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Theatre and Theology, Part III: Immorality Plays


"...surely there must be a way to demonstrate faith onstage, rather than just standing on a stage talking about it? That's the revolution I'm looking for -- a revolution of form."


Christian theatre.


Yeah. Kinda makes you cringe just to see it written, dunnit?


Christianity's produced some good art -- hell, some great art in the two thousand years it's been in existence, mainly in more respectable mediums like painting and music -- after all, we've got the Sistine Chapel and Handel's Messiah. You get to the realm of literature and things dry up a bit -- you've Dante Aligheri and John Milton, and, uh, well, Dante Aligheri. Then you get to the realm of theatre and if you're really lucky you'll see a tumbleweed with a cross on it blow by.


Greek religion gave us Aristophanes and Sophocles. Buddhism gave us Tang Xianzu. Existentialism gave us Ionesco and Beckett. And Christianity gave us medieval morality plays.


Let me be very clear here. Morality plays are not good theatre. There have been some very good productions of them, but make no mistake, they are the product of some remarkably inventive directors, not any virtue that the surviving scripts themselves possess. At best, they're trivial -- at worst, condescendingly didactic.


The reason that these Christian plays remain such a bloated embarrassment on the history of theatre is simple -- they are the product of bad theology, of a philosophy that purports to be about good and evil, but regards the portrayal of evil to be evil itself -- the same theology that insisted on giving us saints who were sinless, despite this being in flat contradiction with every religious text ever written, the Bible included -- the same theology that gives us crappy Christian comics with a cuddly Christ cradling kids who never faces persecution, that gives us shitty Christian rock lyrics that never get any fucking deeper than "Go into the light, come out of the dark." Christian theatre that doesn't squarely confront evil isn't Christian theatre at all, it's something else entirely, something that you'd have to be completely brainwashed to find even remotely tolerable, let alone fool yourself into believing that you're entertained by it.




I don't believe in Asian-American theatre.


Excuse me. Let me clarify.


I don't believe that Asian-American theatre exists.


Uh, let me clarify again.


For me, a genre of theatre must be defined by form, not content. The blues is African-American music, not because black people played it, but because it was infused at every level with elements of both black and white music. Eminem can be a rapper (no matter how much I may want him to stop), but that doesn't make rap a white man's art form. And Henry David Hwang may write interesting, compelling scripts, but they're not Asian-American theatre -- they're kitchen-sink drama with Asian people in them.


(I'm being a bit provocative here. I'm perfectly aware of attempts to combine elements of Asian and American theatre -- Theatre Mu, for example -- but my point is that this isn't a widespread tradition.)


So, to expand my point, not only do I not believe in Christian theatre, I don't believe that Christian theatre exists. I must insist that my definition of Christian theatre be somewhat broader than "theatre that has Christ in it."


Absurdist comedy, I think, gives us an excellent counter-example: the key aesthetic and principles of existentialist philosophy (hopelessness, meaningless, the absurdity of existence) were given form in the form of the play itself.


So I think that this is the other reason so much of Christian theatre sucks. There's countless heartfelt, earnest, "journey-of-faith" solo shows out there. Some of them are quite good. Most of them are fucking terrible. Jumping back to what seems to be a recurring theme for me -- "theatre is seeing stuff happen" -- surely there must be a way to demonstrate faith onstage, rather than just standing on a stage talking about it?


That's the revolution I'm looking for -- a revolution of form. And I guess I'm naive and idealistic enough to hope that venues like the Spiritual Fringe are the starting points for something like that to happen.