You enter and take your seat in the midst of a large audience. At the front of the hall is a ritual space that is marked off from the area you and your fellow audience members occupy. In that ritual space are various pieces of furniture and props for use during the public act that is about to occur.
Music sounds. A chorus appears. Then a cast of ritually costumed figures appears and begins to go through a set of carefully scripted words and physical actions. There is a place in the script for audience involvement, with call and response between the figures in the ritual space and the audience. One player in particular portrays, in a stylized form, the central character in the drama. Through participation in this drama, all involved have a sense of catharsis from the things that burden them as human beings and a sense of contact with something higher than themselves. At the conclusion, there is an exeunt omnes (a coordinated stage exit), and the stylized ritual concludes.
Are you at Mass or a production of a play by Sophocles? It could be either — and that’s no accident. The very word from which we derive the English “tragedy” comes from a Greek term that originally meant “goat dance.” Greek theater arose from Greek religious festivals and largely concerned itself with the portrayal of various tales from Greek mythology in celebration of their gods. It did, with humans dressed in masks and costumes, what other cultures did via other forms of pictorial representation, such as sculpture and painting.
And yet, precisely because they are parallel, ancient Jews, while they had highly developed liturgical worship, had no form of theater. Visible representation of divine things was forbidden by the Second Commandment. So the pagan culture that went with theater as it was imported to Israel first by Alexander and then by Rome could only come across to the Jewish people as the bawdy, bloodthirsty, barbaric — read: sinful — subversion of Jewish values by a foreign menace.
That curious parallel development carried on in the Church for centuries. Lots of liturgy, no theater. And yet, as we mentioned last time, the Church eventually rediscovered theater as an expression of divine things, and a theatrical tradition developed in Christian Europe that would eventually rival anything the Greeks ever created. Shakespeare alone (and he is not alone) demonstrates what heights the Christian dramatic tradition could reach.
What the Christian tradition did in developing a Christian drama was come to understand more deeply the meaning of the Incarnation. When God became man, he hallowed human things, including the human thing called “drama.” God, indeed, wrote himself into the drama of human life as a character in the play. Instead of Six Characters in Search of an Author, we have One Author in Search of the Cast. They’ve all been hiding ever since he asked, “Adam, where are you?” And they only come out of hiding to enact the strange and bizarre tragedy of the Crucifixion. Like the tragic heroes of the theater, we are felled by hubris. Our greatness only goes to highlight the depth of our fall as we turn all our powers toward killing him in the cruelest way possible.
But, as in a comedy, even our best-laid plans for stupidity are turned, not by us, but by the joyful Playwright, toward a happy ending and even toward a wedding (the classic device for concluding all good comedies). The Marriage Supper of the Lamb is the climax of the Divine Drama, as tragedy and comedy meet and are reconciled in the Lamb who looks as if he had been slain — and yet who has the last laugh along with all those he has saved.
Mark Shea is senior content editor of CatholicExchange.com.