Theater began as religious ritual – that much is familiar to anyone who has
ever taken a theatrical survey course. But Robert Brustein, in a lecture titled “The Drama as a Secular Faith,” showed how the theater’s relationship to religion has evolved from ancient Greece to the present, changing from one of cooperation, to hostility, to a revolutionary schism in which the theater tried to substitute its own gods and theology.
Brustein, the founding director of the Yale Repertory Theater and the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) whose 40-year career in the theater has encompassed acting, directing, producing, playwriting, criticism, and teaching, delivered the Lowell Lecture Tuesday (Oct. 5), which is sponsored by the Harvard Extension School and the Lowell Institute.
The audience was sparse, the result of the lecture having to be scheduled on the night of the vice-presidential debate, but Brustein, paraphrasing Spencer Tracy’s famous remark on first meeting Katharine Hepburn, assured his listeners that “what’s here is ‘cherce,’” and proceeded to give a challenging and absorbing talk.
Greek drama, Brustein said, began as religious ritual, with the celebrants occupying the space now filled by the audience. The only extant ancient Greek trilogy, Aeschylus’ “Oresteia,” portrays a shift from the eye-for-an-eye justice of the Titans to greater fairness under the Olympian gods, with the last play, “The Eumenides,” presenting the first courtroom scene in theatrical history.
Aeschylus’ younger contemporary Sophocles tried to “justify the ways of God to man” in “Oedipus Tyrannus,” showing that the doomed king must suffer for unwittingly breaking a fundamental law of nature. Euripides, a later, more modern voice, demonstrated a new tone of skepticism toward the gods, alternating with expressions of anger at their cruelty.
Christianity, after tentatively adopting aspects of drama into its liturgy, later kicked actors out of the church. “The church called us rogues and vagabonds, which, of course, we are,” Brustein said. Mystery dramas and passion plays continued to be produced by the guilds, with each profession specializing in a particular biblical story. “Carpenters, for example, enacted the story of Noah, because they had the tools and skills to build an ark.”
In the 16th century, the Puritans railed against the theater, calling the impersonation of women by young boys “an abomination against the Lord.” When the Puritan leader Cromwell took over England in 1640, the first thing he did was close the theaters.
Earlier, however, Elizabethan dramatists demonstrated an ambiguous attitude toward Christianity. Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s brilliant but short-lived contemporary whom Brustein described as “the most God-fearing and God-obsessed playwright of the age,” wrote play after play in which fierce, blaspheming antiheroes defy God’s omnipotence.
Under the Stuart kings, English playwrights went further in portraying the disintegration of traditional values. The dark, violent dramas of Middleton, Webster, Tourneur, and Ford explore the consequences of human impulses and emotions freed from the restrictions of religion and morality.
In his later plays, Shakespeare developed this theme in disturbing ways. Villains like Edmund in “King Lear” inhabit “a naturalistic world without the constraints of the superego,” Brustein said.
“The landscape of Lear is irredeemably bleak. It is a nihilistic world-view, a moment in world history when the heavens crack, and we see the possibility of a life without transcendence, without a personal God.”
During the Enlightenment, writers sought to replace the God of the Bible with a god of reason. This intellectual and spiritual revolution sparked two important revolutions in the political sphere, those of America and France.
According to Brustein, the Enlightenment produced little in the way of great drama. The notable exception was Mozart’s 1787 opera “Don Giovanni.” The opera follows the career of “an enemy of God who defies all conventions in obedience to Nature.” Earlier dramatists portrayed Don Giovanni as a villain, but Mozart, “who had a natural affinity to this amoral skirt-chaser,” makes him “the most dynamic, compelling, and attractive character in the drama.”
Playwrights of the late 19th and 20th centuries, including Ibsen, Strindberg, O’Neill, and Genet, continued to develop the theme of revolutionary messianism, drawing their inspiration from Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the superman.
According to Nietzsche, the superman must replace God by developing a new value system through the power of art. Ibsen explored this theme in plays like “Brand” and “The Masterbuilder,” dramatizing the attempts of heroic characters to defy convention and impose their will on the world. The rebellious August Strindberg embraced a succession of philosophies, but ended up in the arms of the Church, leaving a tombstone engraved with the words, “Hail to the cross, the only hope.”
George Bernard Shaw created his own variation of the Nietzschean concept in plays like “Man and Superman,” presenting a Don Juan who is uninterested in sex and is pursued by a woman seeking to create the superman through a program of eugenic breeding.
Shaw rejected Darwinian natural selection as a force driving evolution, substituting instead the idea of the “Life Force,” derived from Henri Bergson. His five-play sequence “Back to Methuselah” proposes that the superman will appear when the human life span dramatically increases, allowing for the evolution of superior traits through accumulated wisdom.
Eugene O’Neill, also influenced by Nietzsche, believed that “the playwright of today must dig at the roots of the sickness of today.” Plays like “Lazarus Laughed” and “The Great God Brown” affirmed his belief that no god can save man until he becomes God. His later play, “The Iceman Cometh,” conveys the darker message that “salvation is impossible in a world without some form of transcendence.”
Jean Genet’s play, “The Balcony,” written after the idea of the superman had been violated by tyrants like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, shows a cynical, violent world in which revolutionary leaders turn into despots worse than the regimes they replace.
What of the present? Brustein believes that the worldwide wave of religious fundamentalism has made it all but impossible for playwrights to imagine new forms of revolutionary messianism. Instead, he said, Americans are paying more attention to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” – “a two-hour snuff film equating sanctity with sadism and piety with torture.”
And yet, he said, despite the triumph of orthodoxy, “there is always the possibility that some artist will formulate a new vision.”