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The Narrative Arts as Substitute ~ Message and Meaning on the Stage

by Dale Rominger

In a review of Dennis Potter's Son of Man[1] Michael Billington[2] says the play offers a message of redemption and mercy as well as an opportunity for the audience to sense unity, a coming together. In other words, in both the drama and the performance in the theater, there is a meaningful message and ritual[3] the audience response to. Billington continues

It is as if, at a time of waning faith in organised religion, we look to the theatre to shore up and sustain our wilting beliefs...All I'm saying is that something significant and scarcely noticed seems to be happening in our culture which is that, as a counter to the materialism of the age, we increasingly look to art, and specifically to theatre, to provide a substitute religion. God, we are told, is dead: I would argue He is currently very much alive in the British theatre.[4]

It may seem to religious institutions wearied by years of steady decline that Billington's assessment of the power of theatre (and I would add, cinema) is somewhat optimistic. Nonetheless, Billington makes a valid point. The narrative arts and religion have always been and always will be intimately related, sharing at least in part similar spirits, methodologies, and aims. They both want to address people's lives, defining and/or transforming their meanings. Whether it be a drama in a Soho theatre, a film in a shopping centre multi-complex, or the drama of worship in a local church, it is hoped that the performance will substitute, at least in part, for the everyday experiences of those present, that people will be challenged, and will ultimately appropriate in ethical attitudes and actions the message and meaning being played out.

Billington returns to this theme years later when he reviews Nativity by Peter Whelan and Bill Alexander. Once again he notes we are told we live in a post-Christian age and that we find in art

rather than organised religion an antidote to the materialism or the age…the supposedly secular society retains its hunger for mystery, with art now fulfilling the function once exercised by the divine service…I suspect that theatre, music and visual arts are what really stir our spiritual longings.[5]

Indeed, he confess that the show "aroused [his] dormant belief without insulting [his] reason"[6] (emphasis added).

It is in the narrative arts that we explore and represent what it is to live ethical, religious, political, social, ideological lives. It is important to remember the poetry of stage and screen does not simply represent the everyday but endows it with added power and meaning. Thus the trivial in everyday experience when seen in performance can be, for example, overwhelmingly emotional or forceful. Alan Read writes, to "value theatre is to value life, not to escape from it. The everyday is at once the most habitual and demanding dimension of life which theatre has most responsibility to."[7] And speaking of film, Jean-Claude Carriere says, "We thought cinema was outside us, whereas it clings to us like a skin. We had assumed cinema was mere entertainment, but it is part and parcel of what we wear, and how we behave, of our ideas, our desires, our terrors."[8]

What Read and Carriere say of drama and film can also be said of novels, novellas, short stories, poems, and television. We should not think of the arts as simply entertainment.[9] Obviously some artistic expressions are purely entertaining, but many are deeply theological and ethical, which is to say they speak about the nature of the sacred and the meaning of human life.[10] Some of the narrative arts are directly and consciously theological, like Dennis Potter's play The Son of Man, while others are indirectly or more subtly so, like Willy Russell's play Shirley Valentine. The numerous films about the life of Jesus are obviously religious, but, perhaps more surprisingly, Sylvester Stallone's movie Rocky uses (or abuses) the image of Jesus and a central Christ figure to frame the search for meaning in contemporary American life. The novel and film Ironweed by William Kennedy is a beautiful and rich exploration of theological concerns in human lives without belaboring issues of church and God, while film The Matrix is an overt retelling of the Gospel narrative. 

Personally, I think Billington's assertion is good news (even given his paternalistic and hierarchical language used for God), and not all that surprising. People have always been and always will be religious. Materialism, consumerism, science, technology, and ideology have not killed God and faith, but redefined and renamed both in their own images. And the search for religious meaning, the need for ritual and worship, the use of religious symbols and values to make sense out of life, have not ceased simply because the Church is in decline, having become boring and irrelevant to almost all except the holy huddle.

Religion is not now and never has been confined to the churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. Religious understanding, concepts of God, the meaning of our lives, and even religious rituals are being explored and acted on beyond the walls of our religious institutions. Margaret Miles goes so far as to say that "the representation and examination of values and moral commitments does not presently occur pointedly in churches, synagogues, or mosques, but before the eyes of 'congregations' in movie theatres." [11]

We can, of course, retreat and pretend that we hold a monopoly on religion and value formation. Or we can open our minds, thus learning from and being a challenge to cultural expressions of religion values.

Copyright © 2012 Dale Rominger

[1] Potter, Dennis. Son of Man: A Play. Samuel French: London, 1970.

[2] Billington, Michael. "Gospel According to Dennis." The Guardian, 20 October 1995.

[3] We should not underestimate the importance of ritual in theatre. While ritual may more easily be associated with religion, Richard Schechner points out that the "barriers between sacred and secular, like those between work and play, are both extremely porous and culture-specific." The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance. Routledge: London, 1995, p.228.

[4] Billington, Michael. "Gospel According to Dennis." The Guardian, 20 October 1995.

[5] Billington, Michael. "Barnstormers." The Guardian, 11 December 1999.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Read, Alan. Theatre & Everyday Life: An Ethics of Performance. Routledge: London, 1993, p.103.

[8] Carriere, Jean-Claude. The Secret Language of Film. Faber and Faber: London, 1995, p. 229.

[9] We should not, however, underestimate the interpretive importance of pleasure. Miles, Margaret R. in Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996, p.11 claims that "pleasure is a primary tool of interpretation" and that visual pleasure "is the place to begin primary motivation for analyzing a film" because "by producing visual pleasure, a film communicates values."

[10] See Martin, Joel W. & Ostwalt Conrad E. Jr. Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film. San Francisco: Westview Press, 1995, particularly pages 1-17.

[11] Miles, Margaret R. Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996, p.25.

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