the audience in its emotions. And those who compare Jesus’ use of parables to drama need to do quite a bit more work on the matter of form.) Since other imaginative art already existed, such as music, painting, sculpture, architecture, epic poetry, the introduction of a new art form meant that the new form would achieve something that the older forms would not.

Aristotle wrote at length about the purpose and structure of this in his Poetics. Here Aristotle describes, amongst many other things, the aim of theatre.

“Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.” (Poetics, Part VI).

Take note of the last sentence. This is the architecture of theatre; this is its intended design, at least as far as its creators were concerned. Theatre is designed to evoke emotions like pity and fear (i.e. visceral emotions), and by evoking them, purge the soul of them. The Greeks believed in moral catharsis. They believed that unworthy passions ought to be stirred up by the powerful mimesis of theatre, and then the soul would be free of them.

You can tell that the Greeks did not exactly buy into a biblical view of sanctification. For them, the purification of the soul was by excretion. The theatre was to be a moral sauna: the soul would be heated up till it sweated out its impurities.

In other words, theatre was designed to provide a powerful re-enactment (mimesis) of life, using devices (described by Aristotle) that would evoke and then purge passions like fear and pity. As Norm Weiss put it, it painted a bulls-eye on the loins of man. This was no accident, no unintended side-effect. This was contained in its very structure. The makers of theatre were not simply trying to tell a story. They already had epic poetry to do that. They were not merely trying to evoke feelings of courage, joy, love or reverence. They had music for that. They were not merely trying to represent the world as their religion saw it. They had paintings and sculpture for that. They were seeking to evoke a particular set of emotions in a particular way – a way which other art forms could not do effectively or at all.

This history is instructive, but we are left with several questions. Is this in fact how theatre works on a person? (Aristotle could have been wrong.) If so, why does it do that? Once we agree what it is theatre does (if we can come to such agreement) we can better judge if it can be used in the service of Christianity, and if it is useful for Christian affections.

Typical modern Christian sentiment is to dismiss the matter of form entirely, and rush to make bland statements about neutral mediums that can be used for the glory of God. The fact is, some forms, because of their intrinsic nature, are irredeemable. Let’s keep that possibility in mind as we examine the form of theatre.



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