19 January 2014

Religious Drama

by Kirk Woodward

[Once again my friend Kirk Woodward has submitted a fascinating piece of theater writing, a discussion of the work of French dramatist Paul Claudel and specifically his 1910 play, The Tidings Brought to Mary (L’Annonce faite à Marie).  It’s Kirk’s entry into a broader discussion of religious art, particularly religious drama.  Needless to add, it’s a worthy addition to ROT, and I thank Kirk for allowing me to share his thoughts with readers of ROT.  ~Rick]

I never thought I’d get to see a production of a play by Paul Claudel in the United States. Yet I’ve not only seen a production of his play The Tidings Brought to Mary, but even worked a little on it. (I was one of two rehearsal pianists.) As a result I have a different view of the possible relations between theater and religion than I did before.

So, first of all, who is Paul Claudel, and why should he matter?

Claudel lived from 1868 to 1955. I have been familiar with his name for two reasons. One is that he is taught in theater history classes as a major French playwright of the Twentieth Century and, more particularly, as a “religious playwright.” Eric Bentley, writing in In Search of Theatre (1952) about a production of another Claudel play, Partage de Midi (The Break of Noon, 1906), calls Claudel “one of the two or three outstanding French playwrights of the past half century.”

The other reason I have been familiar with Claudel’s name is because of a famous passage in W. H. Auden’s poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” (1939):

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardons Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons [Yeats] for writing well.  

Auden later became uncomfortable with this passage and deleted it from his collected poems. Which of Claudel’s views did Auden have in mind? There are, to my knowledge, two possibilities. One is that in French politics Claudel was a conservative. Not only a French patriot, he became a diplomat and represented France with distinction, including a five year stint as ambassador to the United States (1928–1933, in which capacity his picture was on the cover of Time magazine in March 1927).

Because of a poem Claudel wrote praising Marshal Philippe Pétain (“Paroles au Maréchal” [“Words to the Marshal”], May 1941), the Prime Minister of the Vichy government of France that collaborated with the Nazis, it is sometimes assumed that Claudel was not only conservative, but that he had Fascist sympathies. This appears not to be the case; Pétain was greatly admired as a hero of France when Claudel wrote his poem, a distinction later muddied when Petain headed a French puppet government that collaborated with Germany. Claudel wrote scornfully about both the Nazis and about anti-Semitism, beginning at an early date, and he seems to have been closely and suspiciously watched by the Germans during World War II.

Another possibility is that Auden, who did not rejoin the church he had first left until 1940, was thinking about Claudel’s fervent Roman Catholicism. Claudel had a “conversion experience” at the age of 18, and remained an active Roman Catholic the rest of his life. His plays are infused with his religious beliefs. But how, exactly?

The relation between religion and art is a real brain teaser. Because I’m a playwright – feel free to see my plays listed at spiceplays.com ­­­– my examples come from the theater. Any art offers equivalents. Consider the following possibilities (which in reality are not mutually exclusive).

Since we’ve referred to Paul Claudel’s “conversion experience,” imagine a play written for the explicit purpose of converting people to a particular religious belief. We would, I imagine, agree that this is “religious art.”

Imagine a play with the same purpose – to convert people to a particular religion – but written by an avowed atheist, who hates religion in all forms, but who has been paid to write the play. It’s a product of pure cynicism on the part of the writer. Does it matter to the work that the artist is completely unreligious? Should the knowledge of the author’s relation to the material make any difference in our evaluation of the play in religious terms?

Suppose the play actually achieves its purpose and “converts” a number of people. Do we then consider it a “religious” play? For religious people, can any information about the author outweigh the play’s work of salvation?

What if our “religious” play is excellently written, and yet “converts” no one? If it fails in its purpose, can it be called a success? Or the opposite: what if the play has a great effect on people, and yet is by any reasonable aesthetic standard a piece of garbage? How do we value that piece? Can it be both bad art and good religion – or, for that matter, the reverse?

These questions have real-life instances. For example, Eugene O’Neill wrote both Days Without End (1933) and The Iceman Cometh (1939). Days Without End is generally considered to represent at least a momentary reconciliation between O’Neill and the Roman Catholic church. The Iceman Cometh, on the other hand, presents not only a world without God, but a world whose inhabitants survive only through their illusions.

From the aesthetic point of view, few would claim that Days Without End is a superior play to The Iceman Cometh. What should the Roman Catholic verdict be? Ought it to prefer the play that supports the church, even if it’s almost universally considered a much lesser work?

And what about plays that have no “religious” content at all? Should Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple (1965) be considered a bad play by religious people because it has no religious significance (assuming it doesn’t)?

Here are some possible ways of looking at the issue of the relation of religion and art, starting with the most straightforward:

If it says it’s about religion, it’s about religion. If it says it’s religious art, it’s religious art.

This point of view has the virtue of ending pretty much any argument. Whatever anyone says, goes. If I write a play about Jesus, it belongs in the religious column. If I write a play about Oscar Madison, it doesn’t. If Oscar breaks down at the end of the play and prays to God to save Felix’s soul, it moves over to the religious column. If a bitter atheist writes a play about how wonderful God is, religious folk say God bless ‘im. One more for us.

This point of view isn’t interested in whether the art is good or bad – whatever that may mean – only that the work of art is on Our Side. One thinks of agitprop dramas of the Thirties, about which the question frequently asked wasn’t “Is it a good play?” but “Is it on our side?”

The problem with this perspective is that, without any counterweight of an artistic standard, what’s created from this point of view tends to be pretty deadly. After all, anybody can write it; all they have to be is sincere. The catalogues of all the major dramatic publishing companies contain page after page of “religious” plays.

Most of them – I’m pretty sure – you wouldn’t want to see. (I’d be interested to read the exceptions.) They shine, so to speak, with borrowed glory: because they’re about God, they claim special merit. But they are seldom produced except for audiences of partisans.

By the way, what about Muslim drama? There is such. Presumably that’s religious drama, too, but do non-Muslim religious folk endorse it, or do they limit “religious” art to their own religion?

Related to the preceding approach is that the role of art is to serve God, and therefore art is to be judged by how well it does God’s work. Tolstoy adopted this idea in later years; he found himself unable to see how purely aesthetic interests mattered, when God’s work is so important.

By this standard, categories of “good” and “bad” art are acknowledged but irrelevant; what matters is how well the work does God’s work. There are traveling theatrical troupes that perform religious dramas in churches for church audiences. According to the approach just presented, it doesn’t matter if they are excellent artists, or if they’re duffers – they’re evangelical, and that’s what matters.

A problem with this approach is that it tends to be adopted by censors, fanatics, and dictators, who have their own ideas of what the good is and who also have the means to impose their standards on others. Religious organizations seldom act well when they acquire power – quite the contrary. I wonder if there are many Roman Catholics in the United States today, for example, who would want to see the return of a powerful Catholic Legion of Decency (known as CLOD – honestly), telling them which movies they should and shouldn’t watch.

Another problem with this approach is that, with religious art and practically any other kind of art, a work that’s created with a teaching purpose tends to be dreary. How can it help being second-rate? There’s no joy of discovery in creating something that’s already figured out what it wants to say. Think, not of religious, but of political art – for example, the paintings of Stalin’s era, with strong muscular workers looking toward the Socialist future – surely one of the best examples of dead art.

The opposite approach, which we might call the aesthetic approach, says that there is no such thing as religious art at all. There’s only art, whether good or bad. Art takes as its subject whatever it wants, whether it’s religion or politics or love or whatever.

This approach also ends all arguments, because it makes ideas of religion irrelevant. Whatever one’s aesthetic standards are, they’re the ones that apply in the realm of “art for art’s sake”. Obviously many critics favor this approach, because it means they don’t have to take religion seriously. Even overtly religious poetry like the later poems of T. S. Eliot and Auden can be evaluated in a purely “artistic” way.

This approach eliminates the difficulty of making sense of a work of art in religious terms, but also eliminates a great deal of human experience in an arbitrary way. It also has the potential to falsify the nature of the work being considered: one can read, say, the book of the prophet Isaiah as poetry, but it wasn’t written as a poem; it was written as a challenge to lead different lives.

We can take an anthropological approach and say that works of art reflect the ideas of religion held by people at the time. This approach looks backward into history, noting, for example, that the ancient Greek tragedies were performed as elements of religious festivals. The approach also looks beyond Western art, to non-Western cultures, looking at the way different cultures present themselves, often without making value judgments on their beliefs or art forms.
A limitation of this approach, again, is that it tends to trivialize religion, and whatever else it may be, religion is not a trivial matter. If we see that everyone believes something, it’s easy to decide that no belief is really important. That may be so; then again, it may not.

A new version of the anthropological approach is to assert that modernism has destroyed the coherence of works of art so that it’s meaningless to say that a work is “religious,” or for that matter to label it in any other way. A post-modernist, reveling in deconstructionism, would go even further and say that no matter what its intention, a work of art can only reflect the oppressive power structure of its time.

This approach negates the experience of art, particularly the distinction between greater and lesser works. Deconstructionism asserts that art is fatally limited, and certainly that is true of poor art, whether new or old, but great art gives us a vision of coherence and of liberation. There are academics who would deny that it does; all I can say is that I feel sorry for them, and I wonder why they bother to teach, since they dislike their subject matter so much.

We can go in the other direction, and say that on the contrary, all art is religious. I have promoted this approach myself elsewhere, in my not-yet-published book Two Worlds, One Lord: 

An effect of art is to make us experience the temporal in relation to the spiritual. Li Po ([Eighth-Century Chinese poet] translated by Ezra Pound) puts it this way: 

That art is best which to the soul’s range give no bound;
Something besides the form, something beyond the sound. 

Even the most negative, pessimistic works of art make us feel the absence of the spiritual world in our temporal lives, whether the artists consciously intend that effect or not. 

The distinction between “secular” and “spiritual” art is not particularly important. Any work of art – for that matter, any activity of our lives – illuminates life in the temporal world, or in the Spiritual world, or, most frequently, in the areas where the two worlds interact.

This viewpoint would be irritating to an atheistic writer, because it says, “No matter what you are trying to do, you are still reflecting spiritual issues – you can’t help it.” A limitation of this viewpoint is that if everything is religion, then nothing is – what’s the point of talking about religion at all, if what we mean is “life”?

Related to the preceding approach is the concept that the purpose of art is to celebrate God’s creation – in Auden’s phrase, to “praise all that is for being.” On this line, as above, even a skeptical or atheistic viewpoint still reflects the creation of which it is a part.

The objection to the previous viewpoint would apply to this one as well.

I have presented these various approaches to give some idea of the range of issues involved in the relation of religion and art. How does Paul Claudel approach the question?

He wrote The Tidings Brought to Mary (originally, in French, L’Annonce faite à Marie) in 1910, and revised it, particularly the prologue and the last act, over another couple of decades. The poetic nature of the dialogue and the difficulties of translation are probably reasons that it has seldom been performed in the United States.

It was first presented on Broadway in 1922; its next New York production, as far as I can tell, was by the Blackfriars Repertory Theater (sponsored by the Dominican order) in 2009, revived in 2011. (The Blackfriars followed Tidings with a production of Claudel’s The Satin Slipper.) But I have not been able to find records of other productions in this country.

Union Congregational Church, in Upper Montclair, New Jersey, makes some adventurous choices in the theatrical productions it presents (for example, a version of James Joyce’s The Dead). Director Elaine Molinaro brought the idea for Tidings to the church, which produced it in association with her production company Culture Connection Theater. Molinaro wrote in the program notes for the production, which ran from November 8 through 16, 2013:

I have dreamt about [Claudel’s] play for over 20 years of my life ever since I first saw it performed in Paris when I was a study-abroad student there. It has always been my dream to direct this work of art.
The repetition of the word “dream” in her remarks is appropriate. The play (in an imagistic if unwieldy translation by Walter Fowlie) creates a dreamlike atmosphere. Set in the Thirteenth Century, its events take place at the time of the battles of Joan of Arc and the crowning of Charles VII at Reims.

Molinaro staged the play in the church sanctuary, in front of a series of backdrops (by Rich Silivanch, executed by Ashley Petix) inspired by the French Santon nativity scene figurines of the early 1800s; costumed the play (with designs by Jonathan Green) in styles from that same period (in contradiction to its Medieval setting); and included music by Jean-Philippe Rameau, Maurice Duruflé, Igor Stravinsky, Gabriel Fauré, and others, sung by a choir of eight.

That same choir added to the dreamlike effect of the play by representing, at various points in the play, servants, trees, and angels, as part of a staging that combined the formal – even the emblematic – and the naturalistic in surprising ways.

Similarly the acting varied from the realistic to the highly rhetorical – in a witty stroke, Molinaro had more than one character “happen” to end up behind the church’s pulpit just in time to deliver a particularly long and complex speech. The result brought Brecht to mind, but also in spirit seemed genuinely Medieval.

The play takes place in the Tardenois region of agricultural France, where Violaine Vercors, the older daughter of the family, is spotted by her envious sister Mara kissing Pierre, a leper, as she tells him goodbye. Mara uses this information to ruin her sister’s engagement to Jacques, the foreman of the farm, while at the same time Violaine develops leprosy herself, and leaves home for a life of isolation and shame.

Mara marries Jacques and they have a child, who dies, and Mara brings the infant’s body to Violaine insisting that she bring the baby back to life. Violaine pleads that only God can perform such miracles; in fact the baby does live again. Violaine dies, forgiving everyone and giving them a greater idea of God’s love and power. In the course of the play, Pierre is also reported to have been cured of his leprosy – by Violane’s kiss.

How does The Tidings Brought to Mary relate to the attitudes toward “religious” theater described above? It certainly makes a clear claim to be a piece of “religious theater,” and I doubt that an audience member would miss its overt intention to participate in the work of proselytizing. It is full of comments on God’s power and on what God can do.

But I would assert that it’s not only a “religious” play, but a good play in its own right. Why? Well, its characters are interesting and well-drawn, the story is dramatic, the world of the play imaginative, the language evocative. But the same could be said about other plays, many of them definitely not “religious” in intent. To see what makes The Tidings Brought to Mary a piece of religious art and a good play, we can start by looking at its title.

We might think, from the title of the play, that it tells the story of the birth of Jesus as narrated in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. As we have seen, it does not (although the climax of the play, at the end of the third of the four acts, does occur on Christmas Eve). Why did Claudel choose that title for the play?

The answer goes to his dramaturgical approach to his story. Rather than directly base his plot on stories from the Bible, he creates a new story that uses Bible stories as its building blocks. Principally, the play dramatizes a powerful situation: what must Joseph have thought and felt when Mary told him that she was pregnant – and that he was very definitely not the father?

But rather than use the characters of Joseph and Mary for his play, Claudel presents a parallel story – how Jacques feels when Violaine tells Jacques that she has contracted leprosy he knows must have come from Pierre. The conflict, the dramatic value, the depth of feeling that must have existed, are parallel. The situation is strong and vivid. The Biblical narrative is implicit within it.

Claudel uses the same strategy throughout the play. Among the elements found in the Bible that are echoed in The Tidings Brought to Mary are:

The Sermon on the Mount
The parable of the landowner leaving his home, to return at an unexpected time
The Last Supper
The miracle of bringing a child back to life
The parable of the Good Samaritan
The parable of the Prodigal Son
Peter’s betrayal of Jesus
Paul’s farewell at Ephesus
The famous passage in Ecclesiastes – “To everything there is a season . . . .”

None of these are referred to directly. Instead, they are embodied in the plot of the play. An audience member unfamiliar with the Bible passages involved can experience the import of the material based entirely on the way it is presented in the play. No special knowledge of the Bible is required. An audience member will experience the impact of the various episodes from the scriptures while watching an involving play.

I am grateful to Elaine Molinaro and the Union Congregational Church for providing an opportunity to see a play that sheds a light on the important issue of the relation between drama and religion, whether or not that was an aim of the production.

Claudel’s approach to “religious theater,” as represented by The Tidings Brought to Mary, is by no means the only approach possible. But the play carries its approach out so successfully that it sets a high standard for other writers who wrestle with the same issue, and it presents one solution, not in the form of an essay or a theory, but in the form of a living play.
[Kirk, among his other talents, is a playwright and as he’s invited readers to visit his website, I want to provide the link to it: http://spiceplays.com/.  There you will find his plays available for production, including his musicals and his plays for audiences of children.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kirk also has a selection of “religious” plays for consideration.  Please take the time to check out Spiceplays: I guarantee you’ll find his work surprising and engaging.]


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