Oh Holy Theatre, thy stars are brightly shining…

This time of year often makes me wax poetic.  I don’t know if it’s the memories of my amazing parents giving everything they had to make sure their sons got Christmas presents.  Or maybe it’s the memories of spending the night at my beautiful grandmother’s house on New Years Eve, banging pot and pans and ringing the dinner bell at midnight.  Maybe it’s the residue of the memories of another year passing by.  Maybe it’s the smell of pine in the house.  I don’t know why, but I’m a victim of this season as much as anybody.

But I have always claimed I’m the furthest thing from religious, and much of what makes this season special is centered around religion (even if it’s paganism, a religion I share some common ground with).  So what gives?

Over the past few weeks I’ve put some thought into it…

…and I’m gonna blame it all on the theatre.

I am not religious.  I am a thespian.  Some people read a Bible for their social rules and codes.  I read Shakespeare.  I have never done a page-by-page comparison, but I have all the reason in the world to believe that the rules and codes we supposedly take from our “good books” are just as debated and probably more realistically represented in the First Folio than in any other collection of work in Eastern or Western Literature.  This is has been the book I look to.

Harold Bloom tells us that Shakespeare literally invented the human, not in the sense that he built us like a God, but in the sense that he was the first person to categorize us as personalities (or characters) that compose the human condition each illustrated with realistic complexities.  This concept of searching for the truth in our actions (both in uniqueness and similarity) starts a slow march that leads us into the great psychological revolution of the late 1900’s.  Until his time, theatre was largely allegorical: shapes, sizes, silhouettes, archetypes performing tasks demonstrating moral and ethical lessons.  It was a world of early Fausts and Everymans.

But then Shakespeare came along and, as ’twere, held the mirror up to nature.  There is a reason we advise our children, “This above all: to thine own self be true;” we readily dilute  “the course of true love never did run smooth” down to song lyrics like “Love hurts;” and we continuously debate “what is honor?” in some framework we call politics.  We just call it “Life” and move on to the next “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.”  But in reality, it is because these people and their stories are the very foundations of who we are.  There is no debate because they are the debate.  These are people we can relate to while still retaining enough distance for their story to be allegorical.  I’m not certain I hold the same reverence for Job or Abraham or… actually, I know I don’t.

One of the biggest gripes I have heard about Shakespeare is that it is hard to “understand” (and then I get some elevated closing like, “given our current social context”).  I only understand this as a defense of ignorance, and by ignorance I don’t mean no book learnin’.   I mean the same ignorance that makes it impossible for some white people to ever understand hip-hop and some black people to ever understand, well… Shakespeare.  Some people build walls to keep out what they don’t understand and what they don’t know.  Some people go out in search of it.  Anyone I know who has taken the time to study the First Folio agrees on one thing: it is unparalleled in depth and scope.  And I bet, someone feels that way about the Bible.  I know I don’t.

But there is more to it than just Shakespeare.  When you do what I do, you can’t care about money; you aren’t allowed to care about failure; people’s opinions shouldn’t matter; you’re supposed to dedicate hours of study towards personal growth. People who do theatre for a living have no life.  We only have our religion… theatre.  (shudder) And we tend to sacrifice everything for it: love, relationships, jobs, careers, family, friends… sleep.  And we do it all in the name of something we call “drive.”

“I hafta do it.  Something in me tells me this is what I’m supposed to do.”

I hear it all the time.  I say it even more often than that.  What is that?  …other than a religion?  I mean we gather on a regular basis, we just call it rehearsal.  We memorize texts, fables, allegories and spread the word through performance complete with fancy costumes, smoke, and special effects… sound familiar?

Peter Brook (hallowed be thy name) breaks theatre down into four corollaries: Holy Theatre, Rough Theatre, Immediate Theatre, and Deadly Theatre.  Without, spending the time discussing the pure and utter genius behind each of these, I’m just gonna say that he goes to great ends to point out the fundamental and integral correlation between theatre and religion.  As the good Mr. Oscar Brockett tells us, much of what we consider to be our origins of theatre are the same as the origins of that decorated pine tree (ritual) and that lil’ baby Jesus (allegory).

So, I’m actually religious… probably verging on zealot.


But, as far as I know, no one has every killed in the name of Shakespeare.

Now I really need to consider my stance on churches as 501 (c)3’s.

PS:  …and that’s why I love the holidays



3 thoughts on “Oh Holy Theatre, thy stars are brightly shining…

  1. Theatre and Religion. Chicken and Egg. From Thespis to the Mystery Plays, it’s all tangled in it’s origins. But I hadn’t considered how it still applies today. Balls.

    I must consider the idea that I, too, am actually religious.

    Lovely writing, Rusty.

    And I’m stealing that pic.

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