On the Presence of God, Religion and Spirituality in the Theater

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A story — more like an op-ed — in the U.K. Telegraph got my attention this morning. During this holy week for Jews as well as Christians, Dominic Cavendish has written “The God-Shaped Hole in Our Theatre Culture,” a kind of indictment of the lack of plays on British stages that deal with God, religious and spirituality, although his real beef has to do with God, however one might define that. Specifically, he writes about

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Oscar-winning actor, director and comedian Roberto Benigni performing his acclaimed solo show ‘TuttoDante’, to five-star acclaim. And one of Italy’s most revered theatre directors, Romeo Castellucci, has just installed his triple-headed radical response to The Divine Comedy to the Barbican for a week.

And what bothers Cavendish, apparently, is the idea that works that deal with “the big stuff: dying, damnation, redemption, salvation” are being brought to the Brits by Italians. He says that fact “is shaming – or at least rather telling.”

What bothers me about what bothers Cavendish is that the story he has written smacks of an editor telling a writer to go out and find a trend story to fill some feature space in the news hole and then coming up with a half-baked and not quite well-thought-out enough idea that is marred by what tonally feels like faux-outrage and faux-concern. “I’m not a God-squad type,” he writes…

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“I’m a beyond-lapsed Catholic. Yet something in me shudders at the thought that the only reference to a divine creator anywhere apparent on our stages this fortnight so far as I can tell, aside from the noble Italian invasion, is in His Dark Materials at the Birmingham Rep, where God, sorry ‘The Authority’, isn’t so much dead, as in need of a mercy killing.

Well, why does something in him shudder if he’s beyond-lapsed? Where is it written that any theatre community must have this amount or that amount of work on religious, or on any issue? It’s like saying in the 1970s and early 1980s there were this number of plays about the Vietnam War and now, so as never to forget about it, the American stage should always have this number or that number of plays about the Vietnam War. Or gay issues. Or kitchen sink dramas. Or Shakespeare. Or the Greeks. Or revivals of plays from the Spanish Golden Age. Or Miller and Williams and Albee. Or musicals. Or any other genre or any other subject. Cavendish goes on to remind the reader — or maybe it’s really just himself — that “our rich theatrical tradition sprang from the church,” which is true, of course. He goes on to outline a short history of Morality and Mystery plays and quotes playwright Peter Gill’s assertion…

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“If it hadn’t been for the York Realist [one of the York Mysteries’ clerical authors], Shakespeare would have been a second-rate writer like Goethe.”

Ouch — so now let’s repurpose an attack on 18th and 19th century Germans?

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Cavendish’s real point is that “for better or worse, religious faith has become a major feature of this new century” and it “warrants consideration.” He puts forth a very selective list of plays that this or that company might take on, a list that includes works by Calderon, Fo and Strindberg. He suggests taht “we could even have a set of commissions that specifically set out to explore faith today. Or would that be to bring down the wrath of militant atheists?”

More ouch. If there aren’t enough plays running in the U.K. that are, for his taste, directly related to God, religion and faith, that does not mean there is clear and irrefutable empirical evidence that the theater is run by “militant atheists.” Indeed, here in America, where religious fervor is considerable more visible and vocal than in the U.K., evidence of spirituality in our theater artists is just about everywhere. What about how the Actors Temple, right on West 47th Street, has been saved by its availability as an Off-Broadway house, offering increased visibility at a critical time for that congregation? We have gospel musicals and, of course, St. Malachy’s, known as the Actor’s Chapel. We do not hestitate to present plays such as, to take one example, the recent Roundabout Theatre Company revival of A Man for All Seasons. We deal with spirituality in Off- and Off-Off-Broadway work all the time — just look, for heaven’s sake, at the Civilians’ This Beautiful City and how, in creating documentary theater around the evangelical movement in Colorado Springs, Colo. without necessarily taking sides, especially where Ted “I’m-Not-Gay-I-Have-Urges” Haggard is concerned.

Bottom line: I’m not in the U.K., I can only speak for my community. But Cavendish’s cavils strike me as too coy by half. He should take a look around. I bet he’ll find belief in the strangest and most unexpected of places.

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Well, sitting here today thinking about this, I realized that we have plenty of God, religious and spirituality in our theatre.

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UPDATE: Read this story in Slate on the current crop of Passion plays.