The Idea of the Theater in Latin Christian Thought: Augustine to the Fourteenth Century

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Drawing on a wide range of documentary evidence dating from the 4th to 14th century, this study looks at the legacy of the Greco-Roman theatre in Christian writings. Placing this source material within an intellectual and historical, rather than a theatrical, tradition, Donnalee Dox reconsiders the role of classical theatre seeing it less as performance and more as a metaphor in medieval thought and writings. 'Dox convincingly demonstrates that far from there being a single 'medieval' attitude towards theater, there was in fact much debate about how theater could be understood to function within Christian tradition' - Constant Mews, University of Monash, Australia.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472114238
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 8/5/2004
  • Pages: 204
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

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The Idea of the Theater in Latin Christian Thought

By Donnalee Dox
Copyright © 2004

University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11423-8

Chapter One The Idea of a Theater in Late Antiquity Augustine's Critique and Isidore's History

* * *

THE WRITINGS OF St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and Isidore of Seville (d. 636) have provided modern scholarship with rich information about theatrical performance in the Greco-Roman world. Augustine's The City of God and Confessions criticize theater as a social, religious, and representational practice from a Christian perspective; Isidore's Etymologiae describes Roman theater, its performances, and its poetry based on an array of sources. The differences in purpose, readership, organization of ideas, and intellectual commitment between Augustine's and Isidore's ideas about ancient theater have mattered little in the construction of European theater's history. In Christianity's intellectual tradition, however, the differences between Augustine's and Isidore's writings on theater are pronounced.

Augustine's zealous condemnation of theater as a debauched social activity rooted in Roman polytheism was grounded in his experience of the behavior (on and off the stage) that theatrical shows encouraged. Generations away from the plays and pantomimes of Augustine's Carthage and Rome, Isidore documented theater and theatrical practice as a Christian historian. Theater had become an artifact of the old world, an idea that could be transmitted along with other Christian assessments of pagan learning. Unlike rhetoric, oratory, and literary genres (including drama), Latin Christian thought would not find theater-as a performance practice-of significant concern or interest in and of itself. But whether or not Augustine and Isidore had their facts right about how theater was done in the Greco-Roman world, they created a space for ancient theater in Christian thought. Chapter 1 and the subsequent chapters of this study take medieval discourses on ancient theater out of their familiar place in the history of Western European theater and drama in order to trace the transmission of ideas about theater in the context of a developing intellectual tradition. This first chapter identifies how two writers of late antiquity, Augustine and Isidore, present theater differently in relation to their own intellectual projects.

Augustine, the Christian Person, and Theatrical Representation

Augustine discusses theater in four of his major texts-Confessions, The City of God, Concerning the Teacher, and On Christian Doctrine-as well as in occasional sermons and soliloquies. He is responding to the ludi performed in permanent or (more often) temporary theater structures that were built throughout the Roman Empire (with raised stages, scaenae frons replacing the Greek skene building, and a semicircular orchestra), as well as to the spectacles of the circuses and amphitheaters. Though the religious aspects of Roman theater, especially their associations with festivals, diminished during the empire, the statues, effigies, and altars that kept the gods in full view in the theaters clearly marked theater as the domain of the pagan gods. Theater figures prominently in Augustine's Confessions as a site of moral and physical debauchery, and The City of God construes theater as a social practice inappropriate for Christian participation on the grounds of its close ties with pagan religion. Concerning the Teacher and On Christian Doctrine, documents cited much less frequently in theater history, briefly suggest theater as a sign system inadequate for representing Christian things (res). Together, these four texts outline the logical reasons why Christianity cannot tolerate theater or theatrical representation (as Augustine experienced and understood it).

Augustine's attitude toward theater has often been tied to his rejection of the lust and passions that, as he writes in Confessions, dominated his life prior to his embrace of Christian chastity. Augustine's reasoning, however, goes further than his second- and third-century predecessors-namely, Tertullian-in demonstrating exactly how and why theater and theatrical representation were fundamentally incompatible with a Christian view of the world. Three themes run through his arguments against theater (as distinct from dramatic poetry, rhetoric, oratory, or music): theatrical shows encourage bad behavior (solipsism, lust, devotion to actors, and uncharitable acts); theater is so rooted in pagan religion that a Christian city could not sustain it as an institution; and theatrical representation interferes with Christians' ability to know God.

Augustine understood theater as a social reality in a way later Christians could not. Theater was as much a part of the social fabric of the empire as was the status of Christians in imperial North Africa. Theaters were physical places, and performances were regular events. Actors were visible presences in Roman cities, and their affective power on the stages appealed to Christians as well as to pagans. Theater was thus one of the most visible demonstrations of pagan culture at which a zealous Christian might launch a critique.

Perhaps no single passage from Augustine's writings better encapsulates the three dimensions of Augustine's thinking about theater than the following:

The actors do not fail to portray even the most ignoble acts of the gods by means of their comic art; but, clearly, the priests fail when, in their purportedly sacred rites, they endeavour to portray the gods as having an honour which does not exist.

By this definition, theater is a misguided human craft in which performers impersonate gods as if they were human, ignoring completely the Christian mystery of a single God made flesh and represented in the communal meal of the Eucharist. The craft of acting is thus an overtly false mode of signification: actors deliberately impersonate a false pantheon and present it as real, then undercut the sanctity of the reality by lampooning their gods. Theater is distinguishable from pagan rituals only because priests, as opposed to actors, take the gods seriously and try to represent them with dignity. Yet the priests are ultimately no better than stage actors; they represent religious and social forces opposed to Christianity. If, as Ramsay MacMullen points out, fourth-century Christian monotheism had no place for the superhuman beings of the Roman pantheon, how much less could a Christian tolerate their impersonation by obviously human actors?

The son of a Christian mother and a pagan father, Augustine was baptized a Christian in 387 after three years of tutelage under St. Ambrose of Milan. A decade later, as bishop of Hippo and actively engaged in an ongoing battle against heresies and enemies of Christianity, he wrote the autobiographical Confessions (397), which analyzes his path to conversion in his early thirties. Book 3 chronicles Augustine's late teenage years in Carthage, where he had sharpened his skills in rhetoric and legal oratory, found Manichaeism, and attended the theaters with enthusiasm.

Marcia L. Colish notes Augustine as the only one of the Latin fathers who applied a truly philosophical mind to the search for Christian truth in pagan sources. His confessed passion for Christian monotheism was no exception, and his memory reconstructed events that could be manipulated for rhetorical effect in service of demonstrating Christianity's truth against the problem of evil. Augustine's intellectual positions, as Colish notes, were tightly bound to his lived experience. What was represented on the theatrical stages of North Africa in the mid-fourth century apparently resonated all too well with Augustine's life experience, without offering the intellectual challenges he found in Greco-Roman rhetoric, law, and philosophy. The matter-spirit dichotomy prevalent in Manichaeism and Neoplatonism is evident in Augustine's criticism of theater-from the feelings the performances inspire to the indulgent materiality of the performances themselves; from the desire to see the immortal soul as the image of God to the soul's culpability in its fall from God; from the belief in Christ as the universal way to Christian truth to reconciling Christian truth with the truth proposed by Plotinus. In the tradition of Tertullian and Ambrose, Augustine sees beyond the mendacity of the material world and, through reason derived from belief, perceives God's truth in the words of the Scripture and worldly signs. Augustine admits that mere reason shows him the illusion of truth. "How could I have seen this," he asks, "for my vision was limited with my eyes, to material bodies; with my mind, to phantasms?"

Confessions, unlike The City of God and On Christian Doctrine, makes autobiography and self-revelation authoritative testaments to the great divide between pagan theater and Christian representation. Book 3 focuses immediately on Augustine's lusts for sex and comfort in late adolescence, which left him sick in his soul, blind to God, and unable to respond to the suffering of others. In this context, he describes his desire for the theater as a lust for emotional intensity, a sin-along with pride and sensual pleasure-on a Plotinian triangle of iniquities. The attraction of theater and the emotional affect it produced were as powerful and dangerous as his sexual appetites. Augustine condemns theater because his desire of it in his youth had clouded his spiritual sight.

The emotional intensity of the theater played out in ways that, in Augustine's retrospective, seemed only to simulate true feeling. He confesses that the theater, "filled with depictions of my miseries and with tinder for my own fire, completely carried me away." The superficial, vicarious emotions encouraged by the theater impeded his Christian consciousness and kept him from perceiving God's truth. In Confessions, he recoils from the memory of living a false life without God, in which reason failed when confronted with the lies of the stage. He had enjoyed the vicarious pangs of sorrow he saw on the stages in Carthage-the more intense the feeling is, the better the experience is. With an equally powerful desire to confess, he rehearses the memory of a perverse and shallow pleasure offered by the stage.

Hence arose my love of suffering, not of the kind that would affect me deeply (for I had no desire to be afflicted with the things which I saw), but such as would supply, as it were, a superficial scratching as I listened to those fictions. Yet, an inflamed sore, and putrefaction, and blood poisoning followed, as if from the scratches of finger nails. Such was my life-or was it life, O my God?

Not only had Augustine enjoyed watching love stories and tragedies performed before his eyes (troubling enough in itself), but he had also relished the sexual feelings they produced-the very proclivities his post-confession mind found repugnant. Those fictional scenarios, structured in narratives and set out for display with living bodies, showed him only too clearly that human behavior untouched by Christian revelation was inherently flawed. The stage showed Augustine his own, deeply flawed behavior.

When the Augustine of Confessions measures himself against stage imagery and measures stage imagery against his now Christian soul, he is forced to confess that his soul suffered far more damage than pleasure in the theater. Augustine, the Christian, realizes that the world mirrored from the shiny surface of the proscenium was an unnatural world, a world without the Christian God, seen through the godless eyes of his youth.

Augustine's self-critique is itself a kind of performance of self-criticism. The temporal pleasures of the theater had lulled him into unchristian solipsism, fascination with his own sexuality, and a passion for fiction. Theater had perverted both his logic and his emotions. He pities his degraded self, as well as those who remain in the seductive hold of the theater and those who share joy and grief with lovers on the stage. Far from the now familiar Aristotelian idea that watching dramatic performances purges a person of negative emotions through a healthy catharsis, Augustine concludes that the audience's emotions are as contrived as the shows themselves. Just as he genuinely pities theater audiences, he realizes that pity for theatrical characters is merely contrived emotion. To his Christian mind, the false emotions theater elicits (including pity) are misdirected; the desire for meretricious pity is nothing less than unchristian. Christian reason reveals that theater abuses the human capacity for pity, because "though he who sorrows for the unfortunate is commended for a work of charity, he who is sincere in his compassions would much prefer to have no reason for feeling sorrow."

With his days in Carthage at a safe distance and in the security of his appointment as bishop of Hippo, Augustine makes the Roman theaters a site from which he can perform his confession. If God alone gives life joy, Augustine's Christian reason leads to the conclusion that if he (like so many others) had enjoyed going to the theaters, he had done so in a state of godless misery. Only in such a state could he have found pleasure there. His youthful self becomes the character to be pitied, his memory the stage, and Christianity the agent that transforms the lie of his youth to the truth of his Christian maturity. As a rhetorical device, the Roman theater-well-known to his readers as a social institution, a mode of representation, and a common form of entertainment-allows him to make sharp distinctions between spirit and matter, truth and falsehood, body and soul, Christian monotheism and pagan polytheism.

Part of Augustine's problem is that theater-whether judged as a social practice, as a mode of representation, or by its entertainment value-is indistinguishable from the culture that produces it. From Augustine's descriptions, theater offers representations of the pagan world. But it is also-and perhaps this is more dangerous from Augustine's point of view-a product of that world. As both representation and product of Roman culture, theater is inextricable from a world Augustine had rejected as illusory, sensual, and seductively anti-Christian. Thus, theater had to be distinguished from other, more useful products of classical thought. Unlike rhetoric, with its performative extension in oratory, narrative poetry, and music, all of which offered intellectual resources for Christian thought, Augustine could not (or saw no reason to) synthesize pagan theater with Christian learning. For Augustine, theater's inherently deceptive nature could only confirm and reify a world inhabited by pagan souls to whom the truth of the Scriptures had not been revealed. Whereas Augustine could adapt classical rhetoric by investing its mechanics of persuasion with a transcendent knowledge of God's word incarnate, theater offered no such useful mechanism. He could not tease theater out of its cultural function as popular entertainment and let it serve Christian ends. Thus, any soul who could enjoy watching imaginary lovers on stage remained, by definition, unchristian.

Augustine claims knowledge of commiseration in the carnal acts, amorous misery, and brutal revenge plots shown in the theaters and sets that knowledge against the truer satisfactions of a Christian soul. But his problem goes beyond theater's unhealthy appeal to bodily functions and base emotions-to theater's challenge to reason. In Confessions, Augustine's pity for the sinful lovers who appeared on stage and his unwitting identification with the scripted scenarios of love created a serious intellectual conundrum. Prior to his conversion, Augustine claims he could not distinguish between what he saw on the stage and his own experience. His conversion gave him a kind of critical distance from which to evaluate both theatrical representation and personal experience. He thus found himself caught in Aristotle's dilemma, taking pleasure in admiring representations of pain and sorrow. The result, for a Christian, is an ethical problem and a perversion of logic: stage plays allow people to remain impassive to sufferings and misfortunes that should otherwise incite them to action. Theater establishes a dynamic between an observer and a sufferer precisely opposite to that demanded by Christianity. The more convincing the suffering is, the greater are an audience member's enjoyment and praise for the author and performers. Augustine explains that a member of the theater audience "is not incited to give help; rather, he is simply enticed to feel sorrow: the more sorrowful he becomes, the more highly does he regard the author of those presentations." Augustine continues:


Excerpted from The Idea of the Theater in Latin Christian Thought by Donnalee Dox
Copyright © 2004 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 The idea of a theater in late antiquity : Augustine's critique and Isidore's history 11
CH. 2 Transmission and transformation : liturgical allegory and the idea of theater 43
Ch. 3 Renaissance and reorientation : ancient theater revisited in the twelfth century 72
Ch. 4 From poetics to performance : the reception and interpretation of Aristotle's Poetics to the early fourteenth century 95
Ch. 5 Afterword : from idea to practice 125
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