As I face the task of writing an article of this nature I am keenly aware of my limited qualifications for such work, firstly because it is on material quite foreign to a minister’s regular field, and secondly, it is a relatively new subject among us, having been introduced only recently by Rev. Kok in Our Church News.
I will however write in the hope that it may provoke a fruitful discussion among us, and in the Standard Bearer, if it does not dislocate the Editor’s plan, or interfere with his policy.
In order to see our problem it is necessary first to see what we understand by Christian Drama. And then it will appear that any definition offered will reflect at least something of personal opinion.
However, it is apparent that we are not left wholly to arbitrary definition, but find something that determines it, both in history and in human nature, and taking account of these two, I would define it as follows:
The presentation of Biblical doctrine or the spiritual motives of history in the light of the Christian interpretation, by means of action or speech imitating’ the situation or thought presented, with the purpose of provoking a spiritual response.
The drama so seen can be distinguished in two of its phases.
And some drama does not really advance any further than the first stage, that is the historical material which is imitated either for the sake of entertainment or historical instruction.
However, the drama only reaches its proper development and inherent tendency when it emphasizes the motives, the passions, the struggles inherent in history. To this point it develops in the ancient Greek plays, in the Teutonic drama, and also in the Medieval church in the morality plays.
The reason for this is apparently, that moral man cannot contemplate history to any considerable extent, without setting his interest upon the deeper motives; or to express it somewhat differently, the most profound, the grandest material for drama is found in these deep underlying motives.
At this stage Drama becomes an art. That is as such, it must express by unity of construction a universal truth. In this sphere, hence, it is not enough to give a faithful presentation of many facts, for that does not represent the truth, Rather must the truth be presented by a few carefully chosen facts.
A very simple and crude illustration will explain: I may very faithfully paint a horse I have seen in the pasture, but having painted it, I have a horse with a lame leg, one eye missing, and big, obtrusive gall-scars.
NOW, irrespective of my accurate painting, I have produced no art. I have not conceived “the horse”, as to its idea. I have not chosen a few typical representative lines but have used all a particular specimen presented.
So it is with the drama. As an art it requires that the universal be grasped and presented in a few bold strokes.
Applying this now to the proper theme of drama, that is to the motives, the passions and struggles inherent in history, because of truth and righteousness coming in conflict with evil, it requires a vision that has truly grasped the essence of truth and the essence of evil and their mutual relations, and has not been led astray by incidental manifestations.
How is such drama possible?
Is it ethically possible?
Is it epistemologically possible?
That is, is it possible without sin on the part of the authors, and does the nature of truth and of knowledge allow it?
It is on these two points that objections present themselves.
The first considers the question whether it accords with one’s personality and individuality to assume the role of another.
This again has two aspects.
First the objection can be raised, that by assuming the role of another a person thereby warps his own individuality and personality. He uses that which God has given him to take his place in the grim reality of life, in a manner that does not comport with its nature and development. His good gifts of displaying anger, sorrow, fear, despair, he uses under artificial stimulus, in situations that do not call for the exercise of these emotions, and consequently dulls his own sense of these.
A second aspect of this same objection is that the actor leads a make-believe life, he lives in a continued hypocrisy. I can best state this by quoting expressions
from a few articles of our Rev. Kok in the Church News (March 28 and June 20, 1940)—every individual has its own unique and distinct character and personality given by God, and—it is positively wrong for one creature to impersonate another—all impersonation is essentially hypocrisy—an abomination to God. Again: “If our position be correct, that all dramatics are abominable to God, because all dramatics is essentially hypocrisy—you cannot speak of Christian drama or play, any more than of Christian hypocrisy.”
The second main objection is that it is impossible to present truth by means of drama because of the very nature of truth. Truth is deemed so great, so inexpressible, so beyond the hypothetical situation and the limitations of dramatical device, that the result is necessarily a half-truth or distortion.
Now, it seems to me we must weigh carefully objections of this nature.
In the argument from the word “hypocrisy” we have plainly a hidden equivocation. Acting is silently assumed to be hypocrisy and the conclusion is easy—“abomination to God.”
But is acting equivalent to hypocrisy?
Of course not, no acting is trying to deceive, no one is trying to withhold his real character from anyone, and we may drop this argument forthwith. This then leaves the question whether impersonation or the creation of a hypothetical situation or an illusion, when agreed to by all, is accordant with moral honesty.
Against this objection there are many counts.
Hereby also the Novel with its hypothetical situations and fictional characters is condemned, and it should not have escaped, e.g., Rev. Kok that Prin. Janse, the able pedagogue and psychologist, whom he quoted approves of the novel.
Further we should note that in the Bible we have instances of impersonation and hypothetical situations.
Isaiah is to walk “naked and barefoot” as a sign of the captivity of Egypt. Is this in conflict with moral honesty?
Ezekiel is to make a picture of Jerusalem and build engines of siege against it and then lying upon the ground for many days he shall bear the sin of Israel. Is he thereby “abominable before Him, who seeketh truth within?”
And what of all dramatic speakers and preachers who impersonate by gesture, by grimace, by voice inflection, by quotation.
Surely we do not condemn all this as ill according with sincerity.
For the second main objection I have more respect. That objection holds that truth in its deepest sense, the sense in which drama seeks to portray it, cannot be expressed within the limitations of the drama. It is in this sphere that the word, the abstract word, the flexible, pliable word is our appointed vehicle of thought. In this sphere where we often grope for words and even they fail us, dramatic equipment can only tend to superficiality of thought.
But also with respect to this argument we find that in Scripture where the truth and also the vehicle is shown in its highest perfection, the abstract word is not exclusively used at all, but Scripture abounds in symbolical action, hypothetical situation, illusion, impersonation, To mention a few: The service of the temple where the ministers enacted confessional, cleansing, forgiveness, and blessing. These were all shadows of higher realities. Or again, the prophets and Nazarites who portrayed in their manners and dress, as well as in word, their message.
Surely, these could afford a better living, and yet their over-simplicity was not hypocrisy, and it was very effective speech.
I feel that in the face of these many arguments which oppose the two main objections against the drama, a blanket condemnation of the drama is not valid. These various arguments may to some appear trifling. But I hold that the objector must face these annoying instances, and since there is no statement in Scripture settling the issue, he must far from brushing them aside, integrate them into his grounds for a condemnatory judgment.
I believe our calling in this respect is much more spiritual and serious. Surely, seeking a solution in one sweeping condemnation will be wholly unsatisfactory, for a stand that goes beyond the truth is just as untrue and dangerous as an understatement. And it is tragic in its results in complacency, self-righteousness and strife.
I am convinced that, should the drama become popular, then it is our calling to become fortified not by a convenient blanket condemnation, but by the development of spiritual discernment through God’s Word so that we are able to discern evil and flee it.
That is the Scriptural way and history teaches the same. Many sects condemn tobacco outright; we smile and say “It’s not the use but the misuse that is sin.”
Again many would condemn liquor outright. Recall the controversy in the Orthodox Presbyterian Assembly. We say “Oh, no, not so simple as all that. Hands off! It’s not in the use but in the misuse.”
I may even point to the union question. Many of us have started out with such a sweeping condemnation of the idea of a union that even the business association as such and even the C.L.A. as such fell under that ban. The practical task of treating these things soon reveals a more difficult calling of discerning between good and evil in each given case.
Applying this principle now to the drama, I for one am not, on any ground I have seen, ready for a blanket condemnation, and feel shut up to the more arduous way—the way of spiritual fortification and discernment.
And should any of our youth now say “Goody, now I can attend a drama occasionally!,” I would advise them to reserve their elation. For I have advocated the hard way. It will mean namely that you must always persevere in prayer and spiritual discerning, and even then you may possibly never find a drama which you could or would attend.
But the loss would be of no account and the gain would be that you have grown strong in spiritual carefulness, and have proved what is that good and well pleasing and perfect will of God. That is the reasonable service He requires of us.
To me it is the only solution for the drama problem as I see it.