Catholic Dramedy

You enter a ritual space and take your seat in the midst of a large audience. At the front (or perhaps in the middle) of the hall you are in (often it is a vast and airy hall) is a ritual space that is marked off from the space you and your fellow audience members occupy. In that ritual space are various pieces of furniture and props for use during the public act that is about to occur.

Music sounds. A chorus appears. Then a cast of ritually costumed figures appears and begins to go through a set of carefully scripted words and physical actions. There is a place in the script for audience involvement, with call and response between the figures in the ritual space and the audience. One player in particular portrays, in a stylized form, the central character in the drama. Through participation in this drama, all involved have a sense of catharsis from the things which burden them as human beings and a sense of contact with something higher than themselves. At the conclusion, there is an exeunt omnes and the stylized ritual concludes.

So here’s a pop quiz: are you at Mass or at a production of a play by Sophocles?

The relationship between drama and theatre is, when you think about it, obvious. The very word from which we derive the English “tragedy” comes from a Greek term that originally meant “goat dance”. Greek theatre arose from Greek religious festivals and concerned, to a huge degree, with the portrayal of various tales from Greek mythology in celebration of their gods. It did, with humans dressed in masks and costumes, what other cultures did via other forms of pictorial representation such a statues or painting.

And yet, precisely because they are parallel, ancient Jews, while they had highly developed liturgical worship, had no form of theatre. Visible representation of divine things was forbidden by the second commandment. So the pagan culture that went with theatre as it was imported to Israel first by Alexander and then by Rome could not help but be perceived as the sinful subversion of Jewish values by a foreign menace. Not simply the bawdiness of Greco-Roman theatre, but the fact that, with it, there often were barbaric displays of blood sport, gladiatorial matches, and the cruelties involved in feeding prisoners (including Jewish prisoners) to the lions meant that there was no love lost between pious Jews (including Jewish Christians) and the theatre.

That curious parallel development carried on in the Church for centuries. Lots of liturgy, no theatre. And yet, as we mentioned last time, the Church eventually re-discovered theatre as an expression of divine things and a theatrical tradition developed in Christian Europe that would eventually rival anything the Greeks ever created. Shakespeare alone (and he is not alone) demonstrates what heights the Christian dramatic tradition could reach.

What the Christian tradition did in developing a Christian drama was come to understand more deeply the meaning of the Incarnation. When God became man, he hallowed human things, including the human thing called “drama”. God, indeed, wrote himself into the drama of human life as a character in the play. Instead of Six Character in Search of an Author, we have one Author in search of the Cast. They’ve all been hiding ever since He said “Adam, where are you?” and they only come out of hiding to enact the strange and bizarre tragedy of the Crucifixion. Like the tragic heros of the theatre, we are felled by hubris. Our greatness only goes to highlight the depth of our fall as we turn all our powers toward killing him in the most cruel way possible.

But, as in a comedy, even our best laid plans for world-historical stupidity are turned, not by us, but by the joyful playwright, toward a happy ending and even toward a wedding (the classic device for concluding all good comedies). The Marriage Supper of the Lamb is the climax of the Divine Drama as tragedy and comedy meet and are reconciled in the Lamb who looks as if He had been slain—and yet who has the last laugh along with all those he has saved.

Copyright 2010 - Mark P. Shea