Thursday, August 21, 2014

Show Biz and the Divine Drama

Mark Shea has written a third installment in his series on the connection between Drama and Religion, which you can find at Catholic World Report.  Since I've written about this topic myself (mostly from the point of view of actors, or the analogy between Acting and the Faith), I thought I'd add a few things to the very insightful points that Mark makes.

  • Shea's first installment discusses the history of drama and its relation to religion, and also tackles the overall philosophical connection between Drama and Worship.  

I find it interesting that many of the commenters on that installment entirely miss Mark's point.  They seem to think he's saying that our Faith is merely a kind of Divine Drama, and that the Catholic Mass is a kind of show that simply represents something for our spiritual amusement.  I am often astounded at the lack of imagination that literalists (either Catholic or Protestant or Atheist) bring to bear, especially when analogy is involved.  

On the contrary, Shea points out that Drama is a kind of analogy to our participation in the Faith, that ritual and dramatic performance are similar, and that they have aims that can be compared to one another; that both in Greece and in England, Drama sprang up historically in religious contexts, and that even today Drama at its best is an attempt to connect men with "the gods".  This "sets the stage", so to speak, for the overall analogy that Shea will be examining in his series of posts.  

And yet one further thing needs to be said, and it's something G. K. Chesterton understood innately about what Drama (indeed about what all art) is.  Drama takes places on a stage, on a screen, framed within a proscenium.  Even if there's no proscenium, and the play is a "theater in the round" or an "interactive" comedy like my murder mysteries, there is always an artificial distance between the performers and the audience, and even between the performers and their material.  Everyone is pretending.  In the same way that a baseball game is played within the set confines of a field, so a dramatic performance takes place within a delimited area (either a physical area or an area of the imagination), a special place marked off from the rest of the world.  It is this limitation, this framing, that allows the participants the freedom to engage their imaginations without being threatened.  To watch the mob scene in a performance of Julius Caesar is thrilling.  To be part of a mob scene in Ferguson would be terrifying.   

Drama, then, is a kind of Big Playground, a safe place, where writers, actors and audiences all play.  And this playing with the big questions of life - the nature of man and how his acts reveal to us the nature of God - this imaginative hypothetical, shows us, as Shakespeare's Touchstone points out, that there is "much virtue in if".  

And he quite rightly sees the heart of the analogy.  Actors who act on stage or in film adopt a kind of mask, a false persona, that they try to conform themselves to as genuinely as possible so that the performance is all the more artistic and believable.  But this is what we do as Christians, and we are hupocritos, "hypocrites" (stage actors, pretenders wearing a mask), whether we like it or not.  

And be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind ... (Rom. 12:2)

For the great challenge of life in the Faith is Getting in Character as a Christian.  Actors understand this analogy deeply.  The hard part about acting is "getting it", finding the integrity or inner consistency of the character you're portraying.  Once you do that, the role becomes natural: your gestures, your words, your voice and movement - everything about you conforms to the character, once you've found the character's soul or center.

So much of our frustrations as Bad Christians comes from not yet Getting in Character for our roles.  When the mask is simply something separate from us, simply something extrinsic that we aspire to, we often find ourselves becoming obsessed with the minutiae, focused on various virtues or sins rather than the big picture; or worse, we start to rationalize away all sorts of acts that show that we're still "conformed to this world" and not "transformed" by the renewing of our minds.

But this inner transformation is beyond us.  It cannot happen without sacramental grace.  It also cannot happen without our conscious and deliberate cooperation with that grace.  Conforming ourselves to the Costume that we put on at our Baptisms is a mystery - one that requires both our own efforts and also the cessation of our efforts.  It is both an acquiescence to something greater, and also a striving toward something greater.

This is the paradox of living the Faith that acting in a drama perfectly mimics.  As an actor, if you don't do a certain amount of conscious work, such as learning your lines, studying the play, meditating upon your character, planning certain bits, rehearsing - you'll get nowhere.  But by the same token, if you don't abandon all of that work and preparation in the moment of performance, your acting will be stilted, contrived, awkward.  When the curtain goes up and the lights shine down, you must (in a sense) lose your life to save it (see Mat. 10:39) and abandon your work to the Holy Spirit, to the inspiration of the moment.  I think musicians, athletes and soldiers all understand what I'm saying.

The paradox of the stage actor is the paradox of the Christian actor - we must put forth effort to be conformed to our roles (both on stage and in life); but the true conformation happens at a level that is a gift from God and that is beyond our human control.  Effort and abandon, like Faith and Works, always paradoxically go together.

... which is a kind of clericalism.  For if an actor functions as a type of priest - connecting the audience to "the gods" revealed by the playwright and by the structure of the play's action, functioning as a pontifex or bridge builder - then it's very tempting to treat actors the way many Catholics treat clergy - to worship the creature rather than the Source the creature points to.  And of course nothing good comes from this, either for the audience that, in idolatrous zeal, worships a mere man; or for the mere man this audience worships.  For it's never easy for all of us matinee idols (who are, literally, idols) to say, as Paul and Barnabas did when the inhabitants of Lystra saw them working miracles and began worshiping them as gods, 

"Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them." - (Acts 14:15)

That is our role as actors, to point our audiences to the God "who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them".  It is a priestly function.  It bridges the gap between the audience and God, by bringing written words to life, by continuing God's work of making the Word become flesh.

The applause, therefore, is never about us.  And if we're booed, it's because we assert our own identities into the material - the audience sees behind the mask to the actor who is giving a listless performance, or cannot become engaged in the liturgy because the priest is asserting his own identity by making stuff up, or become distracted because the musicians are turning themselves into the center of attention, rather than the God the Divine Drama points to.


So, to paraphrase Shakespeare, "The play's the thing wherein we'll catch a glimpse of the King of Kings."

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