You enter a ritual space and take your seat in the midst of a large audience. At the front or perhaps the middle of the hall (often a vast and airy one, but sometimes a small and intimate one) is another part of the ritual space that is marked off from the area you and your fellow audience members occupy. In that ritual space are various pieces of furniture and props for use during the public act that is about to occur.
Music sounds. A chorus and a cast of ritually costumed figures appear and begin to go through a set of carefully scripted words and physical actions. There is a place in the script for audience involvement, with call and response between the figures in the ritual space and the audience. Various cast members recite words of poetry and prose and sometimes burst into song. One player in particular portrays, in a stylized form, the central hero of the drama, the tale of a conflict in which the hero passes through all the trials of life with which we ourselves are familiar: poverty, hunger, friendship, love, betrayal, suffering and death—and comes at last to a glorious and moving triumph. It is a tale in which, after a struggle and a grand act of self-sacrifice, the hero saves his friends from the powers of evil, the humble are exalted, the bad guys get their comeuppance or are themselves so changed by the conflict that they are reconciled with the hero in friendship and love. In the end, the hero receives his reward and the acclaim of great and small. Through participation in this drama, all involved have offered to them a chance at catharsis—purging—from the ills, spiritual and physical, which burden them as human beings. The audience members become participants in mysterious realities revealed in and through words that are made flesh before their eyes, and they experience a sense of contact with something transcendent. At the conclusion, there is an exeunt omnes (all depart), and the stylized ritual concludes.
So here’s a pop quiz: are you at a production of a play by Sophocles, or at Mass?
A Religious Art Form
The historical relationship between the Faith and the theatre is a complicated one.
Around the time the Church was born, the theatre was nearing a low point in the Greco-Roman world. It was a great place to see porn and blasphemy, to find a prostitute or have your pocket picked—not such a great place for pursuing the sort of virtue the apostles exhorted. Also, if the bawdiness of Greco-Roman theatre was not enough, the fact that it was often accompanied by barbaric displays of blood sport, gladiatorial matches, and the cruelties involved in feeding prisoners (including Christians) to the lions meant that there was no love lost between pious Christians and the theatre. So for some stretches of time, being an actor was a fine way to get excommunicated.
Tradition does recount a notable exception to Christian hostility to the theatre. The tale of St. Genesius, patron of actors, concerns an actor who, like many during the persecution of Diocletian, performed crude burlesques making fun of Christians. One day, so the story goes, Genesius was in a skit mocking the sacrament of baptism when, to the surprise of all, the burlesque baptism touched his conscience. Then and there, he began to depart from the script, announcing that he did, in fact, believe in Jesus and proclaiming his newborn faith. The audience slowly realized he was serious, and the mood turned from laughter to rage. He was martyred on the spot by the mob. Whether or not the story is true, it certainly should be, which is enough to content any actor.
By the Middle Ages, the Christian culture had reconciled itself to the theatrical form, adopting and transforming it—just as it did many other pagan practices—as a way of proclaiming the gospel to an illiterate audience. As with stained glass windows, a populace that couldn’t read could still look at pictures. In theatre, the pictures could talk. So talk they did, particularly in the medieval mystery cycles, where the Old Testament stories of Creation, the Flood, and the sacrifice of Isaac were acted out, as well as allegorical morality plays like Everyman. Christian Europe saw a resurgence of drama, and England in particular gave birth to a theatrical tradition that is, in its great master, William Shakespeare, one of the jewels of the world.
Worshiping the Incarnate Word
That the Christian tradition should eventually baptize drama after getting off to a rocky relationship was, perhaps, inevitable since both are deeply religious and spiritual experiences.
The ancient Greeks developed drama out of their religious observances. Greek drama, like so much Greek art, in large part wrestled with the relationship of man and the gods. Greek theatre arose from Greek religious festivals and was concerned, to a huge degree, with the portrayal of various tales from Greek mythology in celebration of their gods and heroes. It did, with humans dressed in masks and costumes, what other cultures did via other forms of pictorial representation such as statues or painting.
In contrast, Old Testament Judaism never developed a drama, probably in part because of the prohibition against images found in the second commandment. But it did develop a liturgy in which the saving action of God in the life of the nation was rehearsed and remembered by being acted out liturgically. Such liturgy was not merely about recalling, but about making present—re-presenting—the past. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” and the rest of the dialogue in the Passover Haggadah are recognizably similar to what dramatists would call a script. Indeed, it is no accident that script and scripture are related words. The liturgical tradition of Judaism was more than merely reciting lines; it was entering into the story itself. In the Passover liturgy, it is we (not merely our ancestors) who were enslaved in Egypt.
The same thing applies in Christian liturgy, especially during the drama of the Mass. The Liturgy recalls, but also makes present, the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And it does so not merely in words, but physically—incarnationally—in the sacrament consecrated by a priest who dresses up in costume to act as an alter Christus.
Theatre is similar. Exactly what does not happen in theatre is somebody sitting and reading. Instead, we see the story acted out for us. The timeless story is enfleshed, made present for us, and we enter into it as living participants. Watching Julius Caesar, we the audience become part of the mob calling for Brutus’ head; during the Passion Liturgy on Palm Sunday, we become part of the mob crying “Away with him! Give us Barabbas!”
What made that possible, and what paved the way for the rebirth of drama in Christian Europe, was the Incarnation. As with the prohibitions against worshiping man and eating blood (since “the blood is the life”; cf. Lv 17:14), so the Incarnation turned the second commandment (against images) on its head. The purpose of the commandment under the Old Law was to prevent Israel from seeking the life of creatures instead of the life of God, from worshipping the likeness instead of the Reality. But when God the Son became Man, that Man must be worshipped. When he shed his blood for the life of the world, that blood must be consumed lest we have no life in us (cf. Jn 6:53). And when he himself becomes the image of the invisible God (cf. Col 1:15), God hallows matter, and the ordinary stuff of human life becomes sacramental and a doorway into God rather than a wall separating us from him.
Appearances Do Not Deceive
Another fascinating parallel is that both theatre (as well as film) and Liturgy take us to the depths of the human experience precisely by showing us surfaces. Our materialistic age imagines the only way to know what a thing is is by taking it apart. It’s a deeply gnostic impulse: the notion that what is available to the senses of the ordinary person is contemptible and that only the initiate with the hidden knowledge truly knows what’s going on.
Theatre—and the Faith—give the lie to this. A play or film is meant to be received on the basis of its surface appearance. You don’t experience Hamlet as it was intended to be experienced by going behind the scenes, watching the rigging and pulleys, seeing behind the sets, watching the actors putting on makeup, and seeing the tech guys work the lights and sound. Similarly, in a film, the whole point of special effects is for you to forget they are special effects. When you see the wires above the stage or on the screen, you are immediately taken out of the story—and the story is all. Rigging, sound effects, lighting, and stagecraft are good and necessary, but they are not the essence of the play, what Shakespeare intends us to see. What he wants us to see, as members of the audience, is the play. We go deepest into the play when we experience the surface, letting the story and the characters—not our awareness of the producer, director, technicians, stagehands, and actors—take us into the world of the tragedy.
In the same way, the Mass and the sacramental vision call us into the deepest revelation of Christ when we receive the sacraments under the appearances God ordains them to have. Just as a drama is ruined if the actors are perpetually mugging for the audience instead of remaining in character and pointing us to the inner reality of the play, so a Liturgy in which the ministers perpetually intrude their individual personalities is ruined. What we desire, what we are supposed to do, is to look along the Mass, not at it (as we look along a sunbeam, not at it) to see the Light. We don’t want to look at the Mass, distracted by hot-dogging clergy, intrusive singers, or altar servers giving each other bunny ears. For similar reasons, we also don’t want to be distracted by hyper-sensitive audience members-cum-critics, continually complaining if everything is not absolutely perfect for them, whether in the play or at Mass. We ask, not for perfection, but for a good-faith effort to honor the drama being enacted before us.
For the same reason—because the deepest truths are shown to us at the surface and not by dissection (which is for dead, not living, things)—what is best is to receive the sacraments according to the matter God ordained. Just as drama takes the ordinary stuff of life and elevates it to something revelatory, Christ comes to us through ordinary stuff like water, oil, bread and wine, and average human beings. This is supremely true in the Eucharist, where Christ makes himself totally and fully present—and yet hides himself under the appearance of bread and wine. Why? Because as T.S. Eliot said, humans cannot bear too much reality. And so eucharistic miracles—miracles where wine turns to visible human blood or a host visibly becomes flesh (as at Lanciano)—are rare; it is best for us not to go “behind the scenes” to watch the special-effects features on the divine DVD. Indeed, even those miracles are still only signs that make clear the divine origin of the Eucharist and intend to remind us of what the Eucharist always is, telling us that the inmost reality is the Triune God who cannot be seen but only grasped by faith.
In an upcoming, second essay, we’ll look at how the everyday lives of Christian disciples—the masks we wear, the roles we play—are all part of the divine drama.
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