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.
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.