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Theater is church. Sort of.

Theater is church.

 

Well, it used to be, at least.

 

We look at theater today and, at least in many aspects, we see anything but the idea of church in it. You will not likely find your local Baptist Players doing a production of “O! Calcutta!”

 

When we think of theater history’s roots, we tend to travel back to the 5th century BC in ancient Greece. You should at least know a couple of the playwrights’ names: Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristophanes. The first three were the T.S. Eliot, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller of their day; the last was his century’s Neil Simon… and we’ll have to wait another 4 or 5,000 years to see if our guys’ staying power is as great.

 




With the exception of Aristophanes – who pretty much satirized everything he could lay his quill to—these men presented the tragic heroes of Greek mythology – Oedipus Rex, the king known for marrying his mother, for instance. He didn’t realize she was his mom, by the way, and when he found out he stabbed his eyes out. Then there was Medea, the crazy lady who, to get revenge on her husband, poisoned all her children. No, she had nothing to do with Tyler Perry. Or how about Agamemnon? He was a primary player in the epic poem “The Iliad.” To get the wind he wanted to sail to Troy, a city he ransacked after a 10-year siege, he sacrificed his daughter and figured his wife would get over it. The play takes place when he comes home. She didn’t forget it.

 

And what point am I driving at? We call these stories mythology. To the Greeks, they were the stories of their religion – like our own present day “Godspell.”

 

Story telling was an important method of passing on faith to a population that was largely illiterate. The Greeks took storytelling, added actors to recite the parts, and largely invented theater. Call it story telling in 3D, if you will.

 

Through medieval history the Church was quick to take the lessons of the Greeks in portraying stories and morality tales based on the Bible.

 

One of the classics—which is still performed annually at Salzburg—is “Everyman.” Written in the 1400s, it presents the tale of a man who has wasted his life and finds he is dying. Death gives him a chance to choose companions, in the form of human traits, to go with him. He visits them all: from lust and greed to Knowledge and Good Deeds and Beauty. In the end, after a self-scourging to purify himself, he convinces Good Deeds to go with him and the pair enters heaven. Martin Luther would have cringed, but the Pope was happy. You’ve heard certain people or types referred to as “everyman.” This is where it came from.

 

For a couple of hundred years villages would turn out for a huge celebration of drama called the Corpus Christi (Body of Christ) Festival. Wagon after wagon would appear, each wagon sponsored by a particular trade. Those trades used their wagon as a stage and presented a tale from the Bible suggested by their trade. Carpenters might tell the story of Joseph, the father of Jesus, for example. Shipwrights would tell of Jonah, sheepherders the story of the Shepherds.

 

Directors today stay hidden, but at the Corpus Christi Festival he wandered around on the stage during the action.

 

Even today, drama is a strong voice in religion. Easter pageants are presented from the simplest dialogues to elaborate spectacles at churches around the world and nearly everyone has smiled as their little kids stumbled down the aisle in dad’s bathrobe to worship a Baby Doll in a makeshift manger.

 

Illiteracy is not the issue it was in the past, but drama is still the most powerful way of telling the stories of our society—both secular and spiritual. And the experience of live theater has a magic movies can’t touch.

 

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