Religious Roots

"What's past is prologue..." - The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 1

Nearly every theatre tradition in the world can trace its roots back to some form of religious expression. I feel that we, working in a western theatre tradition, could better understand why. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for us to dismiss the theatrical in religious practice as being no more than a tactic of the priest, a little entertainment on the side, a sugar coating on the bitter pill of religious dogma. And when we dare to look deeper, even to equate theatre and religion, we often get lost in facile speculation about the ritual origins of drama.

What is it that religion and theatre do have in common? Both are cultural mechanisms that can help us to better understand ourselves. To this end, they both employ some form of the act of portrayal. And in both cases, it is we who are being portrayed. When we see Hamlet's confusion or Juliet's love on the stage, we recognize ourselves. The same is true of the gods. Whether we talk of Achilles' heel or Thor's hammer, of Christ's forgiveness or Buddha's asceticism, we are talking about ourselves. The Pantheon, that house where the gods live, which might as well be any theatre, is just an empty hall of mirrors. We are looking at reflections of ourselves. When we say "God made Man in his own image," what we really mean is that Man made God, all the gods, in his. But it is never a true likeness. The mirrors are curved. The gods we create are human indeed, only more so. It is this "more so" that gives them the right to be called gods, that gives them a special resonance. They may be more vulnerable, more brutal, more passionate, or occasionally even wiser than we. They are nearly always more demanding. But nevertheless, they are we, in an exaggerated or distorted form. It is this exaggeration that makes them so dramatic, so fitting for the stage.

"How like a god," said Shakespeare, a man who created as many gods as anyone. In those days they knew how to fill the stage. But God was to die, and superman never flew. It was the mistake of twentieth century theatre to show us ourselves as we are, to replicate us rather than to portray us. But did we lose our need to see ourselves as gods? No. One of the worst side effects of this move towards naturalistic acting has been the rise of the star system. When the dramatic roles of the twentieth century were robbed of their god-like qualities, the poor actors themselves were forced to become gods and goddesses, portrayed not on the stage, but in the glossy magazines.

A theatre for the twenty-first century needs actors with bodies and voices that can transform our day-to-day realities into something divine. It must address our needs and dreams and conflicts and fill them with great passion, without losing touch with their human origins. This is no easy task. It requires technical skill and emotional courage. But it is when we project ourselves upon a larger canvas that we are most clearly revealed to ourselves. We must see ourselves as gods in order to understand ourselves as human beings.

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Jonathan Paul Cook © 2010