Friday, January 1, 2010

The Play Is the Thing

There is something about a good drama. Live theater can have a remarkable effect upon members of the audience. The power of drama and its influence was brought home to me recently while watching a film biography of Pope John Paul II. I learned that the young Karol Wojtyla was a member of an underground drama company (called the Rhapsodic Theater) in Poland before he began considering the priesthood. His mentor had been encouraging him toward the priesthood when at one point young Wojtyla realized the he could make a positive change in the world by being a priest. Prior to that point he had been assuming that drama would be the way to effect positive change in his world.

Upon hearing that drama had been Pope John Paul’s first choice for positive change, I tried to imagine what drama must have meant to him and his colleagues living in Poland under Nazi occupation. Immediately I remembered hearing about an acting company in Serajevo during the Bosnian War in Yugoslavia. Even amid the fighting and bombing that completely disrupted that once grand city, the actors were determined to continue, and the people were determined to see that the plays went on. Furthermore, consider Czechoslovakia. When the communist Soviet Bloc fell apart, whom did the Czechoslovakians choose as their first democratically elected president? It was a playwright, Vaclev Havel.

What is it about a play? Why is drama so important? I think that a good play helps us to visualize what life can be like. It is one thing to talk about how things are, or how they could be, but it is another thing to illustrate life with a good drama. For the ancient Greeks, drama was a central act of community religious life. Their plays provided both instruction and catharsis (Now it’s making more sense that a noble young aspiring actor would eventually become Pope).
Drama has a universal appeal. Every culture has its own unique forms of dramatic re-creation. When Black Elk, the Lakota medicine man, was young, he had dream that was a visionary message to his people. As was the shamanic custom among his people, Black Elk staged a play. He called the community together and directed the people in acting out his dream in order to bring the power of the vision into the world. It seems that everyone knows that the play is the thing.

Even today in modern U.S. society, drama plays a vital role. While we have an abundance of live theater, perhaps most people are more familiar with the drama in film and television. We have seen how drama can highlight social concerns and can illustrate our hopes and values. A few years back, it was said of the TV drama West Wing, “This is the President we wish we had.”

I think we can still find instruction and catharsis in our modern drama. There is still that hope that through dramatic illustration, we can make a positive change in the world. There remains the idea that if we act out the vision, we can make it a reality. The medium still works for us today. Unfortunately, whereas in the past drama may have been used to illustrate the tragedy of hubris or misplaced honor, today on our TV sets we often use drama to illustrate the tragedy of carrying cash instead of traveler’s checks.


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