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“What a Christian portrays in his art is the totality of life. Art is not to be solely a vehicle for some sort of self-conscious evangelism.” ― Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible

Sometimes I am asked by other actors, mostly Christians, but not all, how do I go about deciding whether I should act in a certain play. “How can you play certain characters?” “What about plays that have ‘questionable’ content?” Some will ask because of their own personal scruples; perhaps they find a certain subject matter taboo. Others ask because they believe the very idea of acting in a play to be in and of itself a frivolous, even sinful thing to do. There are also those who enjoy theatre and film, and are sincerely curious about the process; how we thespians reconcile our faith with our art, especially when there’s the potential for compromise. And then there are those who are themselves actors who are serious about the creative work they do. They want to live in the freedom God has granted them as artists, but still remain faithful witnesses in the marketplace. So they’re looking for principles they believe will help them in their decision making process.

“If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul.” – Aaron (from Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare)

I recently started rehearsals for a stage production of William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first attempt at writing a tragedy. Andronicus is a “Revenge Play” – a very bloody revenge play. In it’s time it was one of the Bards most popular plays, probably because of all of the bloody vengeance, but during the Victorian era the play was maligned as too gory and violent. In the past, critics have often been divided as to its value as a tragedy, especially when compared to the later and greater tragedies like Hamlet and King Lear. Nevertheless, most agree that it is definitely Shakespeare’s darkest, bloodiest, and most disturbing play. With knowledge of this, a friend asked me, “Can you do this play? As a Christian, how can you play this character?” I asked myself the same thing, so I wasn’t put off by the question. About twenty-five years ago I read a small booklet written by Frances A. Schaeffer called Art and the Bible.

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“Christian art is the expression of the whole life of the whole person as a Christian. What a Christian portrays in his art is the totality of life. Art is not to be solely a vehicle for some sort of self-conscious evangelism.”Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible

In section two of the book he offers four standards of judgment for Christian Art (art consistent with a Christian world view). I’ve been using these standards as guidlines for over twenty years; they’ve been quite helpful and I’ve internalized them as my own, incorporating them in my decision making process when judging whether or not to take on a role or be a part of any stage production. I would like to review the standards with you, applying them to Titus Andronicus to give readers an idea of my process in choosing a role. I’m not a scholar; I’m writing as a practitioner who has shared this same info with other professional artists who have found it to be of some help.  Since I’m not giving a review of this book, I’m only going to focus on section two, and briefly refer to his four standards of judging art:

1. Technical excellence

2. Validity

3. World View

4. Suitability of form to content

These principles must be seen as a unit, not one in isolation from the other. It must also be applied to one’s own situation and discipline. So, using Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and my own creative discipline of acting, lets see how these principles work for me in the situation I find myself in.

Technical Excellence: This refers to the quality of the material, the skill to which the artist is able to realize his vision, and the ability that they’re able to bring to the medium, the tools used, and how the various elements are used. This one is easy. William Shakespeare easily passes muster. He’s considered the greatest english speaking playwright to ever live. Period. So I don’t even wonder whether or not his material will be technically proficient or excellently crafted; I’ve read them all and know they are. And excellence is important! I try not do perform in bad plays (and a play having a Christian message is no exception). I stay away from religious material that is poorly crafted because its a bad witness, but I will do a non-religious play that is well crafted if it meets these four standards.

Regarding technical excellence, my own skill (or lack thereof) must be taken into account. Just as a musician must be able to read a score, interpret a song, and be technically proficient enough on his instrument in order to bring a certain piece of music to life, so must I as the actor portraying a character. I too must know how to “score” my script, understand it, interpret it, less I perform “off key”. But I myself, am my own instrument, and I must have the technical ability – vocally, physically, emotionally – to bring the role to life. I’m a trained actor who has also been trained in the classics, so the role that was offered to me was one that I felt I could handle reasonably well, with some skill and emotional depth. Though I’m not afraid to take a risk and “stretch”, I try not to accept a role if I do not feel I am right for the part. As I once heard a legendary jazz musician say, “I try to play within myself”.

Validity: This refers to motives; the reason behind doing the work. Is it a work of authenticity, consistent with one’s purpose and world view? Or is it taken on for purely commercial success.  I do not act in plays, or take on roles I don’t believe in. I refuse to pander, nor do I enjoy being used in propaganda, or pander to sentimentality. And by “believe in”, I do not mean that I must personally agree with what the character says and does, but rather, I must agree with the purpose he serves in the life of the play and it’s overall message.

I had to give this one some thought when choosing whether or not to do this play. Andonicus has often been accused of pandering to audiences thirst for blood, and depending on the vision of the director of any given production, the blood, and violence contained in this play could be handled in such a fashion that does indeed pander rather than reveal; heightening the blood, sex, and violence in a gratuitous fashion, instead of than revealing something about the nature of evil and revenge.

And then there is the issue of ego. The character I’m playing is problematic for me because most actors will tell you that they would love to play a villain because they’re so much “fun” to play, and the character I’m playing, Aaron, is one of the greatest villains Shakespeare ever wrote. So, when deciding whether to take the role, I had to take care that my desire for a meaty role did not cloud my discernment, or cause me to overlook problems with the role and the play simply because my ego was being stroked. That’s a poor motivation for taking a role and it doesn’t pass the validity test.

“Our highest purpose in theatre is to represent culture’s need to address the question, ‘How can I live in a world in which I am doomed to die?’” – David Mamet

World View: Don’t be fooled. If it’s “Art”, it reflects a world view – Biblical or otherwise.  As a Christian, I seek to create work that reflect themes consistent with a Christian world view (as I understand it), AND reality.  Schaeffer says that art can be Biblical or not, it can reflect truth or not. The Pulitzer winning playwright David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, The Untouchables) has said: “The theatre is the place where we go to hear the truth.”  The work of an artist can be judged, just as we’re called to judge anything else. I do not believe that art must be used only for utilitarian purposes; it can indeed exist simply for the sake of beauty. And yet, art that reflects a Christian world view is also art that corresponds with reality, even if the work of art never uses Biblical or Christian symbols or words in it’s portrayal.

“We should realize that if something untrue or immoral is stated in great art, it can be far more devastating than if it is expressed in poor art. The greater the artistic expression, the more important it is to consciously bring it and it’s worldview under the judgment of Christ and the Bible. The common reaction among many however, is just the opposite. Ordinarily, many seem to feel that the greater the art, the less we ought to be critical of its worldview. This we must reverse.” ― Francis A. Schaeffer, Art & the Bible

However, Schaeffer points out that for the artist’s art and world view to be Christian and correspond to reality, it must also portray the reality of both the Major and Minor themes of life.  The Minor Theme expresses the brokenness of our world and our humanity. We have all gone astray and cant find our way back to Eden. Having lost sight of God’s ultimate intention for our lives, lives that are wounded, sinful, and bent toward evil.  It is a reality that this world is darkened, filled with violence, wickedness, abuse, and bloodshed. Even the best of us, Christian or otherwise, experience sorrow, loss, and defeat, and we will never experience total victory this side of eternity. We want to return to Eden, because things are not the way they’re supposed to be; God’s creation has been vandalized. This is the Minor Theme of the Bible. Art that is rooted in reality will be honest about this truth. Too often “Christian” art fails to honestly address minor themes, and as a result is dismissed as sentimental propaganda. Non-Christians reject it as out of touch, and not corresponding to reality.

Then there is the Major Theme of the Bible. The major theme reminds us that God has not left us alone. It is a Christian belief that God came and lived among us. He now lives within the believer continuing his work among those who were also created in His image. Things are dark, but we live in the already/not yet, Kingdom of God, so there is also light, and the world is full of faith, hope, and love.

Also remember that one play can’t always explore both major and minor themes adequately; artists can’t always give “equal air time”. But a body of work will portray both minor and major themes, sometimes in the same work, but not out of necessity. Just as we do not judge a pastor based on one sermon, or the Holy Bible based on one book, say the book of Lamentations (or the rape, mutilation, and other atrocities portrayed in the Book of Judges); in the same way we do not judge the world view of an artist, be they actor, musician, or a playwright such as Shakespeare, based on the treatment of one play.

In my opinion, a work of art is not truly “Christian” in an authentic sense, no matter how hopeful, if it has no room for minor themes. It is merely sentimental – not reflecting our true condition. Just as the Christian Bible portrays man acting out all manner of atrocities, so can an artist with a “Christian” world view explore some of these same minor themes. But ultimately the body of the artist’s creative work will hopefully reveal a world view that reflects faith, hope, and love, or the longing for such, after all, “The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” – Romans 5:20

Suitability of form to content: Is the medium used appropriate; does it do a good job at communicating the message or vision of the artist? This is the final standard of judgment, and I think history has shown the impact drama has in communicating truth. Themes in action, whether on stage or in film are powerful. I also believe that the form to content question has to do with taste. There is much in art and it’s presentation that some Christians believe to be sin issues,  that are often times a matter of taste or personal scruples, i.e., “Don’t eat, don’t touch”. I’m fortunate to be working with a director who seems concerned about balancing risk with “Good Taste” (for those of you who know the play, I hope you appreciated that pun). I also believe that there is no better artistic medium than theatre to address the question, “How can I live in a world in which I am doomed to die?” We get a chance to live vicariously through the characters as we watch theologies (questions about God, the nature of good and evil, etc.) and world views put to the test in action onstage, albeit vicariously:

“There is no more searching test of a theology than to submit it to dramatic handling; nothing so glaringly exposes inconsistencies in a character, a story, or a philosophy as to put it upon the stage and allow it to speak for itself. Any theology that will stand the rigorous pulling and hauling of the dramatist is pretty tough in its texture…I can only affirm that at no point have I yet found artistic truth and theological truth at variance.” – Dorothy Sayers

So for me, Titus Andronicus passes muster on these four guidelines. Yes, it is a dark play. I’ve always felt that for good to be seen as truly good, then evil must be seen as truly evil, not merely “disordered”. What makes the play and the character portrayals consistent with a Christian worldview is that the play says the same thing about sin and evil that scripture says about sin and evil.  Evil isn’t portrayed as noble or heroic. Revenge, though easy to justify from a merely human point of view, is shown for what it is, an evil that motivates others to greater acts of evil.

Though dark, Titus does reflect a Biblical perspective regarding the minor theme of life, no matter how disruptive. The wicked are punished, and the one leader left standing is the one who happens to have a conscience. As rehearsals progress, I’ll continue to share my thoughts and experiences. Who knows? Maybe my views will change or I’ll gain some new insights on the nature of evil. Keep me in your prayers.

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