Since the very birth of theatre and religion, each institutions has attempted to interpret and give meaning to human existence. Indeed, it is no small leap to contend that they have always been linked, and that, together, they belong to the very roots of Western culture itself. Ancient Greek drama was integral to religious festivals, where the Attic gods were honoured on-stage in both comedy and tragedy alike. Hundreds of years later, Medieval morality plays pitted personifications of good and evil against one another, as they resisted temptation and discovered virtue. As vastly different in genre as they may have been, each one of these plays sought out to extol the exact same message; know your place, and honour your Gods. Contemporary theatre operates on a similar basis today, whereby the most pressing social issues can be explored, examined and, in some cases, excoriated, in one of the most public spheres there is; on-stage, before an audience, for performance after performance. And yet, the value of such process that is an extradiegetic piece of drama is often underestimated; perhaps this is due to the intense animosity that has existed for so long between divine teachings and the dramatic arts.
In 2019, religion is now rarely put on stage for any other reason than to criticise it. In New York City, home to the famed Broadway (as well as 6,000 churches, 1,000 synagogues, and more than 100 mosques, not to mention other religions) religion is spoofed, lampooned and jeered at, for 10 performances a week. Godspell —a 70’s psych-trip adaptation of the Gospel of St. Matthew— has undergone a total of 11 iterations, while iconoclastic rock-opera Jesus Christ SuperStar is currently touring the USA for its 50-year anniversary. The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, plays fast and loose with imagery that it just as often lewd as it is liturgical. These shows have been nominated for a total of 18 Tony’s —perhaps the highest honour a Broadway play or musical can aspire to— and have won half that.
On the other hand, as successful as irreverent song-and-dance shows may be, very few straight plays pay tribute to the power of religion— they instead seek to condemn it. Either way, for an institution like the church to be castigated or caricatured on-stage is hardly beneficial. Here, it’s fair to assume that most playwrights tend to be more liberal folk than most, and perhaps their concerns over religion’s place in society are legitimate ones, particularly in the United States.
This is likely due to the fact that, despite the overt messages of love, charity and equality that are imbued in most mainstream faiths, religion has been traditionally linked with more right-leaning politics— think of the alliance between the Republicans, (the party of 'big business') and Evangelical Christians in North America. This is a relationship that more liberal playwrights often seek to chastise. Liberal playwrights seek to expose conservative church-goers. And so, when used to galvanise the masses (whether that be for good or ill) religion is a decidedly potent force. So perhaps the question of playing with it in such a public arena is more disquieting than initially thought.
Conversely, perhaps the anxieties of these playwrights are more to do with their aesthetic concerns than their political ones. After all, drama is an art form that thrives upon the willing suspension of belief; as the curtain is raised, audiences must voluntarily surrender to the fact that Aaron La Vigne is in fact Jesus Christ of Nazareth— as he currently is, performing miracles and suffering for them, night after night, all across North America. Similarly, theatre-goers are expected to believe that actors who bear no physical resemblance to one another are, in fact, mother and so.
While this sort of trust is not quite on the same level as accepting a wafer as body and wine as blood, drama —like religion— seeks to dismiss immediate sensory perception, in favour of psychic conviction. And there are other parallels, too– costume, props, and presence of an audience are all used to assist in the performance. Regardless of whether audiences are putting their hands together in prayer or in applause, the similarities between these two bodies are irrefutable.
Drama, it seems, demands its own kind of worship. Theatre then arises as a competing creed, that might render other belief system somewhat shaky.
And so, to undermine the each other’s merits, these institutions have found ways to minimise their adversary’s credibility or command. Clergy have argued that to portray divinity within theatre is rarely viewed as little other than a sacrilegious attempt at blasphemy. Meanwhile, dramatists regularly deride zealous moralists of the cloth. The words of The Book of Mormon’s Jesus spring to mind here; “You blamed your brother for eating the donut, and now you walk out on your mission companion? You’re a dick!” Yes, that actually happens. Here, as in countless other plays and musicals, the religious is made out to be ridiculous— a source of irreverent comedy that tries to send up divinity. A comparable jab was taken (albeit with wild contrasts) when puritans shut down all London theatres entirely in 1642. In this case, sacred institutions could do little to quell the riotous roistering of the theatres— so they put a stop to them completely.
In spite of the clear parallels that are shared by the stage and sect, it is rational to assume that the tension between the playhouse and the prayer-house is purely birthed from an insecurity, that the one is becoming more popular —and therein more significant— than the other. However, both institutions have evidently stood the test of time, admittedly with some trials along the way. Perhaps a collaboration across the pair that unites script with scripture is the best option, in the vein of modern-pay Passion Plays. In such an environment, both religion and theatre alike can safely flourish, with active discourse between the two integral to their mutually-assured growth.