Jerusalem: Dramaturgy & Mystery

In my previous post on Benedictine hospitality in the theatre, I wrote the following:

One example of hospitable care for the audience is dramaturgy – providing the audience with information about the play that will help them understand the show, such as background information about its symbolism or language they might not have, but which is necessary if they are to enter fully into the work.

I recently read an account of one actress’s experience seeing the Broadway show Jerusalem, which transferred from the West End. Jerusalem is a play about both modern and mythic England. Though the actress, Sarah Wharton, had a deeply ‘visceral’ experience – ‘the kind of response that allows me to understand the kind of energy people feel when they describe a deep religious experience’ – she was unable to understand why she was moved, and attributed her confusion to a lack of information provided by the production about the play. She felt unable to access the deeper meaning of the play because, as an American, she was unfamiliar with its symbolism – such as the national and religious significance of the titular hymn, and the celebration of St George’s Day. She longed for guidance in the simple form of programme notes – not so much to give away the events or meaning of the play but to teach her a bit about its mythical language. The notes would help her understand the historical and religious depth of the story when she met it as opposed to experiencing only its emotional depth.

One can argue that it is sufficient to experience an artwork’s emotional depth and that intellectual understanding of its symbolic language might actually get in the way of that experience. In fact, one commenter on Ms Wharton’s account, writing as Jez Butterworth (the name of the Jerusalem playwright), seems to make this argument. He writes, ‘You don’t need any more information. Nowadays, with the Internet there’s a hope to clear up mystery with facts. It’s about the mystery. Not knowing. Feeling.’

However, I would argue that mystery is not about ignorance, but about sensing deeper levels of meaning, below those which can be articulated. Mystery is about touching the bedrock of Truth, in which you have an experience that can never wholly be put into words. If Mr Butterworth’s play no longer had any mystery after Ms Wharton received the information she sought, it would not actually be a very mysterious play. However, Ms Wharton seemed able to sense that there were deep levels of mystery to the play, but she was unable to access many of them because she simply did not have the vocabulary.

The job of a hospitable host is to know and serve his guest’s needs. In this case, the guests were Americans who might not be able fully to enter into a play about a particularly English national mythology. By serving their needs through providing information about the play’s symbolism, the play’s producers might have been able to help Ms Wharton and others like her access those deeper levels of mystery which the playwright created.

(NB: I have not yet seen Jerusalem, but am looking forward to seeing it on Broadway in two weeks.)

Author

  • Cole Matson is an actor, producer, and arts administrator. He received his PhD from the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts in 2016.

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