The Common Good
November 2007

Word Become Fresh

by Kimberly Burge | November 2007

Finding God in theater.

Prelude: Live theater first enraptured me with a burst through the sanctuary doors of Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Blytheville, Arkansas, in the mid-1970s. My father, a volunteer youth minister, directed the youth group in a Passion play for Easter weekend. I tagged along to rehearsal each night for weeks, appointing myself Dad’s de facto stage manager and memorizing everyone’s lines.

In a clever bit of staging, Dad had “Peter” and “John” throw open the back double doors and race up the sanctuary aisle crying, “He is alive!” “He has risen!” Having seen all those rehearsals, each time I looked back and waited for Terry Watson and Joel Blakely to make their entrance. At their first performance on Good Friday, Terry and Joel sprinted in on cue, running and shouting, and an audible gasp arose from the congregation. Two pews in front of me, Mrs. Greene clutched at her heart and inhaled sharply, eyes wide in shock before a small smile crept across her face. It was almost as if the Good Lord himself had come through those doors.

I was hooked.

With these living, breathing characters in our midst, the air inside the church felt charged. Terry and Joel disappeared, and Peter and John sprang up in their places. Though neither of us would have put it this way, Mrs. Greene and I discovered something in that sanctuary: Theater is incarnational, an experience of word becoming flesh right before our eyes. In that sense, it mirrors the very essence of the Christian faith. After all, Jesus not only used parables, stories, and dramatic reenactments to convey his message—his very presence was the message.

Act One: Despite this inheritance, Christianity has always had a complicated relationship with theater. Although many early church authorities forbade theater for worshipers due to its supposed pagan connotations, the medieval church embraced it in the form of the “mysteries,” as they were called. These 15th-century plays comprised three cycles: the Hebrew Testament, the New Testament, and the lives of the saints. The mysteries’ authors were not strict literalists; their interpretations encompassed scripture, story, truth, and legend and were passed along orally. The mysteries flourished in France, where they also grew from brief scenes to lengthy and sometimes marathon performances. Arnoul Greban, canon of the church of Le Mans, and his brother Simon, a monk of St. Riquier, collaborated on a mystery, Acts of the Apostles, that included 62,000 verses. The performance lasted 40 days.

The Passion play—the drama that first entranced me—became the celebrated form of the mysteries. Possibly the most famous performance of the Passion, and certainly the most enduring, is performed in Oberammergau, Germany. Suffering from the plague and the destruction of the Thirty Years War, the people in this town swore that if God would deliver their community, they would perform the Play of the Suffering, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ once every 10 years. They kept their promise beginning at Pentecost 1634 on a stage set up over the cemetery, above the fresh graves of plague victims. The year 2000 marked the 40th performance. More than 2,000 Oberammergauers participated as actors, singers, instrumentalists, and stage technicians in a show that ran six hours.

So in medieval times and the Middle Ages, Christian theater basked in the spotlight. And then (stage direction: this dramatic moment would occur just before the curtain came down on Act One) the Reformation happened.

Act two: There had been earlier skirmishes, the original “culture wars” perhaps. In 1548, the Parliament of Paris, under the influence of the early French Protestant believers, attempted to put the kibosh on theater, forbidding production of The Mysteries of the Passion of Our Redeemer and Other Spiritual Mysteries. The mysteries upheld Roman Catholic doctrine; that was enough to get them banned. At the same time, there was a shift away from liturgy and artistic expressions of faith. Protestant worship spaces were austere, relying solely on the Word and eschewing ritual and imagination. The act of portraying Christ was thought to be sinful, even if it was for the edification of the congregants. And who knew to what immoralities theater could lead? Theater and faith had become antithetical to one another.

Act three: Now the lighting gets muted, dream-like, and we move quickly through time to arrive at Act Three: The Contemporary Era, or Getting Beyond Godspell.

In the early 1970s, Christianity became trendy, at least for a moment in musical theater. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had a hit with their “rock opera” Jesus Christ Superstar. (Mary Magdalene singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” still, on occasion, haunts my dreams, and not in a good way.) They followed it up with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, billed in the United States as a “sequel” to Jesus Christ Superstar.

With contemporary plays tackling more explicit content and with grittier language, Christians have sometimes found theater difficult to embrace. The very incarnation that makes theatergoing immediate and alive also provides no shield from difficult subject matter. No screen distances audience from performer. When the title characters in Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, for example, spend the first act naked, in and out of bed, those are real bodies a few feet away. It can make for some uncomfortable moments.

On occasion, live performances go out of their way to shock and disturb. But there’s a fine line between theater and theatricality, and secular theater companies do not have a monopoly on this tactic. Enter a “Hell House,” and you’ll see why.

Each Halloween, Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas, hosts its version of a haunted house. Visitors are led through scenes depicting “the sins of this world”—performers re-enact scenes of a clinical abortion, a gay man cursing God as he dies of AIDS, and a young girl who commits suicide, overwhelmed by shame after being drugged and raped at a rave. “Through the vehicle of drama,” their Web site proclaims, this Hell House “vividly communicates to all witnesses that there is a spiritual battle raging each day that they live.”

If you don’t happen to live near Cedar Hill, a “Hell House Outreach Kit” is available from New Destiny Christian Center in Thornton, Colorado. It promises to “Shake your city with the most ‘in-your-face, high-flyin’, no denyin’, death-defyin’, Satan-be-cryin’, keep-ya-from-fryin’, theatrical stylin’, no holds barred, cutting-edge’ evangelism tool of the new millennium!” I mourn for the days when two youths running through the sanctuary could shock.

With much less histrionics, some noted playwrights are tackling spiritual themes in their work these days, to great acclaim. John Patrick Shanley’s four-character one-act play, Doubt (subtitled: A Parable), won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Set in a Catholic parish and school in the Bronx in 1964, the play references President Kennedy’s assassination in the opening monologue, setting up themes of lost innocence. The rigid and old-school principal, Sister Aloysius, clashes with Father Flynn, who wants to be more accessible to the children and their parents, like “a member of the family and not an emissary from Rome.” She suspects more sinister motives behind his desire, and with circumstantial evidence accuses the priest of sexually abusing the school’s first black student. The boy’s teacher, a younger nun intimidated by her superior, and his mother are caught up in this battle.

But just as the play’s title warns, nothing is as it seems; there’s always room for a sliver. Shanley said he intended for audiences to come out of his play uncertain. Doubt is an undervalued quality, he says, and should not be confused with weakness. In interviews, the play’s cast said they intended the second act of the play to occur when the audience leaves the theater and begins discussing what happened.

The New York Times called Stephen Adly Guirgis “the poet laureate of the angry.” His plays revel in street language and unvarnished characters. They also explore issues of faith and justice, mercy and redemption. In Jesus Hopped the “A” Train, two men meet in prison. One shot and wounded the leader of a religious cult—vigilante justice for the cult taking in his best friend. The other is a serial killer who has recently found God. They argue about guilt, innocence, and service to higher powers in impassioned exchanges during their recreation time, with prison guards and defense lawyers offering their own wisdom.

Guirgis also wrote The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, in which Judas is put on trial in purgatory for his betrayal. The play asks, Should mercy be extended after an act of free will? The list of trial witnesses is impressive: Freud, Mother Teresa, Pontius Pilate, Mary Magdalene, and ultimately the betrayed himself—Jesus, making a cameo appearance. Satan takes the stand twice, hung over and wearing a shiny black Gucci suit. In the New York production, Eric Bogosian, an actor and accomplished playwright himself, played Satan and apparently stole the show. The devil often does.

Conor McPherson is one of the new wave of celebrated young Irish playwrights. His play The Weir, with its ghost stories told by drinkers in a pub, has held audiences captive without any special effects, just the power of his storytelling. In his latest show, The Seafarer, the main character, Sharkey, an alcoholic in recovery for three days, has returned home to Dublin to care for his aging (and also alcoholic) brother, Richard, who has gone blind. It’s Christmas Eve, and these bachelors bring men from the pub home for a poker game in their basement. One of their visitors, Mr. Lockhart, is revealed as the devil, but only to Sharkey, who encountered him earlier in his life when things were even bleaker. Sharkey finds himself playing this card game to win his very soul.

I don’t want to give the plot away. But there’s a moment when dawn is breaking and light begins to stream through a tiny window near the ceiling, as folksinger John Martyn’s song Sweet Little Mystery plays. The devil may steal the show, but Grace still appears. When I saw the play at London’s National Theatre last January, I found my eyes welling up with tears I couldn’t explain, and wouldn’t wish to. Maybe the medieval approach got it right. Focus on the mystery.

Kimberly Burge, a Sojourners contributing writer, is senior writer/editor at Bread for the World. She misses her days acting in college theater productions and is searching for new ways to (legally) assume another’s identity for a few hours a night.

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