Okay: I’m a bit nervous about this, but it’s time for me to weigh in on all the commentary I’ve been seeing about the connections between theater and religion. I know these are dangerous waters, but they’re important to me.
In the main, folks seem to be eager to find ways to connect the two institutions. It’s obvious that there are clear points of similarity between theater and religion; others have written about them in great depth, and I neither can nor want to ignore or disparage them, because they’re real. What’s less clear to me are people’s motivations for making the connection. They seem to have generally positive associations with religion, and as such the comparisons they make are made as compliments. My sense is that they intend the comparison to—in some ways—legitimize theater, if you will. If performances are sacred rituals, after all, that makes them… what, special? Beyond criticism? Valuable? I’m not sure.
As a secular humanist playwright, I’m naturally more than a little bit uncomfortable with the comparison, even if (as I’ve just said) I can see where it comes from. Where others see similarities between theater and religion, I see clear and important differences; where others would like theater to be practiced as a kind of sacred enterprise, I prefer to see it as a secular mode of investigation into the human condition—a clear alternative to what gets offered in (many, but by no means all) churches and synagogues and mosques.
I think it’s probably rather straightforward: whether a person likes or loathes the comparisons between theater and religion seems to hinge, unsurprisingly, on how that person feels about religion. I know I’m not alone among theater practitioners in not feeling so great about things religious… but I’ve never seen anyone take a whack at elucidating the differences, rather than the similarities, between the two institutions. I’d like to do that now.
Before I do, however, I want to do a small bit of scene-setting.
Unlike many other non-believers, I refuse to lump all religious adherents into one ugly negative category. To do so would be to do disservice to my fellow human beings; it would also quite thoroughly undermine my argument. Instead, I will say that I believe there are three predominant modes of religious belief that deserve to be teased apart before we continue.
First, there’s what I call the Fundamentalist Mode, in which the words of sacred texts are interpreted literally and belief is dogmatic and unquestioning. Second, there’s what I call the Moderate Mode, in which the words of sacred texts are interpreted metaphorically and belief is flexible and interpretable. Third, there’s what I call the Spiritual Mode, in which practitioners read and consider multiple sacred texts and ask a great many questions about belief. Quibble, if you will, with my modes—but they’re the modes I’m using as I continue here.
So: my contention is that when most people make the comparison between theater and religion, they have in mind the Spiritual Mode, or perhaps the Moderate Mode. When I see those comparisons, however, I think Fundamentalist Mode all the way… and to my mind theater and the Fundamentalist Mode of religion could not be any more different.
In the Fundamentalist Mode, rituals are performed again and again in specific and detailed ways; that’s what you expect when you go to a church, mosque, or synagogue. In theater, the ritual of performance is slightly different every night, and audiences aren’t expected to see the same play over and over again.
The aim of a great deal of Fundamentalist Mode ritual is to cement postures of belief and obedience in the minds and hearts of believers. The aims of theater are manifold, but cementing obedience is not typically among them. (It’s not why I make theater, anyway.)
Fundamentalist Mode ritual is always in service to a single set of stories taken from a sacred text or set of texts—books or scrolls that are supposed to proscribe morality and behavior. Theater is about creating new texts and contributing them to the cultural conversation about the world in which we live and how to live and behave morally—stories that are generally inquisitive rather than proscriptive.
Along these lines, Fundamentalist Mode texts are meant to be recited word-for-word as written and interpreted as literally as possible. Theatrical texts are typically meant to be interpreted in any number of ways—not only literally, but also metaphorically, psychologically, symbolically, politically, and so on—and they change, too, throughout the rehearsal process.
The Fundamentalist Mode is focused on dogmatic belief. Theater is the opposite of dogma.
These strike me as very important differences between theater and Fundamentalist Mode religion… the adherents of which, after all, represent approximately 25-40% of the population of the United States, depending on which survey data you believe (versus about 15% of us who are primarily non-believers). I assume they help you understand why I might find commentary noting how theater is just like religion a bit… problematic.
See, when you’re making those comparisons, they work two ways. It’s one thing, after all, to say that religion should be more like theater: questioning and open and exploratory. That I love. It’s another entirely to say that theater, in turn, should be more deified and religious: by doing so, you open it up to those Fundamentalist Mode impulses that could serve to destroy it. If the Fundamentalist Mode ever got its hands around the neck of theater, after all, we’d have nothing but (for example) the passion play, over and over again.
And that’s why I prefer to pay attention to the ways in which theater and religion are different, rather than similar. I sincerely believe theater is, at its core, a secular practice: in conversation with religion, yes, since religion is part of our culture, but not belonging to it.
Those of you who consider yourselves both theater practitioners AND believers… please know that I’ve tried very hard not to offend in this post, even if I haven’t succeeded. I understand very clearly that there’s a broad middle of the religious spectrum—the 45-60% I didn’t mention above—and that you’re probably somewhere smack dab in that group. I don’t lump you in with your more rigid counterparts; I understand that you have nothing against secular humanism, and that we share the same values in many ways, and that (for the most part) we all like a great variety of of stories, even if you give one particular set of them more weight than I do.
What I want to ask of you, though, is this: Do your identities ever come into conflict? If so, how do you resolve them? Do you see why I might be concerned about the theater-and-religion comparisons? Do you share any of my concerns, or perhaps sympathize with them? I’d like to know.