Another Op’nin, Another Show

NOTE: Robert Royal will appear today (5/22/15) on Relevant Radio with Drew Mariani. They’ll discuss the beatification of Abp. Oscar Romero. 3:00 PM EDT.

A recent visit to New York, where my wife and daughter and I took in a Broadway show, has gotten me thinking about the state of the theater and the state of the Catholic tradition in regard to it. As our cab, after the show, lurched down West 44th Street past the Helen Hayes Theatre, I wondered: “Is the Helen Hayes, along with the Walter Kerr Theatre, the last, positive connection between Catholicism (Hayes and Kerr were Catholics) and mainstream American theater?”

This is not the same as asking about the relationship of the Church to sculpture or to ballet. As great as those arts are, they do not have the same resonance in culture as theater does. Thinkers from Aristotle to Thornton Wilder have regarded drama as the greatest of all the arts, and I agree with them. So my question concerns the relationship of the Church to that art which is the apex of human artistic achievement.

But wait. Why should we consider theater to be the greatest of arts? Why not poetry or the novel? Why should we think drama greater than the cinema or television or popular music, arts that, in any event, are enjoyed by far more people than theater is?

The answer begins with the fact that drama, more than any other art, concerns the relationship of the human being to the divine. Western drama has its roots in liturgy, the highest expression of our praise of God. Greek tragedies were more like Easter Sunday Masses than a Saturday night on Broadway; they were centerpieces of a spring festival held in honor of the god Dionysus, and they were not performed outside of this religious context. The parallel that is often drawn, therefore, between dramatic performance and the rituals of Catholic liturgy is not a superficial one. The stage, even in a secular context, cannot hide its origins in sacrifice.

For another thing, drama among all the arts – with its mixture of performed action and human speech – affords the greatest opportunity for communal contemplation, which is the goal of our enjoyment of the fine arts. Our English word “theater” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “to gaze upon.” The theater is our “gazing place,” the place where the community comes together to contemplate images of human beings in pursuit of happiness and to consider what those images mean for the community’s own pursuit of fulfillment.

Some might argue: “Don’t movies and television also function as arenas of contemplation?”

Yes, but not in the same way. The difference, of course, is that theatrical performance is typically live, not recorded. No one attending can miss the special quality of energy in the room, an energy generated by the “real presence” of actors and audience communing together, in the moment, in pursuit of the meaning of human existence. No other art can match the intensity of drama’s communal, contemplative experience.

“Romeo and Juliet before Father Lawrence” by Karl Becker, c. 1870
“Romeo and Juliet before Father Lawrence” by Karl Becker, c. 1870

The contemplative experience of the theater is further enhanced by the fact that, in the words of Thornton Wilder, it is the nature of dramatic performance to give us the universal, rather than the singular, experience: “The novel is pre-eminently the vehicle of the unique occasion, the theater of the generalized one. It is through the theater’s power to raise the exhibited individual action into the realm of idea and type and universal that it is able to evoke our belief.”

Given the nature and power of drama, one would expect to find throughout history a robust alliance between the Church and the theater. But this is not so. The Church, to be sure, has had and does have reason to be leery of associating with the world of the theater. When in ancient times St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom railed against theaters, they were rightly condemning shows that were scandalous. What’s playing in New York this week could provoke similar complaints.

Yet there have been bright spots in history, when the beauty of the Faith found a voice in a dramatic tradition. The medieval mystery plays are a case in point, as is the tradition of Jesuit drama, which flourished in the Society’s European colleges in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Then there is Shakespeare, who bestrides the entire history of theater like a Colossus. It has been firmly established that Shakespeare was raised by a Catholic father and attended a grammar school in Stratford staffed by Catholics. And if the arguments of Father Peter Milward, S.J., Claire Asquith, and Joseph Pearce are correct, Shakespeare’s devotion to Catholicism was strong in his adulthood and is subtly present in the plays.

So where are we today? There is little evidence of positive Catholic influence in mainstream theater. Meanwhile, in the last hundred years, the influence of mainstream theater itself upon popular culture has diminished considerably. Today, the world of New York theater is a mélange of tourist shows, like the production of Phantom of the Opera that my family and I saw, revivals of past glories, adaptations of successful Hollywood movies, message plays with decidedly progressive messages, and a handful of pieces with one or another angle of qualified interest.

Movies and television have replaced drama as the loci of our culture’s communal contemplation. This is not all bad; both of these art forms have significant power to attract us and hold us in the grip of what is.

But theater’s special power is irreplaceable, and its decline a great blow to our self-understanding. Add to this the absence of a Catholic presence in the world of mainstream theater, and the result is a devastating cultural loss.

What we need are Catholic artists who, like Shakespeare, are prepared to make their way from the cultural provinces to the capital and revive this dying art form. As they say in Kiss Me Kate, we need another op’nin, another show.

Daniel McInerny

Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at danielmcinerny.com.

  • John Willson

    Very good. Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” drew packed houses and emotional responses from German audiences after World War II. They didn’t need theater critics to tell them what was going on.

  • Manfred

    I defer to you, Prof. McInerny, but it seems to me that in order to have Catholic dramas one must begin with a Catholic cultural reality. As you are aware, that culture no longer exists. The Church is involved in a civil war which is destroying it.
    The last great Catholic drama, in my opinion, was “A Man for all Seasons” which portrayed the life and martyrdom of SAINT Thomas More, in 1535 AD, which was written by an atheist!
    Can you locate one Catholic leader on the horizon today who comes close to More and Bishop Fisher?

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    For me, Catholic drama reached its pinnacle in the Grand Siècle, in the tragedies of Racine, a pupil of Port-Royal, with their “passions exquisitely carved in Alexandrines” and in the biting satire of Moliere’s comedies.

    • Chuck Hammer

      Good point. They’re swell.

  • grump

    I’d go with opera because it combines great drama with some of the best music ever composed. Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” comes close to being the most Catholic opera ever written. In the final scene, Angelica, having committed suicide, begs the Virgin Mary for mercy and, as she dies, she sees a
    miracle: the Virgin Mary appears, along with Sister Angelica’s son, who
    runs to embrace her.

  • Mary Lee

    Thank you for stating so clearly the reason for theater. As a (now retired) Catholic actor I could never explain so clearly the attraction of live theater as opposed to movies and tv. Theater was always my first choice of venues and that was from my first job in summer stock until my last performance in The Importance of Being Earnest for the Shakespeare Theater (I had no lines, but just being on stage with wonderful actors was a marvelous experience). Theater was and always will be THE supreme acting and viewing experience.

  • JGradGus

    Given our increasingly secular-progressive culture today, if someone were to write a good play with a thought provoking Catholic message, could it even get produced? How would the secular-progressive critics treat it? How many people would go see it and how long might it run? What’s the cost of a ticket to a Broadway show in NY these days, and how does it compare to the price of a ticket to an ‘Avengers’ movie?

  • Howard Kainz

    Not to be contrarian, but it seems to me that music can best lay claim to being the greatest and most universal of the arts.

    • RainingAgain

      To my mind, deserving of the accolade for greatest Christian popular art of the moment is the music of Bob Dylan, a man often unfairly derided as a soldier of the “counter-culture”, a label he rejected from the beginning. A careful reading of his lyrics reveals a symbolic language that we will all perhaps have to adopt in the future, a code that initiates may be able to understand but that hopefully may be too deep and subtle for our persecutors. Dylan’s Christianity seems to have moved increasingly close to the Catholic position as he now sings of praying “from the Mother”. He’s an acquired taste, but his totally anti-modern music has been very encouraging for me.

  • Arden Abeille

    I completely agree, and am more than happy to submit scripts to anyone interested in producing plays by faithful Catholic playwrights. I have multiple short pieces polished and ready (one of my short pieces was recently published in _Best American Short Plays_), as well as full-length works in stages from good working draft to polished and ready. Any takers?



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