Scene4 Magazine: Nathan Thomas |
Nathan Thomas

The Devil Is In The Details           


February 2014

Hamlet would be a shorter play if Hamlet were an atheist.

We don't have a clue as to whether Hamlet belongs to some Trinitarian creedal system.  Indeed, I've heard Hamlet spoken of more than once as an example of existential hero. But that isn't the case.  A rather important hinge of the play is that both Hamlet and his Uncle Claudius believe in some sort of divinity and some sort of post-Earth existence. 

Does this make Hamlet a "Christian" play?

In the Eumenides Orestes is hounded by Erinyes to Athens, where Orestes seeks succor at the feet of Athena. Ultimately Orestes argues his case in the presence of the people of Athens, along with Apollo and Athena. Leaving aside the niceties of Greek theology, the clear idea is that Apollo and Athena are deities.

Does this make the Oresteia a religious play?

Stella Duffy wrote a play called The Book of Ruth (and Naomi) for the Bush Theatre's The 66 Books project.  Based on Ruth in the Bible, it's a short play for two women that recounts the essence of the story from the point of view of two women – Ruth and Naomi.  There's no mention of any divinity of any kind.  There's no engagement with ideas about any post-Earth existence of any kind.  The audience sees two women who clearly love each other very deeply in the present of the world of the play.

Because the source material comes from the Bible, does that make  The Book of Ruth (and Naomi) a religious play?  A Jewish play?  A Christian play?

Living in the post-Christian, 21st Century post-post-modern world – it may seem odd to ask these questions.  But they've been on my mind.

Recently our theatre staged a piece called Creation: Sex, Violence, Magic, and a Darn Good Story.  It included a series of short plays and devised pieces that evoked some of the stories from the Bible.  One of the usual comments about the piece was that it probably meant more to religious people than the person who was making the comment. I think "religious people" was euphemistic for "Christian people."  And these comments led me to ponder again religion in the theatre.

Most people, I think, give some thought to the wider universe outside their personal, everyday sphere.  Is there some existence after we're done traversing this old world? What is the divine?  I think many, if not most, folks ask questions like this in private moments. 

The theatre is nothing, if it is not a place where humans get together and work through the multiple relationships and situations of being human. The history of theatre is littered with ghosts and gods of all kinds.  So there must be some interest in the question of human beings relative to some divinity of some kind.

There are two aspects of this I'd like to see if I can "unpack."

First, there's an unspoken assumption in our post-Christian world that the Bible is primarily about Christianity.  It's the Good Book.  It has all those Jesus stories in it.  So the Bible must be about Christianity.

This is problematic on multiple levels.  For example, this assumption seems to rest on an implied foundation that forgets that the majority of the Bible occupies a place of reverence for Jews  -- the "People of the Book." 

Even leaving that aside, large portions of the Bible are not collections of pious proverbs.  Lot's daughters get him drunk so they can have sex with him and have children fathered by someone in the tribe.  Saul consults a witch who seems to be able to raise up a dead person for advice.  The elders of Israel get a pretty young woman to lie with David as an old king to see if he can still get an erection, and thus show sufficient vitality to retain leadership of the nation.

What the Bible mostly is, is a collection of stories (and verse) about humans contemplating a universe that may or may not have divinity in it and what that means.  Even that notion of divinity shifts around.  Sometimes divinity is a god on a mountain.  Sometimes divinity is a tribal deity.  Sometimes divinity can be haggled with.  Sometimes divinity is so far removed from humanity as to be unrecognizable. Sometimes there's no divinity at all.

Pretty much the same range of ideas you get from a bunch of junior high kids having a serious conversation, realizing that they think about serious things.

Lest some think I "protest too much," certainly the Bible is of importance to Christians.  I wouldn't suggest otherwise.  But I do want to draw attention to the distinction between how some folks treat the Bible as an idea and what it is.

Therefore, if we can posit that some of the material is religious, then some of the material in the Bible is not particularly religious. And we can safely say, then, that theatrical material based on Biblical source material need not be religious as an a priori necessity. 

Second, theatre is intensely human.  On the stage we see, hear, and experience the distillation of all humanity – the good, the bad, the funny, the intensely tragic.  It's not surprising that the reflective Greeks – the same people who produced the philosophies of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and so many others – would use this new medium to ask questions.  Where does fate come from?  Even if a man strives to prevent killing his father and marrying his mother, it happens anyway.  Is that because of some divine action?  If a man's mother murders his father, isn't the man just in avenging his murdered father by slaying his mother?  What is justice?  If there are competing ends to justice, which end should be given priority?  Why?  Who decides? Is there a life after life?  What happens then?

The history of theatre is full of plays in which the human enterprise at the center of all drama asks questions about the divine and the relationship of the human to the divine.

In the end, I think the thing that surprised people about our show was that instead of using a place-holder like a story about Apollo, we used stories linked with the on-going belief system of some people. And we encountered the anxiety of people caught in between belief systems. 

And so we did the work of Thespis[1].  We sang a little.  We danced a little.  We stood up in the seeing place and asked questions about what it means to be human. We asked questions about divinity. We asked questions about what that all meant.

Then Solon comes along and disapproves.  It's all lies.

Sometimes I think we're closer to some things when we're kids. Those serious junior high students aren't completely crazy.  Sometimes divinity is a god on a mountain.  Sometimes divinity is a tribal deity.  Sometimes divinity can be haggled with.  Sometimes divinity is so far removed from humanity as to be unrecognizable. Sometimes there's no divinity at all.

And what better place to ask the questions than the theatre?

[1] Gerald Else suggests that Thespis is a "shortened" name, and, thus, short for "thespesios" or "thespioidos" – divine speaking, or, divine singing. . . . .

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a Senior Writer and
Columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles,
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February 2014

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