AUGUST 6, 2001
Drama and the Divine
-- Martin E. Marty
Sighting evidences of religion in the theater is not difficult these days, if Celia Wren's report in the New York Times, 29 July 2001, is accurate. Finding audiences that do not squirm when religion does show up, or finding actors who feel comfortable in "saintly" roles is moredifficult. Wren interviews women who portray a Salvation Army trooper, a novice, and a devout churchgoer, in works by George Bernard Shaw, William Shakespeare, and others. She concludes that "Making piety appealing in a climate of modern skepticism would seem a Sisyphean labor for performers today especially women."
Why is this the case? For one thing, "purity" is out. Portrayals of "female goodness,"Wren writes, "can suggest age-old stereotypes of unworldly virgins and saintly prigs." Furthermore, the actors say that "outspoken spirituality" on stage seems to embarrass audiences.
The actors interviewed by Wren are serious women. They give the roles their best and reflect on what religion means in their lives and the lives of their audiences. Some confess to being drawn to the characters they play because the characters believe in something enough to rearrange their lives in light of it. Most of the actors are, however, a bit too ready to use words like "fanatic" and "self-righteous" in reference to Salvation Army and Catholic-religious sorts.
In describing their own faith, several used the familiar out: "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual." Diane Sutherland, who " was reared as a Catholic," said, "I'm not a super religious person. I think I'm a spiritual person. I pray a lot when I get fearful." Cherry Jones, who was "brought up a Methodist," believes "in a transforming power, whatever that means." Sanaa Lathan -- I've chanced to meet her, and was impressed -- "has no particular religious background but is 'spiritual'."
Why should they and their audiences be uneasy or dismissive when lives formed by the religious faiths adhered to by overwhelming majorities of the people of the world and this nation, get portrayed on stage? Are playwrights and actors presenting audiences with stereotypes and caricatures? Have the "fanatics" and "enthusiasts" so taken over the public roles in religion that other devout and devoted styles have been overlooked or forgotten?
In a culture where four out of five people identify with and profess a faith that sociologists call "Judeo-Christian," one has to assume that believers go to the theater. They must be members of the audiences allegedly embarrassed by outspoken spirituality. Surely the religion that they practice and experience outside of the theater isn't only "fanatic" and distorting. Why does "spirituality" continue to get a free ride in this culture when it produces "fanatics" and "enthusiasts" as readily as churches and synagogues do?
Wherever fault for this confused relationship between religion and the theater lies -- it seems that believing communities share responsibility with playwrights, actors, and producers, and "the culture" -- it is easy to agree with Wren's headline: "Trying to Act Saintly Nowadays Can Be a Hair-shirt."