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Theater at Ephesus.

Theater or Theatre (from French: "théâtre", from Greek: θέατρον, theatron; "Name means::a public spectacle or venue for such spectacle") is a form of art in which one person or a group of persons all pretend to be people they are not, and act out stories that may or may not have a basis in fact, for the entertainment, instruction, indoctrination, or propagandization of other people. Classically, the term theater refers to actors performing on a stage in the physical presence of their viewers, or the venue in which they do this. More broadly, theater includes any form of acting-out, whether one does it "live," in a motion picture, or on television. It also includes a variety of forms that use music and/or dance to tell a story, and other forms that include no dialogue at all and involve one performer, or two or three, using gestures only to give an impression of an emotion or emotions.

History of Theater

Greece and Greco-Macedonian Civilizations

The first instances of theater gave the term its name. It involved actors performing on a stage in the well of a half-circle arena—often called an amphitheater (from the Greek amphi, a preposition meaning "on both sides of"). The usual subject matter in the Greek theater involved the Greek pantheon and various heroic and military stories of the ancient Hellenic civilizations prior to the First Olympiad. Besides the paying of homage to pagan gods, the classic Greek plays quite often treated sensitive subjects—famously including incest, adultery, rape and murder—in a mature and forthright manner. Most Greek plays were tragedies, involving characters who came to bad ends, usually by displaying excessive pride and trying to outdo the gods or thwart prophecy.

The people of Israel received their first exposure to theater with the conquest of restored Israel by Alexander the Great and their subsequent subjection to the Seleucid Empire. The leaders of that empire sought to expose their subjects to all things Greek, a process called "Hellenization" (from the Greek name for the country of Greece, Hellas). The Jews were scandalized and, with the ouster of the forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes by Judas Maccabeus, were determined never to partake of theater or any other Greek thing ever again.


When Rome finally conquered Greece, the Romans quickly learned the Greek language and copied many Greek art forms, including theater. The difference was that Roman theater placed less emphasis on religion and more on spectacle and excitement. Roman audiences jaded quickly, however, and often expressed their frustration and impatience with rude, insensitive, and frankly loutish behavior. Roman plays tended to be comedies, though many Roman plays had military themes.

Roman gamesmasters—chiefly the ædiles curules (magistrates in charge of public works)—elevated theater to a high art. In addition to the poetic narratives that had characterized Greek theater, Rome introduced athletic competition, especially that famous genre called gladiatorial combat (from the Latin gladius a short double-edged sword) in which two men would fight duels with military weapons. At first these duels were mock duels. Then, beginning with the Imperial period, these duels became actual duels to the death, usually between slaves, condemned criminals, and/or prisoners of war. Emperors after Augustus added combat between man and beast--and most famously, Emperor Nero publicly executed his enemies, especially Christians, by releasing carnivorous animals to eat them before a large audience.

Medieval and Renaissance Europe

When Rome fell, theater was out of fashion, primarily because humans abandoned cities and were organized on farms and in villages. With the re-establishment of law and order, dwelling in cities became safe again. Theater came back with the cities.

At first, under Roman Catholic dominance, theater consisted of liturgical drama. Eventually, however, theater returned to its secular roots--and by the time of William Shakespeare, the subject matter in theater was, more often than not, vulgar and even obscene. Puritans and other religious leaders objected vehemently to theater. One famous cleric during the reign of Elizabeth I famously said,

The cause of plagues is sin, if you look to it well, and the causes of sin are plays; therefore the causes of plagues are plays.

That the Black Death had broken out a scant century before he made that statement was regarded as no coincidence. Yet the theater was part of a trend that could not be stopped.

One remarkable consequence of the continued religious opposition to theater was that women could not appear in plays. This did not, however, mean that scripts never featured female characters. Instead, prepubescent boys played those parts, with often shocking realism.

Regency, Victorian, and Edwardian Theater

During the nineteenth century, theater became more refined, especially as women began to act in plays. This was especially true during the Victorian era, an era given to ostentatious display in visual art and architecture but also to scrupulous modesty in fashion and deportment. This era is also called the "neoclassical" era of theater.

Post-Edwardian Theater

After the death of King Edward VII of Great Britain, a general coarsening of society set in. Motion pictures, a new medium, began to compete with the traditional stage, but the general principles were the same: theater is theater, whatever the medium. Sadly, theater both reflected and accelerated this coarsening. This was far more true of film than of the live stage. Performers on the live stage tended to restrain themselves, out of their own sense of modesty and also of consideration for the sensitivity of the general public to acts depicted by actual persons in the physical presence of others. These considerations operated less obviously in film, and so motion pictures began to feature increasingly sinful plots, and also the sort of spectacle of which Nero would have been proud.

Motion pictures were a United States invention and were primarily, though not solely, a United States product. Therefore anything that happened in or to "the movies" in the United States affected motion-picture projects throughout the world, except in certain totalitarian nation-states. In those states—chiefly Nazi Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—motion pictures were purely a tool of propaganda in support of the ruling regime or its ideals.

In 1932, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, at the strenuous urging of United States Representative William Hays, established the Motion Picture Production Code, in an effort to convince the viewing public that they were sensitive to their concerns. They probably intended to honor this code more in the breach than otherwise. But then Mr. Joseph I. Breen became President of the National Ratings Administration, later renamed the Production Code Administration, that board of censors thereafter known as "the Hays Office" in honor of Mr. Hays. Breen was determined to enforce the code in fact, rather than with lip service only.

The contrast between "pre-Code" and "post-Code" films was striking. With Breen in charge, salacious plots, plot themes, and plot devices were strictly forbidden—as was the use of obscene language, or any violation of the Third Commandment. No character could commit a criminal act and escape punishment for that act—not even if it were an act of understandable (by human ways of thinking) vengeance. Neither could any character disrobe on camera, nor commit adultery or fornication with impunity.

"Nature abhors a vacuum," and so motion-picture projects came to emphasize non-salacious themes. During this era, most actors in motion pictures transferred to that medium from the stage—and since motion-picture technology was relatively primitive, special effects were necessarily limited. And so the "talent" for acting took precedence over superficial appearance and "set pieces." Plot themes tended to emphasize the sort of human drama requiring responsible decision and action. In addition, this era saw a return of liturgical drama, especially in motion pictures. With the entry of the United States into the Second World War, another theme became prominent: duty, honor, and the often severe demands that these two ideals required of people, men and women both.

Further Decline and Coarsening

Victory in the Second World War brought with it a rush to mutual indulgence, and theater in all its media—stage, film, and a third medium, television, again both reflected and accelerated this trend. The Motion Picture Production Code came under intense pressure, both legal (in the form of an antitrust decision that weakened the power of the Hays Office) and personal (with the retirement of Joseph I. Breen, of whom no worthy successor ever emerged). Finally, with the release of a truly shocking film involving adultery, embezzlement, invasion of feminine privacy, and murder (the last staged with almost nauseating realism), the Code was doomed. Joseph Valenti's Motion Picture Producers of America abandoned the code completely in 1968. With this abandonment came an abandonment, for many decades, of liturgical drama in favor of stories designed merely to excite, scare, or titillate--and often to propagandize.

Television's moral restraints survived somewhat longer—for though the Hays Office was now disbanded, the US Federal Communications Commission imposed strict rules on what could, or could not, be shown in a medium that was, after all, transmitted directly into people's homes at a time when minor children might be watching. Thus for two decades, motion pictures had one set of standards, and television had another--though as television turned increasingly to action, adventure, and crime drama, writers found ways to introduce salacious elements that a child might not recognize as such, though an adult would.

With the coming of Community Antenna Television came the notion of voluntary subscription to certain packages, called channels, of television content. Here the FCC made a critical decision: to allow the content of a subscribed channel to be far more obviously salacious than before, so long as one had to subscribe to that channel, and pay an extra fee to receive it. The FCC might have thought that non-subscribed, "broadcast" channels might remain non-salacious, but this hope proved false. Today, on nearly any channel, a viewer might tune in a spectacle at least as shocking, and with just as much appeal to prurient interest, as an attendee of the ancient Greek theater in the days of Antiochus IV Epiphanes might have enjoyed.

The traditional stage is far less well attended than it once was. It, too, has reverted to its perhaps original form, and often is a venue for experiments in forms of acting that severely test a viewer's capacity for suspension of disbelief, a conscious act often critical to a viewer's appreciation of theater in any medium.

Significance of Theater for Christians

Modern theater has for years been damaging to the cause of Christ in many ways. First and foremost has been the abandonment, until recently, of liturgical drama. Aside from a few isolated projects, much drama having a liturgical theme has often depicted individual clergy members, and even entire organized corporate church bodies, as being hypocritical, non-compassionate, mendacious, conspiratorial, and even criminal in their behavior.

Worse than that trend has been the tendency to regard evolution as established truth, to depict those opposed to its teaching as dangerous obscurantists, and to tell stories that require evolution to be true in order to make any form of dramatic sense. This stands in stark contrast to the one motion picture ever produced that featured an enactment of the stories in Genesis from Creation to the near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. A number of motion pictures, especially during the 1950's, used atavism (the retrogression of a "modern" animal, or even a human being, to a stage of macro-evolution several epochs in the past) as a plot-theme. One particularly ill-conceived television program proposed to tell a continuing story of a "new species of man" whose members suddenly determined to destroy the rest of mankind in order to take their "rightful" place. Evolution and its future progression are in fact a frequent device of science fiction, which lends itself well to dramatization in motion pictures and, to a lesser extent, on television. Furthermore, the case of Tennessee vs. John Scopes has been the subject of a stage play, since remade once in film and again on television, that grossly distorted the facts of that case, again for the purpose of propagandizing against creationism and for evolutionism.

But perhaps the most deleterious effect that theater now has is its tendency to exalt sin as a legitimate human pursuit. In a sense that would have sobered even the original cleric who first said that "the causes of sin are plays" (see above), theater today can be a cause and an effect of sin.

Whether Christians ought to respond by abstaining permanently from theater in all its forms, or by producing, and supporting the production of, the sort of uplifting and God-honoring works that were an occasional part of the history of theater, is a sharply disputed question. The Bible records no example of theater as a part of any service of worship. For His part, Jesus Christ gave several precepts, not merely of behavior but also of thought, in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7 ) that would certainly bear on the question of to what sort of spectacle, including theater, a Christian ought to expose himself.

See Also