My essay “Theatre as sanctuary” appears in the latest issue of Urthona, a UK journal that has explored “the arts and world culture from a Buddhist perspective” since 1992. The theme of the issue is “Dramatic Insight,” according to the editor: “Making a crisis out of a drama? In this issue we are more interested in finding insight through drama. We go to the edge with Macbeth and learn about the workings of karma — as Vishvapani says ‘Its power as a karmic tragedy is not simply that it shows a person reaping the results of their actions’; it also involves us in Macbeth’s journey towards knowledge of his own self destruction. Modern theatre is often an experience of spectacle or at best an exploration of raw emotion. George Hunka suggests that the contemplative ritual space of the church (I am sure he would include the shrine room) suggests what is missing. Also here some powerful visual work from Sahaja, from photographer Natasha Lythgoe (whose work to me seems imbued with ‘thusness’ — the unfabricated way of things), and from painter of mystical landscapes Harold Mockford.” It is an attractive and very readable issue, and I’m glad to be a part of it; it’s available at better Buddhist newsstands everywhere.
“Theatre as sanctuary” is a reprint of a post that first appeared here in April 2011; I republish it below.
In the urban community of the 21st century, the one space reserved for silence and contemplation is the church. Only here do electronic screens, noise, large gestures and conversation seem to be prohibited through common consent. On sabbath days it is necessary to perform some kind of ceremony in most religions, but at other times the nave remains silent and abandoned, for the most part, to the meditations of the individual. Even the performance of the liturgy on sabbath days is often restrained, the mysteries (such as transubstantiation) quietly muttered, and the call-and-response are formalized as communication between the celebrant and the congregation.
A sanctuary is a consecrated space, a refuge and protection from the world outside the building’s walls, a place of privacy and secrecy. For those of little or no faith, of course, this consecration is meaningless, and a church is as much a simple building as a shopping mall. But its loss as that consecrated space is the loss of the final refuge from the earthly world — from urban culture, whether from the cities of the 14th century or the cities of the 21st. The long and often tormented relationship between theatre, drama and church stretches back to the ancient Greeks; aesthetics and religion partook freely of each other’s qualities; faith was tested, rewarded or found wanting.
Some artists have keenly felt this loss of the consecrated space to the broader culture; some have mourned it, others thought this loss unimportant if not cause for celebration, still others have tried to redefine the consecration of aesthetic space for the urban world. Since I wrote “Rothko Chapel,” which considered this over two years ago, theatre has voluntarily continued to abandon its status as a space consecrated to aesthetic experience, more and more integrating itself with the popular culture outside of the theatre’s walls, welcoming those very electronic screens, noise, large gestures and conversation once as prohibited there as in the church.
The theatre is a church for the faithless, but it continues to require the clearing of the popular culture from the performance space. The precise concentration required of the aesthetic experience as preparation for metaphysical contemplation necessitates the provision of silence and darkness in the broader communal arena of the nave that was the usual possession of the church. Clear of the distractions of the outside world, the inner world becomes more alive, is prepared for the metaphysical experience that drama provides. For this very reason both concert halls and galleries share in some of this sense of the space consecrated to art. It will be argued that there are many sects which bring qualities of the outside world into the sanctuary, and this is quite true. But it does not follow that all sects must necessarily do so. If I do not deny that some of these qualities may engender just as spiritual an experience as those of an ascetic practice, it would be poor form to deny that the other qualities that I describe above do so as well.
For theatre to be considered as a sanctuary for metaphysical speculation, it is necessary to repudiate that outside world once again, and this time, because the Culture Industry has infested nearly every aspect of our lives, with keen uncompromising energy. Theatre then becomes a spiritual exercise and not a form of entertainment as defined by that Industry. This will be difficult — every element of the theatrical economy, from playwright to producer to reviewer to spectator, conspires against such an approach to drama and theatre. It is not “fun.” No, it is not. And theatre should make no apology for that. Some things should not be fun — and this is a statement that, in this urban culture, trespasses into the terrain of the criminal. Fun can always be sought elsewhere; there are outlets enough for it.
In terms of practical matters, theatre as sanctuary would do well to turn to the performance of the liturgy of the church. There is no place in which words could conceivably have more spiritual and metaphysical power than in the spoken text of the liturgy (which is why, over the generations, changes in liturgies have been difficult, controversial and painstaking — words truly mean, and changes in the liturgy have sublime consequences). Concessions to the place of tragedy and theatre in popular culture also require a variety of practical considerations; a church as sanctuary would:
- Be small, more in the nature of a chapel than a cathedral; perhaps no more than 30 seats
- Be open to anyone who desires to attend, which requires a low cost of admission
- In performance, be as precise and focused as the performance of the liturgy
- Through sound and light design, provide a ground for contemplation
- Tirelessly reject the inessential in design, costume, performance and text
- Because concentrated, and demanding harsh discipline from both performer and spectator, performances should extend in duration for no more than an hour
- Critics and reviewers, because they have no place in a church, have no place in a theatrical sanctuary either, and should be driven like moneychangers from the temple
There will be many — perhaps most — who won’t want to participate in a theatrical experience like this; though they would be welcomed, as visitors are to church services, they can go elsewhere, for this theatre does not exist for them. It exists for those who believe that theatre and drama can provide a place and form for communal metaphysical contemplation and speculation: it is theatre as an essential element of life, not as amusement for a rainy day, for the bored straggler with money burning a hole in his pocket. It is the only remaining sancutary for the exploration of secrets and mysteries beyond the pale of Culture Industry — indeed, the very secrets and mysteries which that Culture Industry reviles and seeks to drown.