Sunday, 30 April 2017

Banning Religion on the Stage

Here's what fascinates me today: between about 1550 and 1900, in France and Britain, religious stories were banned from the stage. You'd think that they'd be the sort of thing that early modern Europe would love, but apparently not. Apart from works in schools (the Jesuits included theatre as part of their education programme, and Racine wrote a few Biblical tragedies for girls), religious was banished from theatre. 

It's not until the late nineteenth century that a discussion kicked off about whether having religious plays might be a good idea - and that was provoked by reports of a German Passion Play and the rediscovery of a few medieval cycles

Oscar Wilde's Salome bought the matter to a head - the English censor called it 'half Biblical, half pornographic' which makes it sound amazing. In the twentieth century, plays about religion - both for and against - started to appear. So, a century that might be assumed to be more secular was actually a boom time for Christian theatre fans.

The objection to the passion play was not simply protestant or Catholic: both strands kicked the plays to the curb around the same time. In England, it is assumed that the Tudors, who were trying to control a nation that had been told to convert from Catholicism, didn't like the popery. As for the French, they didn't like anything that gave the people a chance to think about religion without the presence of a priest. Allegedly. 

Triple Threat probably wouldn't go down that well with either the academics who looked back at the passion plays (generally, they were a bit sniffy about 'vulgarity') or the governments that banned the plays in the first place. It certainly messes about with the New Testament stories, and has plenty of naughty bits. It appears to aim for blasphemy, filtering the life of Christ through popular culture and having Jesus snog Judas for, like ages. 

But, like in Wilde's Salome, the power of the scriptures allows them to sit comfortably alongside profane passions, with the eroticism lending the Christianity a confrontational bite. Watching that, it makes more sense that the powers wanted the passion plays banned. The Gospel emerges as a critique of any culture it addresses. 

Ideas stolen from Perverse Midrash

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