Theater Hearts

My son Peter has been bitten by the acting bug. He got cast as Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and has been relishing the chance to show off as a total goofball before an audience of his peers. He’s pretty good too — so good that he has been called back for auditions for the next show. Break a leg, kid.

I can relate. I was a theater major long ago, and it was a wonderful time in my life. Indeed, theater probably saved my life. Back in the late ’70s, during an especially dark time when I was seriously wondering whether I might not be better off dead, I got cast in a truly plum role (or more precisely, roles) in a goofy farce called “Bullshot Crummond,” a spoof of 1930s’ serial detective flicks. In addition to the four major parts, the script called for one guy to play, well, everybody else. I wound up playing everybody, from the hero’s chum to the heroine’s geezer father to the snooty waiter and the hunchback henchman. It was a joy to do, and it brought me back from the edge of a very deep pit I was about to topple into. The experience gave me a whole group of people to care about. I will always be grateful to God that, even in those times when I did not know him, he was kind enough to put me into just the situation that would save me from doing something stupid.

Since becoming Catholic, I’ve sometimes reflected on the relationship between the faith and the theater. It has been a complicated one. Jesus, for instance, uses a theater term (hypokritos = stage actor) to upbraid the scribes and Pharisees he describes as whitewashed tombs. That’s because, in his day, actors wore exaggerated masks to represent the characters they played. It was an apt image to describe people who pretended to be one thing while really being another.

As the Church was born, the theater was hitting a low point in the Greco-Roman world. It was a great place to see suggestive vulgarity and blasphemy — not such a great place for pursuing the sort of moral virtue the apostles insisted on. So, for some stretches of time, being an actor was a fine way to get excommunicated. Of course, there were exceptions. The tale of St. Genesius, patron of actors, concerns a man who performed crude burlesques that made fun of Christians during the persecution of Diocletian. One day, so the story goes, he was in a skit mocking the sacrament of baptism when, to the surprise of all, the fake baptism touched his conscience, and he began to depart from the script right there on stage. He announced that he did, in fact, believe in Jesus, and began proclaiming his newborn faith. The audience slowly began to figure out that he was serious, and the mood turned from laughter to rage. He was martyred on the spot by the mob. I don’t know if it’s true or not. But it certainly should be true, which is enough to content any actor.

As time went on, theater began to be used by Christians as a way of proclaiming the Gospel to an illiterate audience. As with stained-glass windows, a populace that couldn’t read could still look at pictures. And in theater, the pictures could talk. So talk they did, particularly in the medieval mystery plays like “Everyman.” Christian Europe saw a resurgence of drama, and England in particular gave birth to a theatrical tradition that is, like its great master William Shakespeare, one of the cultural jewels of the world.

Which, of course, is why a 15-year-old kid in Seattle is playing Bottom. Theater, like all the arts, is a deeply human thing and therefore something our faith encourages and approves of, since God reveals himself in human ways. It is also, as we shall discuss next time, a fallen thing in need of grace, like all the rest of human experience.

Mark Shea is senior content editor for