I arrived at the theater dressed in my usual inconspicuous black dress pants, simple blouse, and low heels, only to realize immediately that I hadn’t gotten the memo. Among all the red and sparkles, I felt like a kill-joy in my plain attire.
I took a moment to watch the multi-generational families in all their finery as they spoke together in animated tones. They are dressed for a Christmas morning church service, I thought. I looked up and down the lovely, old-fashioned Orange Avenue before walking into the lobby. I would not have been surprised if June Cleaver had approached me with a tray of gingerbread cookies.
As I settled into my seat, enjoying the palpable anticipation in the house, I thought about the relationship between worship and theater. It’s a close one, actually, although as a culture we’ve forgotten it. (“Culture” comes from the Latin cultus, religion. A culture is rooted in religion. If we are what we eat, then our culture is what we collectively worship.)
Anyway, back to that relationship: Greek drama — whose influence on our drama today cannot be overstated — grew out of religious rites, specifically, out of those performed at festivals honoring Dionysus. A tyrant named Peisistratus saw the increasingly-popular devotion to the god of wine and fertility as an opportunity to bring the people of Athens together—quite literally. It’s estimated some 14,000 Athenians attended the festivals he organized. About a century later, we have Aeschylus entering the drama contest.
Now, skip forward half a millennium, and we get the advent and ascent of Christianity. When the Christians got into power, the pagan festivals got the axe (and if you imagine for a moment what was happening at those festivals honoring the god of wine and fertility, you’ll understand why).
It was not long, however, before theater started sneaking in the church doors in the form of acting out the Gospel stories during the Mass. It got so popular, that they started moving it onto the church lawn to accommodate everyone. That tradition held all the way to Shakespeare’s boyhood, when the first theater he experienced were the Mystery Cycles, which presented Bible scenes on stages mounted on wagons that travelled from town to town during festive seasons.
During Shakespeare’s day, the theater and the Church went their separate ways again. Today’s theater might be a child of religion, but it’s always been a pretty dysfunctional parent-child relationship. At some point, the child becomes a teen and thumbs his nose at religion, and religion in turn disowns him and calls him a bastard child. But, to quote the Bard, “the whoreson must be acknowledged.”
Festival of Christmas runs at Lamb’s Players Theater through December 30.