Friday, March 17, 2006

Balthasar Off Broadway

My sister is movin' up. She was even personally complemented on her recent performance in The Mag 7 by Austin Pow--- I mean Mike Myers. But given the choice, I'm sure she'd prefer being featured on millinerd.

Though you wouldn't know it from the New York Times review, much of her most recent play was, though in a secular theatre (Naked Angels), exploring specifically Christian themes.

It's no coincidence that the times avoids Christianity, but is it coincidence that modern drama does not?

Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, once called by Ratzinger "perhaps the most learned man in Europe" (and reading him substantiates the claim), ably takes on the question with some sweeping reflections in his multi volume work Theo-Drama :
"In the drama of old, which was religious at least in a background sense, there was a real, absolute horizon (however hidden it may have been) which threw into relief the hero's actions, whether he eventually won or lost."
In addition, older drama had the political backdrop to provide meaning, for
"in Athens plays are performed in and for the framework of the polis; in Shakespeare they concern an empire, a court, a republic... even in Lope de Vega's serious plays the prince can be a scoundrel: his kingdom remains intact and often there is an ex machina conversion in which, in tears, he regains the dignity of his office. In Racine the power of Rome restrains the free play of the passions..." [more examples abound, but you get the idea].
However, when "the difference between horizon (God) and actor (man) disappears because both are only real in the living totality of the human species [i.e. modern atheism]," and when the absolute political framework was "destroyed by a sociology which declared that models of society were mutable," and when the ancient hero found himself "eroded by psychology," drama was, to say the least, in trouble. It kept itself going through modern regurgitations of ancient myth, but with the difference that the "center is in fact occupied by Freud, this modern substitute for the ancient world's daimon. George Steiner in his Death of Tragedy called these attempts "inspired plagiarism."

Our current dilemma then looks like this:
"We must assert that dramatic action is ultimately only meaningful when seen against the background of a given, absolute meaning... In Christian terms such absolute meaning can only be grapsed in the leap of faith, which is why many see drama inspired by Christianity as the only way out of absurdity (and hence the only way out of theatre's self-betrayal). Other systems of meaning can vie with the Christian meaning - for example, that of Lebensphilosophie (since Nietzsche) or of communism - and this competition, to see which system of meaning is the more comprehensive and cannot be undercut, can act as a spur to new theatre and new dramatic approaches" (quotes from 74-81, and thanks to drulogion for leading me to them).
And so, should one desire more than mere entertainment, one is left with the existentialist's theatre of the absurd, Marxist theatre which is "fundamentally antitragic and optimistic and fundamentlly antiindividualist" (i.e. boy meets plow)... or, most interestingly I think, theatre that explores the Christian horizon and/or rails against it.

Naked Angels pulled off the third option quite well. They may be onto something. Someone please tip off the Times.