Theatre Hearts

My son Peter has been bitten by the acting bug. He got cast as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and has been relishing the chance to show off as a total goofball before an audience of his peers. He’s pretty good too! So good that he’s been called back for auditions for next show. Break a leg, kid.

I can relate. I was a theatre major long ago and it was a wonderful time in my life. Indeed, theatre probably saved my life. Back in the late 70s, during an especially dark time when I was seriously wondering whether I might not be better off dead, I got cast in a truly plum role (or more precisely, roles) in a goofy farce called Bullshot Crummond, a spoof of 1930 serial detective flicks. In addition to the four major parts (two heroes and two villains), the script called for one guy to play, well, everybody else (poking fun at the tendency of studios in the 30s to cast the same character actor over and over in all the supporting roles). So I wound playing the entire supporting cast—everybody from the hero’s chum, to the heroine’s geezer father, to the snooty waiter, to the hunchback henchman, etc. It was a joy to do and it brought me back from the edge of a very deep pit I was about to topple into and gave me a whole group of people to care about. I will always be grateful to God that, even in those times when I did not know him, he was kind enough to put me into just the situation that would save me from doing something stupid.

Since becoming Catholic, I’ve sometimes reflected on the relationship between the Faith and the Theatre. It’s been a complicated one. Jesus, for instance, uses a theatre term (hupocritos = stage actor) to arraign the scribes and Pharisees he describes as whited sepulchers. That’s because, in his day, actors wore exaggerated masks to represent the character they played. It was an apt image to describe people who pretended to be one thing while really being another.

As the Church was born, the theatre was in a low spot in the Greco-Roman world. It was a great place to see porn and blasphemy, not such a great place for pursuing the sort of moral virtue the apostles insisted on. So for some stretches of time, being an actor was a fine way to get excommunicated. Of course, there were exceptions. The tale of St. Genesius, patron of actors, concerns a man who (like many actors of his time) performed crude burlesques making fun of Christians during the persecution of Diocletian. One day, so the story goes, he was in a skit mocking the sacrament of baptism when, to the surprise of all, the fake baptism burlesque touched his conscience and he began to depart from the script right there on stage, announcing that he did, in fact, believe in Jesus and proclaiming his newborn faith. The audience slowly began to figure out that he was serious and the mood turned from laughter to rage. He was martyred on the spot by the mob. I don’t know if it’s true or not. But it certainly should be true, which is enough to content any actor.

As time went on, theatre began to be used by Christians as a way of proclaiming the gospel to an illiterate audience. As with stained glass windows, a populace that couldn’t read could still look at pictures. And in theatre, the pictures could talk. So talk they did, particularly in the medieval mystery plays such as Everyman. Christian Europe saw a resurgence of drama, and England in particular gave birth to theatrical tradition that is, in its great Master, William Shakespeare, one of the jewels of the world.

Which, of course, is why a fifteen year old kid in Seattle is playing Bottom. Theatre, like all the arts, is a deeply human thing and therefore something our Faith encourages and approves since God reveals him in human ways. It is also, as we shall discuss next time, a fallen thing and in need of grace, like all the rest of human experience.


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