Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (Dylan Thomas)
In his recent memoir, Leaving Alexandria, former bishop Richard Holloway observes in an Aristotelian moment that life’s losses marking the process of aging are rehearsals, real enough, of a terminal, permanent severing from life. ‘The blight man was born for is not just time and the way it conducts us to the big exit at the end of the road, but the way it makes us rehearse that departure over and over again through other partings, other losses.’ Nevertheless, he adds to his wry commentary that ‘[i]t is possible to be an accomplished leaver, yet for something in us to cry out at the violence of separation’ (p. 81). Aristotle—who in defining ‘tragedy’ may well have been the first to coin the aphorism that ‘Life’s a *****, and then you die’—would have agreed.
In his Poetics, Aristotle is centrally concerned with art and the poetry of the stage as ‘imitations of life’. In describing the nature of the staged tragedy, Aristotle asserts that the theatre rehearses the ‘pity and fear’ shadowing our common realisation that life lies ultimately beyond our control. The ‘repetition’ of life’s ultimate unwieldiness registers in the aesthetic arena something of (what Dylan Thomas described as) ‘the dying of the light’. The poet’s raging pen notwithstanding, the tragedy rehearses on the stage the shape and feel of life’s irreversible endings. This obtains some measure of understanding, however temporal it might be, but most importantly a katharsis or ‘purging’ of delusions about resisting the thrust of such indomitable forces.
So, for Aristotle (at least on my liberal translation of 1449b.1: 24-25, 28), tragedy is ‘an imitation of an action of serious and terminal consequences in the form of an action portraying the shape and feel of such suffering’. In the controlled scope of the performance, tragic theatre rehearses both the protest against life’s finality and our powerlessness against it.
This contested definition rests on the conventional principle that theatre is the imitation of life, so that what is particular to the live performance is the embodied re-presentation of human action. ‘[T]he enacted play’, therefore, ‘is the one art form, excepting the dance, that imitates human action in the medium, one might say, of human action. The actor is that unique creature who passes through a whole life in a few hours and in so doing carries the spectator vicariously with him’ (B. States, 1985:49). The acting stage, in other words, is an instrument through which we respond to and experientially reflect on the fact that life is essentially tragic.
For the early Christians, this posed a problem of theological proportions. They therefore opposed the theatre on the principle that divine truth embodied, and to that extent, ‘performed’, in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, could not accept challenge from the dramatic simulacrum of the stage. The Christian story, along with the doctrines and practices of the Church, provided believers with a multi-faceted scope through which to consider critically the totality of (not only piety exercised within the ekklesia but also) a faith exposed to public perception. The fact that this positioned existing arguments about the theatre directly within theo-logical and ecclesial (and eventually, liturgical and ecclesiastical) space begins to explain why Christians came to see the theatre as a creaturely appropriation, and therefore subversion, of the God-given shape of reality.
Evidently, under the weight of the doctrines of Creation and Incarnation, Plato’s original argument against the idea of the theatre (The Republic, X.599)—that an inherently Promethean impulse made dramatic performance an intrinsically ungodly business—found new form in Christian opposition to the stage. Any serious attempt to deal with the historic friction between Christianity and the theatre will therefore need to in some way confront the question of theatrical mimesis, which sits uncomfortably, not least, next to notions of sacrament and symbolic representation in worship, and indeed given the radical New Testament insistence that, as Christians, ‘you have become mimes… after the Lord’ (1 Thes. 1.6). The question could be posed simply as ‘can the instrument of the tragic become a mimetic vehicle of hope?’
At issue is whether there can be such thing as ‘Christian theatre’, which both anticipates the tragic and enacts signs of the hopeful? The subversive totality of the tragedy makes the dramatic stage a casualty of its own portrayals. So could it seriously bear the reversal of death central to the Christian narrative? Can the serious theatre, in other words, rehearse transpositions of life made new in Christ?
Dr. Ivan P Khovacs is a Senior Lecturer in the Theology & Religious Studies department at Canterbury Christ Church University. After a university degree in Dramatic Arts (UC Santa Barbara), a short career in theatre production led him to formal theological study (Vancouver & St Andrews), with an interest in probing dramatising structures central to human understanding of God and his self-revealing in Christ. He is a cycling enthusiast, which means he is happier talking about it than actually doing it, and especially when combined with a reluctant, though nevertheless growing interest in overly-hopped Kentish ales.
All this material, which may be freely cited with due reference, is part of ongoing academic research towards publication, and therefore remains the intellectual property of © I.P Khovacs.