Follow by Email

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Theology and Drama, part I

In the second part of his monumental magnum opus, Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a "Theo-Drama"; that is, an examination of theology as couched in theatrical, dramatic terms as the story of salvation.  Though it would be a travesty to compare one blog post written in an afternoon by a young amateur to a five-volume series by one of the most preeminent theologians of the 20th century, my purpose in this post shall be a bit of the opposite of what von Balthasar was trying to do - instead of looking at theology viewed through the eyes of drama, I shall look at drama viewed through the eyes of theology; however, unlike von Balthasar's first series, The Glory of the Lord, I shall be looking at drama qua drama rather than at theological aesthetics per se.  In this post, I shall only be considering the general theory of the relationship between drama and theology, or more precisely a theological reading of drama, and use this as a prolegomenon for a subsequent post where I shall take a more detailed look at one piece of drama in particular, Blessed John Paul II's The Jeweler's Shop.

Though I said I would be looking at drama qua drama, in reality all fiction, all stories, are dramatic in nature, with their characters coming to life and playing their roles in the mind of the reader rather than on a physical stage.  Hence it would be more accurate to say that I am looking at literature qua drama, rather than the equally valid and insightful perspective of literature qua poetry.

One prominent aspect of drama that stands out in characterizing it is the presence of the audience.  All literature has its audience - its readers - but a piece of literature qua literature is meant to stand on its own; rather than a performance, when one discusses the literature one discusses the story and text abstracted from any physical reading or material situation.  Drama can be discussed in this same way, and the finest dramas - such as the works of Shakespeare - have no difficulty standing on their own as works of literature.  However, like poetry in its original state, drama is meant to be performed, raising the question of the audience.

Different playwrights have accorded different roles to the audience.  In classical drama the audience is a mere spectator; the play could be performed just as well without them.  Awareness of the audience took on a much bigger role with the advent of postmodernism and liminal theatre.  Audience participation began to become part of the show, giving the actors - now more like buffoonish clowns than serious characters - feedback and direction on their improv shticks, and likewise the actors would take an active role critiquing and involving their audience in their show.  I recall attending production once of a play entitled "The Complete History of America, Abridged" when the actress (playing a soldier during World War I) soaked the entire audience with a child's "Super-Soaker" water gun.  In similar fashion, actors in Philip Glass' opera "Einstein on the Beach" would make an implicit point about the tardiness of their audience by beginning half an hour before the show was scheduled to begin so that the audience arrived in media res, and metatextual jabs at the text's own status as a construct became a staple of postmodern literature, for example in Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author.

Obviously, neither extreme - the reduction of the audience to mere spectator and the buffoonish reduction of literature to metatextual awareness - are fitting models for the type of drama encapsulated in the Divine Liturgy, which makes present to us a serious story with very real and serious characters, but in which the congregation is hardly a passive "audience".  Following the reasoning that the critical theory which will elucidate the theological aspect of drama the most is that which describes best the dramatic nature of theology and of the Liturgy, I will turn to Bertrold Brecht's critical theory to lay the groundwork for the theological elucidation of a play in my next post.

Turning to Brecht is not entirely my own idea; in doing so I am following the venerable Fr. Geoffrey Preston, O.P., in his posthumously edited Faces of the Church.  Brecht was a Marxist, not a Christian, and arrived at his ideas for different reasons than Christian hermeneutics would.  Brecht turned away from the introspective psychological turn that had characterized literature since the Romantic period, and come to an extreme in the Modernist period with James Joyce and Marcel Proust, where story-telling took as its object only the labyrinthine paths of the human subconscious, with external relations taking a secondary role.  This is equally useless for both Christian soteriology and Marxist dialectic, for the obvious reason that both Christianity and Marxism are corporeal soteriologies.  Brecht restored the primacy of the story to his plays, writing only plays which were truly narrative in character.

The narrative emphasis in Brecht led him to shift our view of the role of an actor.  Whereas in classical theatre whose consummation came in the form of cinema sought for its actors to maintain an illusion of becoming their characters in the audience's mind and identifying as strongly as possible with their characters, Brecht argued instead than actor's job is not to identify with a character, but to narrate his story, to act in his person rather than to imitate his action, and to communicate this story to the audience rather than just make the story come to life on the stage irrespective of whether anyone is watching or not.  Just as the priest's job is to make Calvary mystically present to us rather than to be another Jim Caviezel, the purpose of an actor in Brechtian theatre is to make a story present to us, not to imitate the characters.

Using Brecht as a pointer to start us off, we can pursue a theological dramatic theory by next asking the question how an actor as narrator conveys this story to the audience in a dramatic rather than sacramental way.  Because drama and sacrament are analogous acts, the manner of communication is analogous - the connection between the audience and the actor occurs through the word, the uncreated Word of God in the latter case, and what the Polish director and critic Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk called the "inner word" in the former case.  In scholastic theology, the "inner word" is that act of understanding which emanates from the Logos, or Eternal Word; by attempting to convey the inner word directly, the intellectus (or the “eye of the heart” as Orthodox tradition following St. Basil calls it) would be spoken to immediately instead of through the manipulation of the passions. The truths thus expressed would be both perfectly subjective and perfectly objective.

Kotlarczyk was the mentor of the young playwright Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, and like his more famous mentor was heavily influenced by the Polish Romantic poets such as Adam Mickiewicz and Cyprian Norwid.  However, according to Rocco Buttiglione (Karol Wojtyla:  The Thought of the Man who became Pope John Paul II, pp. 21 ff.), Kotlarczyk was also influenced heavily by Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society, which in the tradition of magic and witchcraft believed heavily in the power of the spoken word.  Unlike Blavatsky, however, Kotlarczyk was a devout Christian, and for him the word was not a means of attaining power over creation, but an attribute of divinity, the means by which God created the world, and by which God affects and sanctifies the soul.  Seeking to purify theatre of all distractions in order to find the purest medium for conveying the Word, Kotlarczyk introduced his "theatre of the inner word", in which - devoid almost entirely of action, props, costumes, and other conventional methods - the bare nakedness of the spoken Word could affect the soul directly by its own power.

No comments:

Post a Comment