Since last autumn’s Theatrical Theology conference at St Andrews, I’ve been mulling over Shannon Crago-Snell’s sophisticated and helpful reading of theatre as a metaphor for Christian life, specifically her refusal to assign particular roles to particular beings or groups – Christians as actors, the Holy Spirit as director, and so on. This impulse was a prudent one, I thought, as these specific roles are fluid and contingent anyway.
But I left her presentation with a nagging worry – the question of the audience. This is a more basic distinction than that between different roles. Even Brook’s empty space only becomes a theatre when someone watches someone else in it. This division of labour – that some people speak and perform while others watch and are silent – is the basic social arrangement baked into our understanding of what theatre is. It’s a power dynamic. And without addressing it, the metaphor of Christian-life-as-theatre will suffer a serious political blindness.
An example of what I mean. A while back, the great Evangelical blogger Fred Clark stumbled into the theatrical metaphor for the Church’s work in the world. In looking for a Christian response to the brouhaha over ‘Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day’ in the US, he tried to reconcile the expressed intentions of the protestors (‘We’re here for free speech!’) with the reactions of many non-Evangelicals (‘This is an anti-gay hate parade!’). To do so, he linked to a quite harsh comment on the event from a blogger named Sierra who had witnessed it. (‘This was no display of Christian love,’ she wrote. ‘This was an act of spite.’)
How can one get out of the trap of misunderstanding? Clark offers this:
Consider Sierra’s post a theater review. On August 1, American Christians put on a show. The reviews are in — hundreds of thousands of them. And Sierra’s is pretty representative. This is what the audience thought of the show. That’s not the sound of applause …. The cast disagrees with all of the reviewers: they misunderstood the play, or they failed to grasp its true deeper meaning, or they just stubbornly refused to appreciate the subtle nuances of the performance. I understand this impulse. I’ve been in some real clunkers myself. But the cast, the playwright and the director don’t get to correct the audience.
This is the best summary of the politics behind the theatrical metaphor I’ve found. The performers are the ones who are allowed to speak, but in the end, it is the spectators’ discernment that matters. But this is to grant the general public an extraordinary authority to sit in judgment over that life. That judgment must be done reasonably and fairly and sympathetically, but it is not in Christian hands.
And it won’t do to recast God in the role of the audience. This pushes theatrical metaphor past the breaking point. An audience enters the theatre in ignorance, unaware of what’s happening until the performers tell them. And yet, everything is done for their sake (their kavod, if you’d like). That’s not a contradiction we can assign to God.
The theatrical metaphor might turn out to be simply too much for Christian theology to bear. I can’t say. But if so, let’s admit it and turn our attention to newer, ‘post-theatrical’ forms of performance that model exciting and challenging new power dynamics between artists and spectators: Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed and Jerzy Grotowski’s paratheatre, of course, but also Belgium’s Ontroerend Goed or Britain’s Blast Theory. This is where the novelty and interest in performance lie these days.
But let’s be honest. No one is using such a post-theatrical metaphor for the religious life, no matter how much I wish they would. And so we’re back to the same problem. You don’t get to correct an audience, even if you have a truth—a hugely important, life-defining truth—that they lack. If you do, you’re doing something other than theatre. But if you’re not willing to make that leap, you will be bound by your audience’s (potentially ignorant) judgments.
Is that price too high? I truly don’t know. I welcome your thoughts.
Joshua Edelman is Fellow in Research and Enterprise at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, and the co-convener of the Performance and Religion Working Group of the International Federation for Theatre Research. His Performing Religion in Public will be published by Palgrave this autumn.