The Play’S The Thing—Or Is It?

Eighteen years ago, T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral awakened me to the use of drama as a means of modeling the Gospel. I was on the student staff at the American Baptist Assembly in Green Lake, Wisconsin, and it was my first real involvement with Christian theater. I was stunned by the beauty and power of Eliot’s verse and found the putting on of the role of Thomas Becket to be a personal challenge. It was a memorable experience. Since then I’ve spent a chunk of my life exploring the church-theater dimension, and I’ve worked out ways of using drama to convey a message about God and man, love, sacrifice, justice, redemption, and resurrection.

Many think that religious drama is a narrow, limited field, populated by saints and mystics, biblical characters in bathrobes, preachy clergy, and dei ex machina. But the field is really quite broad. Important playwrights from Sophocles to Arthur Miller have treated the basic questions of human identity and human destiny. Such questions are religious questions; therefore, while the plays may not talk about God, they are religious drama.

Roderick Robertson has said there are three basic areas of human experience that drama may treat; man’s state as unrelated to God; man’s search for ultimate reality, or God; and man acting in close fellowship with God, or as God’s agent in the world. Plays of the third type generally treat matters of conscience and often martyrdom. To illustrate the Robertson scheme further, there seem to be these three categories: drama of alienation (Rhinoceros, Death of a Salesman, Waiting For Godot), drama of religious experience or search (The Cocktail Party, J.B.), and drama of religious heroism (Murder in the Cathedral, St. Joan, The Cup of Trembling). Many plays, of course, combine elements of two or three categories.

We have, then, a lot of high-quality plays that treat religious questions. Granted, affirmative Christian drama of high quality is harder to come by. There is some, and we ought to be writing more. But we should also examine the plays written by non-Christians, for we need to know what modern artists are saying about life, though we may not agree with it. Unwillingness to do this is one of the complaints that as a Christian dramatist I have about some of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I find fault with my fellow Christians on some other counts as well. Let me explain.

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The Problem With Some Christians

1. They tend to confuse stage reality with life reality. Obviously, the stage is not the world, the play is not life reality. It is a subjective enlargement of an aspect of life. Confusing the two kinds of reality leads one to make mistakes like criticizing an actress for playing the part of a prostitute as if that real-life woman is somehow to be identified with the character she “puts on” while on stage. The stage is a place of make-believe. Often it’s necessary for Christians to play unbecoming roles so they may contribute to the play’s total impact, which may be affirmative and highly spiritual.

2. They tend to mistake biblical pageantry for good art. The traditional Christmas play with Mary, Joseph, and the manger is not generally good art. It may well have a valid function in the life of the congregation of God’s people; it may be a communal experience, a participatory act, an annual high time of inspiration as such plays were in the Middle Ages. But it is seldom fine drama. People should be exposed to more provocative, profound, artistic Christian drama. Perhaps we should do something rich and profound like Ward’s The Holy Family or Auden’s For the Time Being next December instead of the simple pageant.

3. Christians often under-react or over-react to certain kinds of dramatic material. My experience with chancel drama has shown me that people aren’t used to the idea of laughing in church, so it’s very hard to “loosen up” a congregation and get them to respond to humorous material. In the plays I have published under the title From Nineveh to Now, I have tried to use satire as a method of provoking self-reflection and self-improvement. By striking the funny side of faith we can often have a back-door influence on people and do it without moralizing. I wish that church people would see humor as one of the facets or faces of God and respond better to its use in a religious context.

About over-reacting: here I’m referring to how some Christians respond to some kinds of language. Drop one “damn” in a church play and you’ll lose perhaps 60 per cent of your congregation. After that they don’t hear anything else. Although some of them will sit through a ton of swearing at the Locust Theatre downtown or in front of the TV, they won’t accept a single four-letter word in a church drama. We did a college production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and two of our college administrators were aghast at hearing three “damns.” I wonder if they caught the play’s heavy message. The point is that if you overreact to certain words you may miss the message, and that message is a hundred times more important than the language in which it’s expressed. To turn off a play because you’re offended by a few words is like throwing out a dinner because there’s too much salt on the spinach!

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Some current plays are so full of filth and profanity that, while there may be some message in it all, it’s not worth wading through the mud to find it. I deplore such drama; it offends both my aesthetic and my moral sensibilities. We must condemn such so-called art and at the same time write material with better language and more affirmative values.

4. Christians often require a very explicit message. Some don’t think a play is religious unless there is a Christ-figure, or someone quotes Scripture, or it contains a heroic minister, or someone is converted in the traditional sense of the word. Some such plays are fine—many of them are inspirational—but the explicit gospel play may not provoke thought or change attitudes as well as cloudier, more subtle drama can do. There is a general rule (one that permits some exceptions) that the more obvious its message the less artistic the play. The trouble with much of the simplistic drama is that it’s not true to life. So here’s my conclusion, for what it’s worth: If you can say it as well in a sermon, write a sermon—don’t write a play. The sermon is a more explicit medium, more linear, unilateral, while the play is more abstract, multi-sensory, multilateral, and more involving. So don’t demand simple plays with obvious conclusions. The drama may be somewhat ambiguous, the moral left unstated; you have to grapple with it, work out your own interpretation. It’s a growing experience. I left a class of students recently feeling very “high” because while I was trying to help them understand MacLeish’s J.B., a rather ambiguous play, they had prodded my understanding and helped me to grow. MacLeish could have said it all more obviously, but we were glad he didn’t!

On The Task Of The Christian Dramatist

If we write plays for the church alone we’re not doing much evangelizing, for most of the pagans are outside its walls. It’s hard to write Christian drama, and even harder if it is to be performed in the theater as well as the church. The Christian writing for the theater must guard against moralizing—the critics will stomp on any play that seems preachy. The dramatist can preach in the sense of sharing his values, but the message must come through a logical development of action and authentic characters—not through lines so much as lives put on stage. Of course, that’s the best kind of witness offstage as well. So Christian drama must be dramatically sound as well as spiritually uplifting. This is a hard task and has been done successfully only a few times in writing for the theater. Perhaps the best examples are to be found in the works of the British Christian playwrights T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry.

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The Christian dramatist may choose to work only a limited area of religious experience and omit other areas. Dale Rott develops this point in a fine essay in the volume Christ and the Modern Mind (edited by Robert Smith). He doesn’t have to tell the whole Gospel at once. He may find insights coming from the negative dramatic work of people like Albee, Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett, who depict man’s loneliness and hopelessness without God. But he will not stop there. He must do more than expose man’s depravity, more than raise searing questions about human existence; he will start to work out some answers in terms of justice, love, reconciliation, and resurrection.

In an essay entitled “The Shrinking World of Christian Drama” (CHRISTIANITY TODAY, October 13, 1967) Nancy Tischler wrote:

The Christian artist … could also explore a Christian life that is not a series of sterile and confusing symbols but a pattern of grand emotions and real dignity. He could present (as Graham Greene has consistently striven to do) the reality of God’s presence in life. He could end his plays, not in futility and despair, but with a recognition that there is a power that can save and heal man and guide him so that he need not live in chaos. He could show men of God as something more than nervous Nellies, organization men, seducers, perverts, egotists, and weak-minded exponents of a worn-out system. He could explore the possibility that sins against our fellow human beings are not the only sins, that we may also sin against ourselves and against our God.… The Christian artist could emphasize salvation as well as sin, peace as well as turmoil, certainty as well as doubt.

The task of the Christian dramatist is huge. It’s more than just putting on pleasant Christmas pageants and finding plays with language safe enough to not offend anyone. The Christian dramatist will be careful in using language, of course, because he knows there is great power in words. And yet, to convey valid ideas he may have to offend people occasionally, just as any preacher worth his salary will sometimes administer spiritual shock therapy. The Christian dramatist will sometimes use plays to please and inspire only, but at other times his material will expose, disturb, awaken, or condemn. So be it. He too has a prophetic function.

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Gordon C. Bennett is assistant professor of speech and dramatic arts at Eastern College, St. Davids, Pa.

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