2003-2004 John Henry Newman Lecture Series
Institute for the Psychological Sciences
Friday, January 23, 2004, 2:00 PM
The Cosmos Club, Washington, DC
"The Christian drama happens at the level of the individual, at the level of the person, and the rest derives from it."
Monsignor Luigi Giussani
The Role of Theatre in the Evangelization of Culture
Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P.
Twenty-four hour television on one thousand and thirty-four different channels, a dozen new movies every month offered by way of the local cineplex, on video cassette, DVD, pay-per-view, or via the Internet, Broadway tickets that cost one hundred dollars or more yet still are sometimes impossible to get.
Given the predominance of all these factors, why has the art known as theatre never gone out of existence? What is it about the theatre, so integral to human experience since the dawn of history, that keeps it from becoming extinct?
I would like to spend this time with you by looking at what is uniquely distinctive about the theatre. My purpose is to propose theatre as an invaluable instrument of the re-evangelization of culture.
The Human Drama
What is it about the human heart that theatre manages to reach in such an indispensable and indefatigable way? According to our Holy Father Pope John Paul II, "the basic human drama is the failure to perceive the meaning of life, to live without a meaning." In other words, for so many the sense of destiny has not been awakened in them. One main reason why the human being lives bereft of the meaning of life is because he has nothing to inspire him to search the depths of his self so as to discover the truth of his human 'I.' For the person who confronts the evidence of his own existence comes face to face with three key truths about the human "I": first, I didn't make myself; second, I have desires that I did not give myself and that I cannot delete which are infinite in their scope; and third, I live with the expectation that I will be happy, the certainty that I have been promised meaning and fulfillment in my life.
This awareness of the fundamental facts of my existence provokes three correlative and urgent questions in my soul:
1) If I did not make myself then who made me? I say "who" because my awakened self-awareness summons up in me a certainty that my Maker is in some way like me and that I am in relationship with my Maker, that is, my Maker had a reason for making me.
2) Because of my desires there is something about me which is infinite, which leads me to ask: Is there some One who is infinite who gave me these desires and who wills to satisfy these otherwise insatiable desires?
3) Who can meet my expectations for happiness? Every attempt on my part falls short and leaves me disappointed. If I am sure that I have been promised fulfillment, who put that promise in me in the first place? Because I am convinced that the One who made that promise alone can make it come true.
These three questions combine to form the one great and Ultimate Question, namely, What is the meaning of life? At the point that this question is posed, reason begins to operate at its most optimal level. The "I", animated, aware, and perhaps even anguished shares in the Passion of the dying Christ on the cross who cries out: "I thirst!" The human "I" itself is thirst, thirsting to know its meaning, its mission, its purpose, its destiny. The zenith of reason's power is an awareness of its own limitations. Yet, while reason cannot provide an adequate answer to the ultimate question that it raises, reason does arrive at the perception of a Mystery beyond itself, a Mystery that is a Presence that corresponds to the most urgent longings of the human heart.
This surmising, this judgment on the part of reason is an act of imagination that calls out for imagination. And this is where theatre comes in. In his five volume work entitled Theodramatic, Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote:
The task of the stage is to make the drama of existence explicit so that we may view it. Where existence is directly interpreted as theatre, the "I" must be understood as the role. It continually delivers man from the sense of being trapped and from the temptation to regard existence as something closed in upon itself. Through the theatre, man acquires the habit of looking for meaning at a higher and less obvious level. Theatre's intrinsic function [is] to be a place where man can look in a mirror in order to recollect himself and remember who he is. In the theatre man attempts a kind of transcendence, endeavoring both to observe and to judge his own truth, in virtue of a transformation, by which he tries to gain clarity about himself. Theatre is no sinful illusion but the necessity of, and pleasure in, seeing oneself portrayed by another; in this mask the person both loses and finds himself. (17, 173, 20, 86, 12, 122)
So we can say that the human heart craves the theatre because the human heart lives waiting for something that will reveal the meaning of being human. For some reason, something deeply rooted in the human soul compels it to look to the imitation of human beings in action, which is how Aristotle defines tragic drama in the Poetics, in order to discover a clue about its destiny. Theatre in the service of the New Evangelization seeks to engage reason on this level.
Of course, the great challenge to theatre committed to such a mission is how to stir people out of their anesthetized lives how to motivate people to break through the crust they have allowed to form over their day to day existence. To do this, theatre must penetrate to the precise core of what people care about. It must respond to a lived question. It must attract and compel on the deepest level of meaning. It must interact with others at the point in which life begins to spark and flame. Otherwise, theatre remains at best merely an irrelevant distraction.
For this reason, according to the great novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder, the author of the beautiful American classic play Our Town, the best strategy for creating compelling theatre is to represent dramatically original sin. Wilder wrote:
Gazing deeply into the problem of mankind's agonized straining under the problem of original sin [one should place] on the stage not a discussion of original sin but a living, suffering example of original sin. That's what the theatres for. That's what the theatre is. It has a far more glorious function than the lecture hall and the discussion forum: it is where you show the human situation. (The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder, p. 313)
Because what is original sin? Original sin is the claim that we can identify the total meaning of life with something that we can comprehend and control, something we can measure, manage, and manipulate. Original sin attempts to identify God with some idol by choosing something that we ourselves understand. The impulse of original sin is to attempt to identify the answer to the ultimate question of life with a particular aspect of our self.
Thornton Wilder insists that a discussion of original sin will not suffice; what is needed is a dramatic experience of original sin. Because showing the human situation in turn perfects the human situation.
Theatre's Connection with Culture
In this respect, the integral link between culture and theatre becomes clear. Gaudium et Spes tells us that the human person can achieve true and full humanity only by means of culture. But what is the key to a Gospel understanding of culture? One theologian who has dedicated his long priestly ministry to generating the Church's notion of culture is Monsignor Luigi Giussani. Monsignor Giussani is the founder of the ecclesial Movement Communion and Liberation. An outstanding hallmark of the charism of Communion and Liberation is its devotion to culture. Giussani writes:
We define culture as the critical, systematic development of an experience. An experience is an event that opens us to the totality of reality: experience always implies a comparison between what one feels and what one believes to be the ultimate ideal or meaning. Culture works to unfold this implication of wholeness and totality which is part of every human experience. (Risk 133) Culture is that from which man draws inspiration for his way of behaving in the affirmation of the ultimate aim of what he does, that is to say, his destiny. (1998, p. 14)
Theatre is an event in which experience thrives for, as Giussani writes, true experience throws us into the rhythms of the real, drawing us irresistibly toward our union with the ultimate aspect of things and their true definitive meaning, (Risk, 99). Authentic theatre yearns for nothing less. One of the most influential modern theorists of theatre whose ideas revolutionized theatre ideas that continue to hold sway in the theatre to this day was the French actor and playwright Antonin Artaud. Although Artaud had little use for faith or religion, he nevertheless professed:
The true purpose of theatre is to express life in its immense, universal aspect, and from that life to extract images in which we find pleasure in discovering ourselves.When we speak the word life, it must be understood we are not referring to life as we know it from its surface of fact, but to that fragile, fluctuating center which forms never reach. [The object of theatre is] to express objectively certain secret truths, to bring into the light of day by means of active gestures certain aspects of truth that have been buried under forms in their encounters with Becoming.The public is greedy for mystery.
Theatre in the service of the evangelization of culture aims to be an experience in this fullest sense.
The Encounter with the Actor
Why is the theatre an appropriate way and place to propose original sin? The simple and most compelling answer is because of the presence of the actors. I have always been struck by the fact that in the Holy Father's first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, in the very first paragraph of that document, Pope John Paul II wrote, God entered the history of humanity and, as a man, became an actor in that history. Since the pope was himself once a theatre actor, I cannot help but to think that the Holy Father chose that term consciously and deliberately, fully mindful of all its implications.
Less than a year ago, the pope wrote these words: Man never stops seeking: both when he is marked by the drama of violence, loneliness, and insignificance, and when he lives in serenity and joy, he continues to seek. The only answer which can satisfy him and appease this search of his comes from the encounter with the One who is at the source of his being and his action. Or to put it in other words, the only thing adequate enough to shake us out of our self-satisfaction by which we measure and manipulate reality according to some self-appointed, self-referential idol is a Presence: the Presence of Jesus Christ the actor in history. As Giussani expresses it, That for which the "I" is made and for which it does everything is a Presence. It is for a Presence through which the human being is made, and by which he feels made, and is aware of being made: the presence of Christ that he lives and does everything (1999, p. 32). The Italian theologian Father Stephano Alberto adds:
All the delusion of our limitation, all the apparent non-keeping of the promise in our fleshly existence, all the desire that decays into utopia and censures the hope because of the burden of our limitation and our pain, finds an answer: it is a Presence, a human Presence. God did not answer the demand for meaning with words, but with a presence. (2000, p. 29)
Look at it this way. When you go to a Broadway play, and you sit down in your seat and open up your playbill, what is the one thing that you dread the most? You dread one of those little square pieces of paper falling out of it. Why? Because those little paper inserts indicate that an understudy is going to be substituting for an actor at that performance. And we're disappointed. But why? The role is still going to be portrayed. Yes, but we came to the theatre not only with the hope of encountering this character but also this specific actor. Because somehow we are convinced that the flesh and blood presence of this particular actor has the power to give life to a given dramatic role in a way that effects an incomparable encounter. We go to the theatre to experience an encounter not an encounter only with an idea, but an encounter with a personal presence that corresponds to something primal and vital in the human soul. In the words of von Balthasar, the analogy between God's action and the world drama is no mere metaphor but has an ontological ground: the two dramas are not utterly unconnected; there is an inner link between them. (p. 19). Theatre in the service of the evangelization of culture recognizes and takes full advantage of the sacredness of acting as a participation in God's chosen method of salvation the Father sent Jesus Christ the actor into human history.
Von Balthasar notes that theatre owes its very existence substantially to man's need to recognize himself as playing a role. And Christ, who reveals man to himself, as actor reveals the contours of the role of the human "I" in the human drama. For me, one of the seminal writings on the theatre is an essay by the great American playwright Arthur Miller entitled Tragedy and the Common Man which he wrote as a foreword to his classic play Death of a Salesman. I find the essay monumental because of the innovative and unflinching way that Miller accords the noble status of the tragic hero to the common, ordinary human being. This was something unthinkable in the opinion of Aristotle and others of his ilk for whom only kings and the high born could be apt tragic heroes. Arthur Miller observes something that gets definitively confirmed in the coming of the Son of God at the Incarnation.
The human condition in many respects resembles tragedy formally understood. What is it that fuels tragedy? Miller posits that it is the underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world. Among us today this fear is as strong, and perhaps stronger, than it ever was. In fact, it is the common man who knows this fear best. This fact is what makes the common man as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were. For, he says, tragedy is the consequence of a man's total compulsion to evaluate himself justly. In the process, tragedy enlightens and it must, in that it points the heroic finger at the enemy of man's freedom. The thrust for freedom is the quality in tragedy which exalts. Miller well understands that the only thing that can loose the hold original sin has on us what makes us fearful of being torn from our chosen image of who we are in the world is a heroic presence. He says, "The tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing his sense of personal dignity." In this perspective, the celebrated tragic flaw of the tragic hero is not so much a defect as it is a conviction that results in dire consequences. Miller says that the tragic flaw is the hero's inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status.
Through the exceptional presence of a talented actor who portrays the human compulsion to evaluate himself justly, we the audience can face the presence of the tragic hero in ourselves and, with great courage, take up that role in freedom. Theatre in the service of the evangelization of culture seeks to promote tragic heroes of just this sort.
Language: the Medium of Theatre
What is the medium that theatre employs in order to accomplish its end? The medium of the theatre is language. Christ comes into the world when the Father speaks the Word. In a removed but real way, theatre acts to carry on that Trinitarian utterance. Before all else, plays are meant to be heard. In a unique way, language is ideally suited both to divine self-communication and to theatrical catharsis. For as Cardinal Ratzinger notes, the conversation between people only comes into its own when they are no longer trying to express something, but to express themselves, when dialogue becomes communication. Or as Giussani puts it, the true motive of communication is affection.
As a young man actively involved in a drama project known at the Rhapsodic Theatre, Karol Wojtyla clearly understood and embraced this dimension of language and strove to reconceive theatre according to it. He wrote:
The fundamental element of dramatic art is the living human word. It is also the nucleus of drama, a leaven through which human deeds pass, and from which they derive their proper dynamics. Drama fulfills its social function not so much by demonstrating action as by demonstrating it slowed down, by demonstrating the paths on which it matures in human thought and down which it departs from that thought to express itself externally.
As part of his reflection on his Golden Anniversary of priestly ordination, Pope John Paul II wrote that the word is present in human history as a fundamental dimension of man's spiritual experience. Ultimately, the mystery of language brings us back to the inscrutable mystery of God himself. Theatre in the service of the evangelization of culture recognizes this crucial truth about language and harnesses it to its fullest effect.
Presence and the Audience
There is something else absolutely indispensable to theatre that we have to consider, and that is the presence of the audience. Movies can play in an empty movie house to the detriment of no one (except maybe the owner of the movie house!). But the performance of a play in a theatre with an absent audience would cause great sadness to the actors; in fact, it would probably be impossible. For there is a symbiosis between audience and actors that is integral to the theatre experience. But the presence of the actors to the audience is just as vital as its inverse. Why?
As Giussani observes, Meaning is a connection that you establish when you step out of yourself, move out from the instant, and place yourself in a relationship (RS, p. 118). There is something wondrous, maybe even mildly miraculous, about an audience leaving the comfort of their own homes to come to a theatre. And I cannot help but believe that one reason why they are willing to make the sacrifice to come to the theatre is because of this dynamic identified by Giussani. Becoming an audience is a little way of experiencing belonging. I think deep down we know that we need to step out of ourselves in order to establish meaning. I think deep down we are convinced that we need to place ourselves in a relationship even as one as fleeting as the performance of a play in order to gain the connection which is meaning.
In some concrete way, the act of coming together as an audience tears out of us the nothingness that afflicts all people what von Balthasar describes as the sense of being trapped and closed in upon ourselves. Why else would we happily consent to sit in the dark with so many strangers and there willingly suspend disbelief to use Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous phrase toward what is played out in front of us? And the answer is because the event of theatre is not about make-believe but rather about belief-making.
In his Letter to Artists, the Holy Father writes:
In situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. Art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption. The Church is especially. keen that in our own time there be a new alliance with artists. I appeal to you, artists of the written and spoken word, of the theatre and music. I appeal especially to you, Christian artists: I wish to remind each of you that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man.
Blackfriars Repertory Theatre is a revival of Blackfriars Theatre, a theatrical apostolate founded by Dominican Fathers Urban Nagle and Thomas Carey in 1940. Fathers Nagle and Carey together ran the only professional level theatre sponsored by a Catholic organization in the United States, and the first religious theatre ever tried in New York City. The Blackfriars Theatre was located at 320 West 57th Street. The stated mission of Blackfriars Theatre was to produce plays of artistic merit which reflect the spiritual nature of man and his eternal destiny. Blackfriars provided the proverbial great first break to several acclaimed theatre artists, including playwright Robert Anderson, actors Geraldine Page, Eileen Heckart, Patricia Neal, Anthony Franciosa, Darren McGavin, and Shelley Berman, and producer Elizabeth McCann. Blackfriars Theatre closed in 1972, and it is regarded as the American stage's oldest continuous Off-Broadway theatre. The history of the original Blackfriars was written a few years ago by Father Matthew Powell, O.P., and is entitled God Off-Broadway.
The Holy Father reminds us that unless faith becomes culture it has not been really welcomed, fully lived, humanly rethought. To a great degree, this is the responsibility of the theatre in the Church. I ask your prayers that Blackfriars Repertory Theatre might meet this mission of evangelizing culture for the good of the Church.