Scene4 Magazine — Nathan Thomas
Nathan Thomas
What I’m Going To Do This Summer

The classic first assignment of the school year is to write on the theme – "What I Did Last Summer."  So classic is this idea that the phrase has its own life and has been used as the title of plays, movies, books, songs. . . . . blah blah blah.

By contrast I want to propose what I'm going to do this summer.

As an actor, I am (as the Brits say) "resting" this summer.  So the bald guy has an opportunity to do some study on two topics of interest.

The first has to do with the question of "thingness."  What make a thing a thing?  What makes it this and not that?  Are there intrinsic qualities that make something solely what it is – even in the absence of an observational context?  Easy enough to tell a rock from a paper clip.  But what makes the rock a rock and not a paper clip?  And can we apply some of those "rules" to behavior as well as to stuff?

The question arises from wondering what separates theatre from religious performance.  A Roman Catholic priest says the words of the Mass.  In a general explanation of Catholic theology, through transubstantiation the Eucharist becomes the Body of Christ.  So we have a thing.  But what made that thing that thing?

For purposes of forming the question, let's assume a play includes an actor saying the words of the Mass.  At the end of the appropriate section of dialogue, is it the Eucharist in the actor's hands?  Or simply wafers?  And to further the question, if the observer of both the priest and the actor has no particular belief in the Catholic rites of the Eucharist, how can the observer distinguish the priest from the actor?

This may seem like a hair-splitter, but it is a question worth investigating.   

An argument of the 19th and 20th centuries centered on the relationship of religion and theatre.  For some it's an obvious connection.  For others, the connection was less obvious.  Nietzsche (no theatre historian despite his other fine attributes) famously constructed a conflict between "Appollonian" and "Dionysian" attributes that led to the origins of tragedy.  The Cambridge group of anthropologists in the early 20th century picked up on this theme and constructed a very nice tale about agrarian magic rites that evolved quite nicely into dithyramb and then into tragedy.

Except the evidence is very sketchy.

Then, supposedly, the development of theater again the Middle Ages proceeded from acting out bits of the Easter story in medieval churches.  Curiously even the great old theatre historian Allardyce Nicoll in his book Masks, Mimes, & Miracles goes out of his way to discuss at length the continuity of theatrical activity in the period after the fall of Rome through the so-called "reawakening" of theatre.  Then he proceeds to completely ignore his own previous chapters to say that theatre in fact "reawakened" in the churches with the performance of bits of the Easter story!

The Russian Symbolists had a small polemical argument about whether or not the theatre should be the center of some proto-mystical/Greek/quasi-religious thing in which some performance led to some kind of ecstatic dance-like thing for performers and audience alike.  Michael Green's translation of Andrei Bely's reply to this argument is to good not to quote here at length:

    Let us suppose that we, the audience, have been transformed into a choric element.  Further, that the choric element gives itself over to a dance of supplication.  Only then will the remoteness of your supplicatory attitudes from a life unconverted into prayer be thrown into sharp relief.  And the prayer will be crushed by the weight of life.  […]  We shall enter the theatrical temple, array ourselves in white garments, crown ourselves with clusters of rose and act out the mystery (the theme is always the same – a godlike man in a struggle with fate); at the appropriate moment we shall clasp hands and begin to dance.  Imagine yourself in such a role, reader, even for a moment.  Are we really to whirl about the sacrificial altar, every one of us – the lady in the art noveau dress, the stockbroker, the worker and the member of the State Council?  I am certain our prayers are unlikely to coincide.  [. . .] No, better to whirl in a waltz with a pretty young miss than to join hands in a ring dance with a privy councilor.  [. . .] Life remains life, theatre theatre.

Not surprisingly I agree with Bely.  But why should I?  Really bright people associate the actor's work with that of the shaman.  I disagree.  But I want to have a better reason than "Because I say so."

Thus, one summer project – "thingness."  What makes a thing a thing?

The second project is simpler to explain, but harder to dig through, I think.  I want to look at questions of justice and where our notion of justice comes from. I believe that the American idea of justice can be traced to the narrative structures of Greek drama.  In Greek drama characters participate in a contest.  At the end of the story there will be a clear loser (sometimes several).  Ancient Greek justice in ancient Greek theatre has a kind of "zero-sum" quality to it.

In a nation in which there are claims of Judeo-Christian influence, one fails to see an application of Christian belief in the justice system. Jesus in his usually confounding way spoke of the first being last and the last being first and a radical form of forgiveness that seems to have little resemblance to the American legal system. Jesus told a bizarre story about how a farmer hired some guys to work in the field in the morning, more workers at noon, more workers in the afternoon, and more workers rather late in the day. At the end of the day, the farmer paid all of them the same wage regardless of the amount of time they worked.  

That story doesn't make any sense in the American system.  But what would it mean if the American justice system actually included ideas of Christian forgiveness as part of its structure?

So how do stories influence our notions of justice?

Justice.  "Thingness." These are the starts of projects that I look forward to doing this summer.  If readers have ideas, books, articles, and/or questions on these topics they want to pass on to the author – he'll be grateful.

Have a good summer.


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©2009 Nathan Thomas
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine

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, check the Archives


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June 2009


June 2009

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