Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Religious Theatre

I wonder whether I have substituted theatre for God. In Nicholas
Cook's A Very Short Introduction to Music, he observes that, in the nineteenth century, when science was eroding traditional Christian beliefs, art became an alternative religion, smuggling in ideas of spirituality through the emphasis on the artist as a genius, channelling their music from an exterior source. 

Although this is most evidence in the cult of Beethoven - which endured through much of the twentieth century - it is reflected in the romantic poets (my beloved Blake, for example, was engaged in the writing of new scripture), and accounts for the ongoing sanctification of Shakespeare, Brecht, even Artaud. The vogue for branding a company or writer (it's Rob Drummond's Wrestling, or Dominic Hill's Hamlet, or the RSC's Macbeth) is a product of both consumerism and this religious veneration of the creator. Cook recognises that the impulse towards religiosity emerged with the rise of industrialisation, in Europe, and the model of capitalism that has come to dominate Western culture. 

Those political worries aside, which will make for another post in the future, the idea that theatre is now my religion is deeply worrying. Having been bought up in the last days of a society which cherished religion, the grand theologies of the west still echo in my consciousness, and shape my thought. Yet the onslaught of intelligent atheist commentary - and the bellowing of its propagandists - make it difficult to accept Christianity without qualification.

And so, in the search for the transcendent, have I turned to theatre? Have I become a writer of exegesis for a contemporary metaphysics, one that contains the idea of the genius in place of God? Have the hierarchies of angels been replaced by the structures of a venue's employment policies? Am I seeking a connection with the divine, the absolute Truth, by attending a performance?

The impact of this possible substitute on criticism is another problem. The traditional answer of the religious critic to ideas that challenge their belief is to call it heresy. The stakes become higher. Tynan's famous, and inane, comment that a negative review of a play is like a letter from a disappointed lover, sets theatre on the level of a sexual relationship - and anyone familiar with Othello knows that this is an especially fraught scenario. When it becomes a matter of religion, the dangers are greater. 

Equally, it asks theatre to perform a task that it may never have been equipped to fulfil: shedding light on the dark maze of human experience. The ambitions of Beckett, in Waiting for Godot, undeniably are towards explicating existence, but this kind of existential aspiration is another product of the past century, exactly the period in which, according to Cook, art-as-religion took hold. For all the pretty poetry, do Shakespeare's plays intend to cast such wisdom into the audience? 

The author Alan Moore describes the artistic process in terms of a shamanistic journey into a reality that imitates Plato's world of forms - or, more exactly, the cabalistic mythologies that he studies. It's the religious view of art par excellence, presenting the artist as a traveller into the beyond. That only theological language can be used to describe his vision - no 'sitting on your arse and typing' for him, or detailed research - exposes the extent to which some artists see their work as sacred. 

A theologian is not necessarily a good critic: the appreciation of art, taught in schools as English literature, musicology and appraisal, begins with an  a priori truth that the object of study is 'good' (worthy of analysis, and offering a message to be decoded in a recognisable style). The theologian, at least in the Christian tradition, has the same foundation: God is good, worthy of veneration. Any study that suggests the opposite, like Gnostic dualism, gets dumped into the category of heresy.

And so the critic who examines theatre as a theologian is forced into a dualism. Either the work reveals the 'truth' - in which case it is good and gets four stars - or it is falsehood, and gets two stars and is a heresy. It's not just that theatre is a bad substitute for God - it makes no moral demands, no applicable commandments for behaviour outside of the auditorium. God is a bad model for theatre.

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