Christian Life, Politics and an Audience’s Authority

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.

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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.

4 Comments

  • Cole Matson says:

    One of the simultaneously exciting and troubling characteristics of these “post-theatrical” forms of performance is that they deliberately blur the frame between artistic performance and the performance of actions in “real life”. This blurring limits the ability of post-theatrical forms to be used as metaphors, because the separation between the metaphor and the actual thing to which it is being compared is reduced to non-existence. Or at least the metaphor changes: we stop saying that “Christian life is like X art form” and instead say “Christian life is like X non-artistic activity”. So if we’re talking about artistic metaphors for Christian theology, and post-theatrical performance deliberately makes it uncertain whether it is or is not art, what do we do with it?

    The question is further complicated when we try to evaluate the relationships. Are the relationships those of a performer or a spectator? Or two spect-actors? Or two people who are performing actions, but not within an artistic frame (such as a boy helping a little old lady across the street)? When have post-theatrical forms lost their value as a metaphor, because they’re no longer artistic, but are simply other everyday actions? (And is the point to remove the “art” by showing the “artifice” of everyday actions?)

    This frame-blurring makes it difficult also when groups take actions during their performances that, if they’re treated as non-artistic actions, ought to be condemned – like Ontroerend Goed’s Audience, in which they called young female audience members all sorts of names and attempted to pressure them into sexual exhibitionism, actions which, if they had happened elsewhere, would have gotten them arrested for sexual harassment (and which traumatised at least one targeted audience member). Part of the hesitation to use these forms – other than pure ignorance about them, or a desire to stick with the known quantity of the naturalistic proscenium stage, which I think is the main reason – seems to be worries about their acceptability. We’ve gotten to the point where we no longer think theatre inherently immoral. But there’s enough controversy about how these new forms are used, and what their purpose is, that I think we’re hesitant to engage with them, because we’re unsure whether they have the protection that we usually give “Art” (a protection which is itself questionable), or whether they should be evaluated as any other actions on the street.

  • Josh Edelman says:

    Thanks for your comment, Cole, and I agree with you far more than you might think. Yes, a huge part of the impulse towards post-dramatic forms (call them paratheatrical, performance art, live art, etc.) is a desire to break out of the safety and comfort that comes from the designation ‘Art.’ I just think that’s a good thing. The Christian life is not supposed to be safe or comfortable. A completely safe art form — which is what the critics charge bourgeois drama with being – would make a lousy metaphor for the religious life. Ask Gutierrez or Moltmann.

    But here’s my question. Why on earth should an action lose is power as a metaphor just because it’s real? Certainly we can take real things as a metaphor – a dead dog in the street, a sunset, a smile, a handshake – even when they’re not in the category ‘art.’ How is metaphor an exclusively artistic concern?

    Presumably, what you want to condemn about Oenterond Goed’s abuse of an audience member in The Audience is not the posttheatricality of that moment, but the abuseiveness of its. You’re judging their action on its own terms, and find it wanting. Fair and good. But the fact that some actions are condemnable should no more make you hesitant to engage with post-dramatic forms than the fact that some words are insults should make you hesitant to speak at all.

    • Cole Matson says:

      Josh,

      I actually think we’re more on the same page than we each realize.:-)

      I actually want to engage more with these forms, and your work has convinced me of the need to. And you’re right, metaphors using “real life” images aren’t any less real or powerful. I was just pointing out that if the discussion is about artistic metaphors for the Christian life, post-theatrical forms are going to drop out the less “theatrical” they are.

      I guess what I’m asking is, why do you think we don’t engage with them, and should we engage with them as art, as “real life performance”, or as this messy blurring of both? (I think I know what your answer would be, but I want to give you more room to say why.)

      Thanks!

      • Josh Edelman says:

        Isn’t thoughtful agreement what the internet is for?

        Part of what I like about performance studies is how it sits right at the edge between the arts and the humanities more generally. So the question of whether or not we’re using artistic metaphors – or performative ones, or real-life ones – is one I find a bit semantic. I want to use the metaphors from the performances I want to use – others can call them artistic or not, and I don’t much care.

        Why theologians don’t engage with this stuff is a good question. Partially, it’s a cultural difference – there’s still a lot of distrust and misunderstanding between theatre people and religious people, and even more trust between theatre scholars and theologians. The two groups just don’t talk. That’s a problem ITIA (amongst others) has done a lot of good work in trying to overcome. But I also think the safety and comfort I was talking about before has a lot to do with it. These performance art forms can be really, really unsettling – they’re designed to put human presence and human relationships under the microscope, and they’re not very forgiving of the flaws they inevitably find. They are profoundly awkward. It’s a tough pill to swallow not just for theologians, but for most everyone – which is why they’re not what you’ll see in the big West End theatres. As a scholar I find that challenge invigorating, but I certainly see how others might recoil from it.

        Thanks for your thoughts, Cole. And I’d be interested in others’ opinions on this stuff as well.

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