Last week, the following question was debated at NSA’s Disputatio: should Christians participate in drama? If I remember correctly, the two positions taken were:
- Affirmative: There is nothing wrong with drama per se and Christians can participate in it just as in any art form.
- Negatory: Christians have no business participating in drama until the historic objections to the art form have been answered.
I don’t really agree with either of these positions, but then I don’t exactly disagree either. I think drama per se has a potency that other forms of art don’t have (except perhaps movies), so I don’t we should just embrace it blindly. On the other hand, I think we will be best equipped to deal with the problems presented by drama if we participate in it, wisely, of course, without succumbing to the “no-holds-barred” attitude that most contemporary theater departments and companies are known for.
Today, I had the opportunity to respond to the debate and I did by doing three things. First, I tried to do away with the arguments of the negative side, or what I could remember of them. Second, I tried to quickly outline what I thought the real danger with drama/theater is. Third, I tried to give an argument for why we should do it anyway.
What I said:
Last week, we heard the following arguments against drama: it tempts one to seek glory, it is deceitful, and it arouses sexual tension. My responses: one may be tempted to seek personal glory in anything, including rugby. Adopting a character in a play is no more deceitful than adopting a position in a debate – and both are done for the sake of the audience. The sexual problem is real, but does not disqualify, as we will see in a moment.
The weightiest argument against acting is Augustine’s: it encourages the actor to adopt personas not his own. He may begin to think thoughts that are not his, to have feelings that are not his, and to experience desires that are not his. The process of doing this over and over can cause what Tony Kushner calls “permanent looseness in the core.” In other words, the actor becomes pure imitation and forgets who he is. This can carry over to an audience, too, incidentally, so that they also forget who he is (and sometimes, who they are). This is the most dangerous thing about acting in the theater – the constant balance to be both yourself and someone else. The sexual problem is just one aspect of this.
So why should we even bother acting? *Quid ergo theatrum et ecclesiam? *Like it or not, we are always becoming something. “Be imitators of Christ,” says Paul. “A student will become like his teacher.” “Thus shall a man cleave to his wife and the two will become one flesh.” Having your identity shaped by someone else is built into creation.
A good play well acted is like history in miniature, where actors have the opportunity to represent different parts of the real world. It is grounded in truth. Even actors playing evil characters can be truthful, as long as evil is portrayed as detestable. Just like any good story, a play catechizes both actors and audience, reminding them of the value of things like goodness, beauty, honor, bravery, etc. and the worthlessness of covetousness, envy, hate, and evil. But drama is especially potent because it emphasizes participation – which is why should not let it go to waste.