OnStage Guest Columnist
Well, good friends, we are living in volatile times. This is by no means a surprise. Predictions were made and reality soon followed suit. We are alerted on social media when the next controversy rolls in. Then, we find out it either wasn’t a controversy or it was and people don’t believe there even was a controversy. The comments section is filled to the brim with people who sit by their keyboards waiting to pounce on the next unsuspecting person they disagree with. To top it all off, there have been rumors that government funding for the arts will be cut. While this is disheartening, (one theatre maker I know personally questioned the longevity of our profession), it is not surprising.
Despite the joy, connections and positive community impact, the arts must continue to validate their presence in the world. Throughout history, theatre has proved time and time again that it will always wrangle itself out the clutches of those that seek to tear it down. For my own reassurance, and hopefully yours as well, I’ll be delving back into a little theatre history to remember that struggle in art is inevitable, but always surmountable.
Let’s start with the ancient Roman theatre. As per usual, Christianity viewed theatre as corrupting, and ultimately mocking of God’s word. Christianity's new integration into the government allowed for the gradual elimination of theatre by law. Roman actors were denied contact with Christian women, and sacraments of burial and marriage. Finally, they were excommunicated from the church, and with that, Rome entirely (Wise and Walker, 2004 pg. 184). This marked the start of the decline of theatre in the middle ages. For the moment, it seemed that theatre had been stamped out of history, yet, small nomadic actor troops scoured the land for places to perform (Brockett and Hildy 2003, 75). Texts from from the poet Terrance fell into the grasp of the intelligent and crafty Hrosvitha, who soon adapted them into monastery plays (McAlister, Linda. "Hypatia's Daughters: 1500 Years of Women Philosophers”).
The Church, despite its adamancy against theatre, started the liturgical drama which produced theatre within the boundaries of their religious practice (Brockett and Hildy 2003, 80). The point of this rushed, not-so-thoroughly detailed description of middle age history is that theatre survives largely because people keep it alive. It also keeps itself alive as it comes to defy or adapt to new social conditions. As long as there is a need and a willingness, theatre will always be around. Again, it may experience periods when it is momentarily stifled, like if someone cuts your funding or banishes you from Rome, but it always manages to come back in new, innovative ways.
If that wasn’t enough to rouse you from the just-read-a-scary news article stupor you find yourself in, here is another tale of theatre people ingenuity. William Shakespeare is probably most eponymous with The Globe theatre. The story goes that the theatre Shakespeare was working in , simply called The Theatre, was built on land with a 21 year lease. The landlord at the time was a grumpy fellow by the name of Giles Harris who wasn’t a particular fan of theatrical productions.
When the lease expired, Harris jumped on the chance not to renew the lease and to tear down the theatre. Shakespeare and the Chamberlain’s men rallied to purchase new property, dismantle the theatre, carry the pieces across the river, and then rebuild the theatre as The Globe Theatre (“The Lease of the ‘Theatre’ expires,” 2017). The tireless dedication needed to perform this feat is nothing less of admirable. Again, this is how theatre survives. This is what we as theatre people are capable of. Out of all the directors, actors, and playwrights I have worked with, there’s not one of them who would have done, and probably have done, otherwise if they were in a similar situation.
History may be approaching yet another time when the importance of art falls into question. It is unfortunate that the arts having been fighting century after century for their place in this world. However, that is also why now is the perfect time to make art. This offers a strong opportunity for artists to remind the world how art affects every one of us on this Earth. Every time a compelling piece of theatre or art emerges, it reminds the world that it is something that should enthusiastically be given the opportunity to flourish.
Brockett, Oscar G., and Hildy. History of theatre. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2011. Print.
Mcallister, L. (1996). “Hypatia’s Daughters: 1500 Years of Women Philosophers”).
Walker, C. S., & Wise, J. (2005). The Broadview Anthology of Drama: Concise Edition: Plays from the Western Theatre .
The lease of the “theatre” expires. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.william-shakespeare.info/william-shakespeare-globe-theatre.htm