Thinking About Theatre – 3

Does the theatre truly result in what Aristotle claimed it did? That is, does theatre excite visceral passions like fear and pity, resulting in their purgation? Of course, part of the answer to that is clearly negative. A cursory understanding of biblical sanctification will reject the idea that we can purge ourselves of evil passions by exciting them. The New Testament is very clear what we are to do with inordinate affections, and it is the opposite of stimulation (Col 3:5). No well-taught Christian would agree that theatre purges you of passions by evoking them.

Yet the fact that Aristotle carried a false anthropology does not quite end the discussion. Aristotle was wrong in thinking that the evocation of passions resulted in their purgation. However, that is a separate question from whether or not theatre would evoke such passions. You might misconstrue what a shot might do to a patient; that doesn’t change what a syringe does. It is not a little disconcerting that the architects of theatre aimed to evoke the baser emotions, and that by manipulation of the theatrical form. Even if the Greeks were wrong on how you rid yourself of fear and pity, it seems they knew how to produce them.

No difficulty exists in seeing why the church would have viewed the theatre askance. Here is an art form which aims to do the opposite of what the Bible tells you to do. Scripture is telling you to flee, abstain, mortify and give no occasion to these things; theatre is inviting you to marinate yourself in them.

Does theatre evoke emotions? No one would doubt that. That isn’t really the issue. Christians have not objected to an art forms that evoke affections. Christians use music, poetry, and narratives in worship. Worship always requires art because our God is invisible, and must be understood by analogy. The Bible itself makes use of poetry, narrative and vivid imagery. True worship demands right affections.

The heart of the question is if the evocative power of theatre is of a manipulative or dubious kind, in which case the process is less than wholesome, and the resulting emotions could possibly be sub-Christian. The real question is if the very nature of theatre approaches human beings in a way that evokes the wrong kind of emotions in the wrong way.

Aesthetes and philosophers have debated this question, and I don’t claim to have a definitive answer. However, I find Augustine’s experience of the theatre instructive, and disturbing.

Stage plays also captivated me, with their sights full of the images of my own miseries: fuel for my own fire. Now, why does a man like to be made sad by viewing doleful and tragic scenes, which he himself could not by any means endure?

Yet, as a spectator, he wishes to experience from them a sense of grief, and in this very sense of grief his pleasure consists. What is this but wretched madness? For a man is more affected by these actions the more he is spuriously involved in these affections. Now, if he should suffer them in his own person, it is the custom to call this “misery.” But when he suffers with another, then it is called “compassion.” But what kind of compassion is it that arises from viewing fictitious and unreal sufferings? The spectator is not expected to aid the sufferer but merely to grieve for him. And the more he grieves the more he applauds the actor of these fictions. If the misfortunes of the characters–whether historical or entirely imaginary—are represented so as not to touch the feelings of the spectator, he goes away disgusted and complaining. But if his feelings are deeply touched, he sits it out attentively, and sheds tears of joy…

4. But at that time, in my wretchedness, I loved to grieve; and I sought for things to grieve about. In another man’s misery, even though it was feigned and impersonated on the stage, that performance of the actor pleased me best and attracted me most powerfully which moved me to tears. What marvel then was it that an unhappy sheep, straying from thy flock and impatient of thy care, I became infected with a foul disease? This is the reason for my love of griefs: that they would not probe into me too deeply (for I did not love to suffer in myself such things as I loved to look at), and they were the sort of grief which came from hearing those fictions, which affected only the surface of my emotion. Still, just as if they had been poisoned fingernails, their scratching was followed by inflammation, swelling, putrefaction, and corruption. Such was my life! But was it life, O my God? (Confessions, Book Three, Chapter 2)

Augustine is essentially answering the Aristotelian view of theatre. Yes, Augustine says, plays moved me to grief. But what kind of grief ? What kind of grief looks forward to shedding tears, and feels disgusted if it did not feel enough of it? What kind of compassion takes pleasure in the experience of supposedly feeling sad? What kind of compassion looks forward to a full display of someone’s suffering, so that you might be captivated by the experience? This is not grief. This is not compassion. It is a pseudo-grief. It is pseudo-compassion. It is a false emotion masquerading as grief. It is some other base passion related to pity, but essentially self-serving. And yet Augustine could only see that when away from the theatre.

Augustine is not unique here. Several others have stated the same objection. Something about the form of theatre evokes emotions which are not what they seem to be. There is a kind of deception in it. Blaise Pascal said the same thing (Pensees #11).

What these Christians have asked is, what if what you’re feeling is harmful? How would you know? You wouldn’t know it from within the experience of viewing theatre – you’re too deeply embedded. Pascal suggests we don’t feel it when leaving the experience. But careful inspection, like Augustine’s, may reveal that we are not feeling what we think we are. And that’s rather dangerous: like submitting to a hypnotist regularly, while convincing yourself you are in control.

If this is true of the form itself, it does not bode well for the argument of enlisting it into the service of Christianity. We’ll consider next some possible evidences for this objection to the form.

3 Responses to “Thinking About Theatre – 3”

  1. ilias Says:

    You wouldn’t know it from within the experience of viewing theatre – you’re too deeply embedded.

    Which is why this is such a difficult subject to deal with. Good thoughts, I’m looking forward to seeing this continue.

  2. Simon Thomas Says:

    This is true. my life before Christ was one where I loved movie going and theatre, it had a worldly kind of comfort to it, that even these days is easy to succumb to. Not that I believe theatre in itself is bad, it does however awaken affections that could have rather be left “unawakened” ( let sleeping dogs lie kind of thing) My experinece has taught me that indulging in theatre overmuch tends to cultivate comforts where we should be look to Christ. Escapism is not a christian virtue, and indulging in it through theatre attendance is stirring passions in the soul that would have been better left. Not that one wants to get hypocritical about it, follwing Christ is about what we do, do, not about we dont do, so much..

  3. David Says:

    Too easy to succumb to the pre-packaged pleasures. What it does to our sense of sobriety and vigilance is worrying in itself.

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