Plays, Drama and Television

Advertisers like to assure us that the radio is America’s number one source of entertainment. If that is true, it only follows that television runs radio a close second. 

Television programs have a strong appeal, especially because they reach us through a double set of our strongest senses, through both the eye and the ear simultaneously. Any audio-visual experience makes a deep and lasting impression on us. Therefore a two dimensional picture with sound accompaniment becomes so real to us that the figures seem to step out of the picture into the room, the scent of smoke or of flowers almost seems to fill the air, and a sense of being a party in the activity becomes very acute. 

Anyone can well imagine that such audio-visual means of communication has immense possibilities for the future. It will undoubtedly play a prominent part in the education of children. How much more impressive a history lesson becomes if the book with its words and pictures is replaced by a dramatic presentation of the events as they actually happened. How much easier it will be to study geography by means of a travelogue on the screen. Even physiology and civil government will be made simple through talking pictures. With a little stretch of the imagination we can see our children learning languages and mathematics through motion pictures. 

From there it is no big step to a marked change in the manner of catechetical instruction. Already today the psychologist frowns on memory work, but would certainly welcome a movie which depicts the lives of the various Bible characters. But in that case, what about the pulpit? Will at some future date Rev. So-and-so be the main character in a Christmas pageant? And will the sermons be moral lessons from actual life displayed on the screen? Will that be the only kind of sermon the future generations will be able to grasp? 

But I am not writing about television as such. That is obviously here to stay, until some greater invention replaces it. And a mere blanket statement that condemns the instrument, or all that is produced upon it, will convince no one. 

I am writing particularly about television as a source of entertainment through dramatic productions or plays. 

That raises the question, what is drama? 

Webster defines drama as “A composition, now usually in prose, arranged for enactment, and intended to portray life and character, or to tell a story by actions, and, usually, dialogue tending toward some result based upon them, a play.” 

We could therefore say that drama is a composition that intends to portray the life and character of individuals, either imaginary or real, by action and dialogue. Or, it could be said, that drama is the audio-visual presentation of the life of some person. The actor places himself in the circumstances of another, and tries to duplicate that person in some manner before the audience. 

We might ask, but is not our daily life and speech full of drama? A child begins to imitate its parents already at a very early age. Johnny holds a pipe in his mouth just as daddy does. Mary talks to her dolls as she hears mother talk to baby sister. A pupil will often adopt the tone inflections, expressions, and mannerisms of a teacher whom he highly respects. We often try to imitate the peculiar motions and dialect of another person in telling a story. In fact, examples can be quoted from Scripture, where the prophets were told to perform certain actions as a demonstration before the eyes of the people. Besides there is a very close similarity between writing a novel and enacting it, or between reading a very interesting book and watching it enacted on the screen. 

Now if imitation is a natural and integral part of our lives, does it follow that drama is a legitimate and proper form of entertainment? Should we and our children indulge freely in watching TV programs? And is it also proper for us to attend indoor and outdoor movies? Is it a matter of the place? Or is it a question of degree, as to how much we should indulge, or what kind of plays we should watch? And if it is proper to watch the play on the screen, is it also proper to be an actor in it, and to make the stage a profession for life? 

The problem is a serious one and threatens to become more so as time goes on. 

In answer to the various questions that have been raised, it is important to make a distinction betweenimitation and impersonation

To imitate means “to follow as a model, pattern, or example; to copy or endeavor to copy in acts, manner, or other wise.” Thus you could imitate a farmer plowing a field, a man driving an automobile, or a woman shopping, merely as an outward act, without any display of feeling or emotion. In that case, the question of right or wrong would hardly enter in. Even if those actions are portrayed on the screen, accompanied by some dialogue, the ethics of it can hardly be questioned. 

We can even make a demonstration of human actions, which could serve a good purpose. A story told with the proper tone inflections and motions can leave a lasting impression, especially on a child who is very receptive. There is no doubt about it but that audio-visual means of instruction is highly effective. 

Even the Bible uses that form of demonstration to bring home very forcefully a certain truth. Elijah on mount Carmel, for example, mockingly urges the Baal priests to cry louder, “for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is on a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.” Plainly he mimics their manner of speech concerning their gods, in order to point out how ridiculous and how wicked are all their efforts to persuade Baa1 to bring God’s fire from heaven. 

It is, likewise, possible to demonstrate how a murder was committed by imitating the actions of the murderer. A detective may reconstruct the entire crime in order to prove the guilt of the suspect. As much as he plainly abhors the deed he is demonstrating, he will go through all the actions to show that everything fits into the picture as he sees it. But you will readily agree that this is by no means the same as impersonation or even dramatization in its strictest sense.

For impersonation is defined as assuming or acting the person or character of another. That is the prominent element in a play. In order to be successful, an actor must be able to enter into the thoughts and feelings of the person he is portraying. For in the minds of the audience the actor must be so completely associated with the real person that the audience forgets the actor and lives into the life of the real person, as if they were going through the same experience with him. The actor .and his audience must be able to put their heart and soul into that experience in order really to enjoy it. 

It is, therefore, exactly at this point that dramatization assumes an ethical character, that is, at this point it must be judged to be either right or wrong. 

And it hardly needs proof to show that at this point dramatization becomes sin, both for the actor and the audience. 

That is quite obviously the case if the actor assumes the character of a murderer or fornicator, as is so frequently done on the screen. The actor must relive the deed even as that person did himself. He must also be able to carry his audience along with him, so that they also are absorbed into the same feelings and emotions that accompany the deed. The degree in which he succeeds will determine the success of the play. How can he do that without making himself and his audience guilty of the sin that is being enacted? And, even if this were possible, how can it ever be right to play sin, and that for the sake of entertainment? Are we not accountable to God for all that we do? 

But if it is wrong to play sin, it would seem to follow that it should be perfectly proper to act out that which is holy. Yet again we are confronted with a very serious situation. The actor will play, let us say, the life of Christ, as is done in the Passion plays. The audience will watch him, try to associate him with the sinless Son of God, and share the experiences of Christ anew with the actor, all by dramatization. The very attempt is blasphemous. But it certainly can be no better for an actor to play, and for an audience to watch an enactment of the prayers and soul struggle of Martin Luther, or the spiritual experiences of John Calvin, or Abraham’s trial in the sacrifice of Isaac. How can anyone go through those experiences without playing the hypocrite? True enough, he is not actually deceiving anyone into thinking that these are his own experiences. But what is still worse, he is playing the part that does not actually exist in his own soul, but belongs to another. And that before the face of the living God! Are there not many things in our lives that we can talk about, but only with deepest fear and reverence? These things cannot be dealt with lightly by impersonation. 

And since there is no neutral zone in the life of any individual, no area in which we need not love the Lord our God with our whole being, there remains strictly no sphere that can be impersonated without treading upon either the holy or the unholy. 

Dr. L. Greenway writes in a similar strain in his book,Basic Questions About Christian Behavior, copied in the May-June, 1958, issue of Torch and Trumpet, “Some of us are inclined to believe that dramatic and theatrical filming is basically wrong. We believe that God has given every individual his own unique creatural distinction in life and that it is sinful for anyone habitually to reshape his individuality and to twist his personality for dramatic purposes. To ‘make love’ or to display anger, sorrow, fear or elation under artificial stimulation is a profanation of gifts and powers which God intends shall be used only in sincerity and truth.” 

The evil of dramatics is also borne out by its evil consequences. 

There is a real danger of losing our spiritual sensitivity by dealing lightly with the holy and the unholy. Those who make it a practice to watch the many plays on television can become so calloused to sin, that they can no longer distinguish clearly between the holy and the unholy, or between right and wrong. Promiscuous love making, vengeance, stealing, and gun play become common things in the lives of growing children as well as adults. Just watch the child on the street enacting the part of a western cowboy, or the like. That may account, at least in part, for the many gruesome murders done in cold blood, and the bold thefts that make headlines in the daily papers, as well as for much of the parental and juvenile delinquency of our day. 

Moreover, there is no small danger that we are producing an illiterate generation, that not only is too lazy to exert itself, but also is no longer interested in reading and writing, thinking and reasoning. It is so much easier to watch a play on television than to spend the time laboriously reading the book. It is so much simpler to page through a picture magazine than to study the current events. It seems to become increasingly difficult for our young people to memorize their catechism lessons or to write an essay for the society, even though they have a much broader education than their parents ever had. The education they receive may very well surpass anything that the past has ever known, but this education is not brought into practice, so that it is soon forgotten. No wonder that there is such a general complaint that doctrinal matters are too deep, church papers are too dry, and the Scriptures themselves too difficult to grasp. 

And finally, television is a great time consumer. Meetings for adults cannot be attended because they interfere with some favorite program. There is no time to prepare for society because entertainment comes first. And some would have to admit, if they were honest with themselves, that they enjoy a TV program much more than a church service. Likewise, the children are walking in the footsteps o$ their parents, even as in the days of the Judges (Judges 2:10-12) Children are just “too busy” to prepare for catechism, “too busy” to study the Scriptures, too busy for the important things of life. 

In conclusion, there is undoubtedly a place in our lives for an audio-visual presentation of the facts of our daily life, particularly in the realm of education. But it is also a fact that plays have become a real menace in the Christian home, for the old as well as for the young. It may be well for some to get rid of the TV set and to give the Bible its proper place in the home once more. 

—C.H.