More thoughts on the stage as a writer’s laboratory: Eating like snakes

At a first reading the complexity of the images in the Apocalypse may baffle and confuse us, but if we persevere we shall become thankful for it.  It means that no image stands alone, but has its place and sense determined by a whole surrounding world of images.  In the Apocalypse every image is bound to the others by a delicate web of interrelated significance . . .[1]

One of the important things about theatre is that it forces you to think in wholes.  A man may walk out on a performance halfway through – but if he does, he cannot come back to it later at the same point; the play isn’t in his video recorder, and he cannot stick a bookmark in it.  Likewise the actors cannot perform the first scene of a play, and then stop the performance and resume two days later.  The performance, once commenced, must be brought to completion.  It will not wait either for actors or audience.  The whole story must be told.  There are no half-measures with a play’s performance: you swallow the whole, or you get nothing.  You cannot cut the thing into parts for piecemeal eating.

snakeThe attempt at cutting up wholes into parts creates problems. For example, most of the complaints of people who “don’t like Shakespeare” would be answered if they saw his plays performed.  If you read them silently in the privacy of your room, one scene at a time, for the purpose of extracting some nugget that will allow you to ace your exam, then of course they will seem odious.  Shakespeare didn’t write them to be taken in like that.  “Life . . . is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / signifying nothing”[2] may appear idiotic in isolation, but if you’ve just watched the whole play and the trajectory of Macbeth’s life within it, would you expect him to say anything else?

This principle applies with equal force to other genres and mediums, though.  For example, the books of the New Testament were written (mostly[3]) to be read, out loud, to whole churches gathered in meeting-houses.  The Revelation to St. John may have been copied for the seven churches, but it assuredly was not photocopied for the private reading of the members of those churches.  The book was written whole, to be read audibly and whole, and heard whole by a whole community.  The wacky interpretations of Revelation arise largely because most of us don’t read the book that way anymore.  We miss that each of the vivid images really is bound to all the others in a delicate web.[4]

The same is true of St. Paul’s epistles.  Some time ago, I watched actor Stephen Trafton bring that point home with special force by a public, corporate reading of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  What does “though [Christ Jesus] was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant . . .”[5] have to do with St. Timothy’s qualifications as a minister of the gospel, or the quarrel between Euodia and Syntyche?  Only everything – but you have to hear the letter read whole to get that.[6]

More recently, Stephen brought the point home again by issuing an interesting challenge: pick one Pauline epistle, and read the whole thing out loud in one sitting.  I picked Colossians.  The effect of reading this letter, which Paul wrote to a small church in a little town on a mountainside in Turkey, as a whole rather than as a series of isolated parts, was astonishing.  For example, in what we call Colossians 1:13-14 and 2:13-15, Paul summarizes the gospel in a series of shorthand statements: (1) you were delivered from the kingdom of darkness and transferred to the Kingdom of Jesus; (2) in Jesus you have redemption, the forgiveness of sins; (3) God set your sin-debt aside by nailing it to the cross of Jesus; and (4) in the cross God in Christ triumphed over the rulers and authorities.  Here is gospel as redemption and Exodus, gospel as forgiveness of sins, as payment of sin-debt by a substitutionary payment, and gospel as victory over evil rulers.  None of these images can be isolated from the others; Paul hardly draws breath in moving between them, and in the transitions he connects and does not isolate them.  The source of the notion that the Gospel of the Kingdom is a thing different from, or subtly out of step with, the Gospel of Justification, is not St. Paul.  The same goes for the question of whether the cross is primarily where God forgives sins, or where God triumphs over the powers of evil.  The Pauline gospel, no less than the gospels composed by the four evangelists, is a thing meant to be swallowed whole, for a kind of slow inward digestion we can’t help but notice.


[1] Austin Farrer, A Rebirth of Images: The Making of St. John’s Apocalypse 18 (Wipf and Stock 2006)(1963).

[2] William Shakespeare, Macbeth V. v.

[3] The exceptions being St. Paul’s pastoral epistles, Philemon, and possibly St. Luke’s writings.

[4] Farrer, A Rebirth of Images at 18.

[5] Philippians 2:5 ff.

[6] It helps to have a really good actor, like Stephen, performing the role of lector.  For more information on his work, you may visit him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Posted on January 13, 2014, in Art, David Mitchel, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

    • Thanks, Don.

      This has gotten me to thinking about doing the same exercise with a longer letter — say 1 Corinthians — and seeing how that affects my vision of Paul and his works.

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