Ashley Ogzewalla and Professor Barta L. Heiner, Theatre and Media Arts
In the fourth century, the Western World, once forbidden to practice Christianity, suddenly found itself under the rule of an Emperor who abolished paganism and demanded Christian doctrine be observed. This abrupt alteration of religion changed the Romans’ ideas of life, worship, and views on the abilities of mankind. Having lived with the belief that in order for a person to become immortal, he or she must appeased a myriad of gods to hopefully attain favor, the people of the Roman Empire, now accepting the principles of Christian redemption, were empowered to govern their own destiny. Consequently, their change in personal morality is manifest in the representations of life they produced, such as plays.
Pinpointing production elements exhibiting morality in theatre before and after the Western World’s conversion to Christianity, practitioners, as well as audience members, can better understand, view and ultimately stage a play based on the moral discourse of the time. The objective of researching this subject is to correlate the use of the chorus, moral awareness and responsibilities of a protagonist, and peripeteia, a significant moment in which a character determines truth and chooses whether or not to abide by its standards, with regards to the governing religion. To do so, texts, historical research, and productions were evaluated. First, the texts were analyzed using historical research, and then the productions were viewed. Aeschylus’ Agamemnon clearly sets up the chorus as the “intermediary in universalizing the story, and relating the tragic action” (Arnott 34) in its opening oration. Informing the audience that “ten years since high summons came to Priam,” the chorus objectively gives the play’s exposition yet continues to give other parts of the background from the viewpoint of the men of Argos. Similarly, in the creation of a Greek chorus for Brigham Young University’s production of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, the chorus of women was designed to function as sympathetic characters who demonstrate the “correct” and “acceptable” ways to respond to the story, as well as report its action. In both instances, the worlds of the characters and audience, and consequently their morality, is dictated by the voice of the chorus.
Theatre after the rise of Christianity, such as Shakespeare’s, that excludes the chorus severs the abundant source of knowledge it provided about the moral standards that characters are judged by, thus, making the audience decipher the story and its code of morality for itself. In Hamlet, which is partially based on Agamemnon, all the information is presented in the dialogue giving the characters complete control over the audience’s understanding, including their depth of comprehension about the play’s morality. Leaving the audience to discern and interpret the subjective information received reaffirms the Christian notion that individuals are authorized to make ethical decisions and judgments for themselves.
Because Greek gods were often honored through public feats of accomplishment, Peter D. Arnott describes “passive” (5) pagan worship as an outward involvement in religion while he regards the “participatory” (5) Christian worship as a religious experience that takes place introspectively by a forfeiture of will rather than of visible assets (6). These new beliefs dealing with selfpurification began to affect the representation of man in theatrical works. The performances began to center “more and more upon the principal actor” (Harris 11), and the use of the chorus declined. In Eckehard Simon’s study of theatre, Christian drama is said to be for “only those initiated into the mysteries of the belief system;” others cannot understand the “reality” of the moral structure (132). So, the exclusion of the knowledgeable chorus and loss of assured audience awareness coincide with each other and the shift to belief in individual indoctrination.
Hamlet, staged at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, included an inconsequential podium with an open flame burning from the top throughout the entire play. The piece was discreet, yet it was situated almost at the center of downstage making it continually in the line of vision of all the audience members. Never referred to or used, the set piece was only part of the play for a short time as Ophelia was blocked near it just prior to her death. Designating her end as a ritualistic sacrifice seemed to be the point of the alter-like adornment and other production elements such as tribal drumming recordings and primitive-looking costumes. Conversely, the prominent center-stage placement of alters on Greek stages evidences the importance of having the gods and public witness one’s faith. Whereas, in Christian times, alters, if even on stage, are often removed from the focal point to a less noticeable position (Harris 36). Plays influenced by paganism use the alters in the performances while the alters of later Christian drama usually were used simply as ornamentation. Characters, like Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, burn offerings and pray at the figure.
Although this type of research and evaluation provided the information needed to complete the objective, studying the productions together with their contemporary religious ceremonies might have provided more insight and a clearer delineation of intended moral messages versus happenstance implications. Also, as with any research, further investigating of the subject by seeing multiple versions of a play in different cultural setting would aide in discovering the overarching issues of morality that are most universal in import. By opening this area of study, certain specifics like the usage of alters and integration, not disappearance, of chorus roles were found. More development of this subject can be done to include other religions and belief systems. People believe differently and will represent their beliefs differently, and others should be prepared to understand how to interpret what is being presented through both their own perspective and the perspective of the creator which is exactly the type of knowledge that an actor must acquire when preparing for a role.
- Arnott, Peter D. Public Performance in the Greek Theatre. London: Routledge, 1989.
- Harris, John Wesley. Medieval Theatre in Context. London: Routledge, 1992.
- Simon, Eckehard. The Theatre of Medieval Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991