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Brandon Bedore

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The Morality of Theatre; Gods Review of Broadway Productions

Theatre has a very difficult moral line that it constantly treads, and that is how one can go to
a production and enjoy and sometimes even laugh at the suffering that characters ultimately
experience on stage. Contrary to St. Augustines dated views on the morality of theatre, the
theatre produced today is not morally damning as it justly provides voices to the voiceless, its
basis in human nature prevents it from being merely fictitious frivolity, and it provides social and
moral lessons to the audience through a new medium.
In Augustines Confession, he reflects on what he deemed a sinful love of theatrical
pleasures. He said that they were sinful because they cause the audience to feel emotions they
could and should do nothing about, for instance the audience feels an immense grief for Antigone
when she is suffering for burying her brother but the audience is to sit in their seats and offer no
help. He concludes that this trains theatregoers to ignore suffering in their real lives as if it were
theatre. Augustine also says that it creates a sinful hunger to feel emotions like grief and hatred,
and one satiates the hunger by going to see more theatre and thus creating a cycle of sin
(Augustine). Augustine is not the only theologian to have a moral concern for theatre. Bishop of
Arras exclaimed his view on theatre saying greater conformity to religion which has always
shown horror at (public) spectacles without any distinction whatsoever (Joohee) Another
theologian, Pauper, wrote in the Dives et Pauper that plays stir men and women to pride, to
lechery, gluttony and sloth, (Harris)
It is important to note that in during all of these theologians times criminals play characters
who die in the play and their executions happen onstage for entertainment. This mirrors Ancient
Romes famous coliseum games where people also engaged in base forms of violent

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entertainment so it is understandable that Augustine and the others found theological concern
with theatre. Despite the sinful connotation of feeling grief through art, Augustine then invited
(his audience) to grieve, not over some fiction, but over the undeniable truth of Augustines past
sinful and his flight from God. (Ferrari). It seems Augustines only concern is the fictitious
origin of the grief. If theatre is based off the human experience, then is it truly fictitious?
Antigone was still telling the human story of someone grieving for a tremendous loss. It is not
sinful to feel emotion towards someone in pain; it is a very human response. A response not
many people of the time may have experienced without theatre because books were not only rare
but few people had the necessary schooling to read them. Theatre is a call to action as much as
protests and petitions. While the moral take away from Antigone has no benefit to todays social
plights, theatre has evolved above blood sport and not only continues to evoke emotions like
grief and anger but it urges the audience to take their experience and use it to make themselves
and the world a better more loving place.
Theatre gives voices to societies most important issues or stories like the AIDS epidemic
with the musical Rent or the struggles a family goes through when a member is suffering from
mental illness like in the show Next to Normal. It creates a personal, stirring story people can
latch on to that stands for a much larger social issue. Jesus also uses this tactic of theatrical
presentation in his parables to convey a deeper moral shortcoming that needs addressing. For
example, the moral of the story of the Good Samaritan calls for us to love our neighbor like the
commandments say. However, despite God giving Moses written instructions on how humanity
should behave war and hatred still poisoned the Earth. Jesus then comes and presents the story in
a more theatrical way evoking a feeling of pity for the poor beaten Jew and contradicting the

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embedded sense of hatred towards the Samaritans by having the Samaritan save the Jew. This
story is not solely to end the hatred between Samaritans and Jews but for to end hatred for all
humankind. Hopefully none of us ever encounter someone beaten and forsaken but realistically
we do see this kind of suffering everyday and the experiences of the Good Samaritan teach us
how we should behave in that situation by giving a relatable and emotionally compelling story. It
is basic human nature to want to resist orders or decrees from higher ups, but if someone presents
a lesson to you so that you feel like you yourself came up with the idea then you are far more
likely to adhere to that way of thinking. The danger with storytelling is how can you determine
that your story is one of a high moral caliber?
Wadell also lists of the eight characteristics needed to create a human story that follows
the path and teachings of Christianity. You can easily see how each of these eight points apply
theatre. The first is that a good story should teach people to respect the full dignity of others
regardless of status or other differences. Theatre as an art form especially captures this element
because it can tell the stories of all different kinds of people and bring a clearer understanding of
their struggles or way of life thus removing ignorance. The second aspect of a good story is that
it should not only help us understand and respect others but to bring enlightenment to who we
are in terms of human nature. This is aspect is somewhat dramatized in theatre but only to show
the great potential human persons have for love and peace and hatred and war. Protagonists and
Antagonists can be symbols for humanity as a whole through a dramatized flaw, for instance, in
the story of Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorn Brown represents all of humanity
and their weakness towards sin when he ultimately embraces the devil and loses faith. This gives
a clear picture to the shortcomings of our human potential and the consequences of when we fail.

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The third facet of a good story is that it makes community possible. We live in such an alienating
times, cell phones social media clutter our vision and leave us cut off from interaction with real
live humans. Theatre is a community devoted to community and individual human expression.
Theatre is an incredible vulnerable art form because it features the most personal moments of
human existent in front of a crowd of people. When a character reveals the deepest secrets of
their person, we feel included in their life. Fourth, a good story must present the world in such a
way that is rational and just. Being dramatic in nature theatre can sometimes seem irrational, for
instance why does Cinderella fall for a man she just met? From an audience perspective this is
very rushed but when you understand that the entire life of the characters is two hours or less, the
percentage of time it takes for them to fall in love is more rational. Fifth, a good story must allow
us to be open to others even if and especially if their differences initially frighten and disturb us.
With each new show that is performed the audience gets to see into the darkest recesses of
human suffering or the brightest moments of joy and this openness and vulnerability helps us
understand each others differences and to be able to relate to them. An example would be Parade
the musical which tells the story of Leo Frank, a real life Jewish man from New York living in
Georgia, killed because the town saw him as different. It explores the terrible consequence hating
someone out of ignorance can bring. Sixth, a good story must have justice and allow people to
flourish. Theatre often tells a story of the oppressed highlighting their struggle for justice and
also the oppressors and their perversion of justice. Often, justice is not served in a play and it
presents itself in a way that the audience understands that a moral wrongdoing just took place
and they, as moral humans, must respond. The seventh mark requires that suffering remain
because it may seem easier to look at the world with rose-colored glasses but that is not how the

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world truly is. Since theatre began as a way to escape the everyday turmoil of life, this is often
the hardest aspect of theatre to relate to Wadells eight characteristics. There do exist shows that
are purely for escape but theatre that is truly of a higher moral caliber does not skimp on
struggles and lifes hardships. Finally, a good story is about freedom and life. If one were to
break theatre down to its smallest parts and these two concepts would be the very heart. Free will
and the celebration of human life experiences is what makes theatre so exciting to watch.
(Wadell).
Augustines view of theatre may have been correct for his time, but the theatre that exists
today is far more morally correct. Through the expression of very human stories, a majority of
theatre not only has all the qualifications for a good moral story but also creates a pathway to
happiness, which is the ultimate human goal. Augustine and other theologians lament over the
supposed fabricated feelings the fiction of theatre produces but theatre is not fiction but simply a
different way of conveying a moral or social message using human experience. Whether
Antigone was in fact, a historical figure is not relevant, but what is relevant is that she represents
a group of people who have experienced all of her sufferings. God once described humankind as
good and if theatre is also good, according to Wadells eight characteristics, it seems clear that
it cannot be a sinful craft.

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Work Cited

Augustine, Saint, and John K. Ryan. The Confessions of Saint Augustine. New York: Image
Doubleday, 1960. Print.
Ferrari, Leo. "Beyond Augustine's Conversion Scene." Augustine: From Rhetor to Theologian.
Ed. Joanne McWilliam. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 1992. Print.
Harris, Max. "Performance and Audience." Theatre and Incarnation. Reprint ed. Grand Rapids:
William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990. Print.
Park, Joohee. "Not Just a University Theatre." Catholic Theatre and Drama: Critical Essays. Ed.
Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr. New York: McFarland, 2010. Print.
Wadell, Paul J. Happiness and the Christian Moral Life: An Introduction to Christian Ethics.
2nd ed. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012. Print.