Theatre and Religion

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When prehistoric people had no answers for natural forces that controlled their existence, they attributed them to the supernatural—super-human forces, beings—and began to search for ways to influence them, among which were music, song and dance, mimicry, self-sacrifice, epic stories, spectacle—all elements of theatre—which evolved into codes of religious ritual. So popular were these rites (and festivals) that they continued to be performed even after the mysteries were solved, at which point theater emerged as a separate entity.

Or so one theory goes.

In fact, elements of theatre remain at the core of all religious ritual; they trigger emotional and spiritual response—they set the mood, light the spark—while all good theatre is profound and mystical.

The defining distinction between religion and theater is that one worships god and the other explores humanity. All other differences are insubstantial. Religion is belief; theater is the suspension of disbelief. Excuse me? What’s the difference?

What happens when you watch a play? Two things at once. Actors perform on a stage in present time, and characters engage in conflict somewhere else, out of time. And you believe them both, trapped between two worlds, susceptible to thought and feeling.  This is the mystic essence of theater as religion. Like the body and blood of Christ: you recognize the real-world truth of the charade, but if you don’t believe the art as well—if it doesn’t carry you beyond mundane reality—you have no business being there; either the play is very bad (or badly played) or you’re incapable of appreciating it. Some people can’t be mesmerized. (Some don’t believe in God.)

That essence, by the way, is what distinguishes theater from film and television. Actors on film aren’t present in the space. An audience might be utterly absorbed by the action, but if the counterpoint reality is missing; there’s no mystery.

Actors, then, like priests, are trained to recite the words, perform the sacraments, to lead the audience, the congregation, to believe…

Theater always deals in the dual realities of the human paradox. It shapes meaning from chaos and void, makes sense of the absurd, links the one and all in every consciousness through metaphor and illusion. The logic of the argument is magnified by the emotion of its context. The suspension of disbelief enables belief in any and all things.

One who so believes is called a Thespian.


Theater began in ancient Greece, in 534 BC, when the tyrant Peisistratus, against the advice of Solon the Wise, allowed or prevailed upon the lyric poet Thespis to create a dithyrambic ode for presentation at the City Dionysia, in which he impersonated a mythic god or hero and argued with the chorus, thereby becoming not only the world’s first actor, but also the first playwright, director, and producer.

Dionysiae were religious festivals. Dionysus was the bastard son of Zeus who, on Hera’s orders, was torn into shreds and boiled in a cauldron, and then reconstituted and revived, just like Jesus Christ—“and from the soil where spilt his blood, there springs the grapevine.” Also known as Bacchus, Goat God of fertility and wine, lust and drunkenness. Which made the worship of Dionysis very popular—especially the week-long festival, what with satyrs and maenads dancing around in a wild frenzy, chanting hymns of praise: “Evohe! Blessed are the Thyrsus-bearers, those who wield in their hands the holy wand of god! Evohe!” Sort of like the Pentecost, but with a phallus.

You know what phalli are.

It’s important to understand that until this time the Greeks were tribal savages whose barbaric exploits were mythic in the Iliad. By introducing tragedy into the bacchanale, Thespis opened the collective conscience to the wisdom of Homer. In tragedy, a man stands up to God and suffers irony.

By the end of the Sixth Century, the focus of the City Dionysia was a three-day contest among three dramatists, each of whom presented one trilogy of tragedies and, beginning in 501 BC (most likely to appease the bacchantes), one burlesque satyr play that ridiculed the tragic theme. A fourth day, for five competing comedies, was added later; meanwhile, in 508, just twenty-five years after the first tragedy, Athens became the world’s first democracy.

I’m not saying one resulted from the other, although is significant that theater was the only “mass media” available to collectively inform and educate, and that the wildest party of the year was paid for by the state and sanctioned by religion. On the other hand, it gratifies me to believe the Greeks were brainwashed by the theater into achieving the Golden Age.

And there is evidence for this, if one allows as typical the example of The Oresteia, by Aeschylus, the only extant trilogy (until 2004, when his Achilles was reconstructed from papyrus fragments found in Egypt).

In the first play, Agamemnon, supreme commander of the Greeks at Troy and scion of the cursed House of Atreus, having sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, to Artemis to unfurl the sails of the Thousand Ships, returns home in triumph, only to be slaughtered by his wife, Clytemnestra, in vengeance. Play Two: Years later, Daddy’s girl, Electra, persuades her brother Orestes to kill Clytemnestra, tit for tat; at which point the ancient Furies—serpent-haired, dog-headed, batwinged daughters of Mother Earth—attack and pursue him into the wild. Play Three: Orestes finds his way to Athens and appeals for relief to the Goddess of Wisdom, who puts the case to judgement before a panel of twelve citizen judges.

The question was the importance of motherhood: Did the murder of one’s father justify matricide? The argument for Orestes, made by Apollo, was that a woman was no more than the inert furrow in which the husbandman cast his seed. When the jury locked at six to six, Athena cast the vote in favor, and consoled the Furies by changing them into the kindly Eumenides, goddesses of hearth and home.

Two icons of the western world—Trial By Jury and Patriarchy—instilled in one fell swoop, endorsed by the goddess of wisdom, demonstrated graphically through the course of three violent and disturbing plays. (When the chorus of Furies appeared “in wild disorder in the orchestra,” according to an ancient account, they “so terrified the crowd that children died and women suffered miscarriage.”)

* * *

Aeschylus was one of only five Greek playwrights whose works we know today; of his eighty plays, only ten (counting Achilles) remain. Writing in the early days of the Athenian Democracy, his tragedies are “of the gods,” while those of Sophocles (seven of 120, including Oedipus), thirty years his junior, are “of heroes,” and Euripides (19 of 90), fifteen years younger still, “of men”—perhaps because, during their overlapping lives, Athens first achieved the Golden Age and then, one year after the deaths of Sophocles and Euripides, lost the Peloponnesian Wars. All three told the same familiar stories (Electra, for example). Aeschylus, however, dealt with epic themes, reflecting the confidence and vigor of a powerful state; Sophocles, a young man when the wars began, focused on heroic choice, civic duty, responsibility. Euripides depicted human failure, exposing people as perverse, irrational, self-serving, decadent.

The fourth playwright was Aristophanes, younger even still by 35 years but competing in the same contests, writing Old Comedy that ridiculed the war, among other things, and people—including Socrates, who knew them all.

The fifth, Menander (only one—The Grouch—of over 100), was born a half century after all the rest were dead. By then, Alexander the Great ruled Greece. The Golden Age was history, freedom of expression had been repressed, religion was a joke, and what theatre remained—although now secular, professional, and widespread—second-rate melodrama modeled on Euripides and New Comedy, innocuous and bland, sitcom. Typical plots revolve around stock characters (young lovers, lechers, miserly old men, clever wives and servants, concubines, clowns) and involve sex, greed, gluttony, and mistaken identity.

* * *

So it was that when when Rome conquered the known world, its playwrights imitated not the Titans, but Menander and his ilk. Seneca rewrote Greek myths with Roman gods; Plautus and Terence copied The Grouch. While their plays are trivial compared to the Big Four, they served to inspire the Renaissance, and deserve that credit.

On the down side, it was Rome that caused the Great Schism that continues to exist between theater and the Christian church, as their theatrical tastes degenerated into burlesque mimes that ridiculed minorities—especially Christians, whose beliefs were particularly susceptible to derision. The tables were turned in the fourth century CE, first by the emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity, then by Theodosius, who forbade the practice of any religion except (Roman) Catholicism, and specifically excommunicated all actors who would not foreswear their profession—”a decree not rescinded in many places until the eighteenth century.”

Some wonder if the proscription of theatre throughout western Europe caused the Dark Ages of the next 500 years, during which time religion pondered the puzzle of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Others note the irony of an Easter Sunday at the end of the first millennium, in the predawn light of the Renaissance, at the Catholic monastery of St Gall, in Switzerland, where priests impersonating angels and the Marys acted out the Quem Quaeritis trope: “Whom seek ye in the tomb, Oh Christians?” “Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, O Heavenly Beings.” “He is not here, he is risen as foretold. Go and announce that he has risen from the tomb.”

Ironically, almost simultaneously, a German nun, Hrothsvitha, “the most remarkable woman of her time,” wrote six plays in Church Latin, modeled on Terence, with Christian themes, to become the first Neoclassic playwright. It would be another 500 years before Italian Ariosto’s Cassaria, the first play of the Italian Renaissance (and model for The Taming of the Shrew).

Not so with the Quem Quaeritis. In no time scriptural tropes turned into playlets based on Bible stories and the lives of the saints (Mystery/Miracle plays) as the Church used drama to attract sinners. By the twelfth century, the house was packed, and plays moved out of doors; once out, they blossomed into Cycle plays (the Bible, from Genesis to Revelations) produced and performed by trade guilds), then Passion plays (Easter), allegorical Morality plays on Godly themes, and farces in which the Devil played a comic role.  All of these forms flourished throughout the Middle Ages, with full support of the Catholic Church—until the Reformation, which ushered in the Renaissance and Shakespeare.

* * *

Most of continental Europe fought religious wars from 1524 to 1648. Not much theatre happened.

England, officially Anglican since 1538, having already having already suppressed the Catholics, contended with the anti-clerical Puritans, who urged true reform, valued discipline, simplicity and hard work, and considered stage plays to be “sinful, heathenish, lewd, ungodly spectacles, and most pernicious corruptions.” When persecuted for these beliefs, many of them sailed away, along with Huguenots from France and all the other intolerant sects, to colonize America, where theatre never had a chance.

The first truly secular English play was Henry Medwall’s Fulgens and Lucrece(1497), although historians dub Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister (1552) the first true comedy and Gorboduc (1561) first tragedy. It wasn’t until 1588, however—two year’s before Shakespeare’s first play—that Queen Elizabeth came to the throne to ban all all religious plays, patronize the secular University Wits, and launch the English Renaissance, which peaked with Shakespeare and Ben Jonson under James I and then (as in Greece) waxed grotesque and incestuous under his absolutist son Charles I until 1642, when the Puritan Oliver Cromwell cut off his head and (as in Rome) banned all theatrical performances.

Charles II fled to France, where Louis XIV patronized Neoclassic (based on Roman) playwrights Corneille and Racine (tragedy) and Moliere (comedy), and persecuted Protestants (the Huguenots). France was then by far the most powerful nation in Europe, and its culture was the model for all others. When Charles was restored in 1660, he imported that culture to England, and during the twenty-five years he ruled, Restoration Drama—irreverent, libertine, cynical—flourished for the well-to-do; but his tolerance of Catholics disturbed both Anglicans and Puritans, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 deposed his Catholic brother and successor, James II, after a three-year reign, in favor of their Anglican sister Mary and her Dutch Protestant husband, William of Orange.  Under them and throughout most of the Eighteenth Century, although the rapidly rising middle class attended performances in droves throughout the land, their tastes rejected the excesses of the Restoration—reflected in Jeremy Collier’s A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698)—and led to the Licensing Act of 1737, which all censored plays in England until the 1960’s. The result was a repertoire of sentimental comedy and tear-jerking melodrama with moral themes and happy endings that, except for Goldsmith and Sheridan, who satirized those styles at the end of the Eighteenth Century, produced no English dramatists of note for another hundred years, until George Bernard Shaw.

* * *

The earliest reference to theatre in what would become the Unites States is in 1665, when three men in Virginia were hauled into court for performing a playlet,Ye Bare and Ye Cubbe.

Fifty years later the first American theatre was built in Williamsburg, VA, then two more (New York and Charleston), where amateurs and strolling players entertained until the Great Awakening of the 1730’s, which shut them down.

The first professional theatre company debuted in Williamsburg 1752 and toured the colonies with English plays until the Revolutionary War. (War is as toxic to theatre as religion.) After the War the trend continued, protected by the First Amendment, until the Great Awakening, after which (and since) most Christians have regarded theatre with suspicion, contempt, and fear.

Final point: Muslims allow no theatre; ergo no humanistic leanings.—from Mohammed’s ban on art depicting animate beings to Islamic terrorism—



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