On The Arts

Monday Musings for Monday June 23, 2014

Volume IV.  No. 24/174


An Essay on Theatre

by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

“I developed a passion for stage plays with the mirror held up to my own miseries and the fuel they poured on my flame. How is it that a man wants to be sad by the sight of tragic sufferings that he could not bear in his own person?”

 St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430): Confessions, Book III, section 2.

Why Theatre?

More than sixteen centuries ago, during antiquity, long before Ludwig Wittgenstein, Fredrick Nietzsche, Freud and psychoanalysis, long before the existentialists Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camu, Saint Augustine of Hippo, having studied Cicero, the Greek playwrights, and the neo-Platonist philosophers, such as Plotinus and Porphyry, intuitively knew that theatre is a powerful medium of “turning inward” (introspection) and learning about one’s self. There are many other historical witnesses both in philosophy and theology who loved and use theatre in their writings and teaching. These include not only Socrates and the prophets, but also Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Origen, Aquinas, Maimonides, Luther, Calvin, Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Schleiermacher, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Martin Buber, Karl Barth, and others. They have all written extensively on the value of theater in understanding and search of the self.

We now know that there are four powerful instruments used for introspection and research on self. One can learn about one’s self through psychoanalysis, which is usually very expensive and time consuming. The other tools are studying history, opera and poetry. The last, but certainly not the least, is theater.

Theatre, a combination of words, acting, and often music, offers us the most comprehensive and potent introspectoscope. Theatre and opera give the viewer an opportunity to become aware of one’s unconscious in dynamic gradation. Do we, as viewers, possess at least some of the evil and sexual identity confusion that eclipses Iago and Othello (in Shakespeare’s play Othello)? Are we endowed with passion that made Don Jose kill Carmen? Are we capable of transcendence that comes with the Zoroastrian parables in Wagner’s Ring Cycles?  In order to get to know ourselves better, I believe theatre and opera should be an integral part of every citizen’s cultural and intellectual diet. It is much less expensive that psychoanalysis, and while being intellectually stimulating, it is more enjoyable and entertaining.

 A Brief History of Theatre

Theatre has been with us since the Sumerians more than 7000 years ago. Scholars believe that the entire scene of Moses and the burning bush was a dramatic theatrical production for the Lord, Yahweh, to make a point to his chosen people, the Jews. However, at one point in history there was a dearth of theatre. Almost 2000 years separates Sophocles from Shakespeare. The Middle Ages did not produce much theatre. With Renaissance came a flowering of theatre. We have had the theatre of 19th century influenced by Darwinism, and the 20th century by theater of absurd (Le theatre de l’absurde), a term coined by Martin Esslin (in 1962 he wrote a book by this title) depicting the quest of Albert Camu and other playwrights to find the meaning of life. Toward the end of the 20th century and continuing into the 21st, we have seen powerful works by Tom Stoppard and others that closely examine social ethics.

Theatre depends on conflict, agon, a Greek word that reflects tension and tug of war.  Greek theatre dealt with myth, nature and the minor and major gods (with small ‘g’). Renaissance theatre, especially in England the work of Marlowe and Shakespeare, centered around the theme of passing on power from generation to generation, king to king. Shakespeare’s four incomparable tragic plays, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and Othello, dealt with complex issues of changing guards, political hegemony and domestic disequilibrium. The theatre of Christian culture depicted and postulated love, charity, guilt, sin and redemption. With Renaissance, the Greco-Roman tradition of theatre was revived. Later, with the birth of Protestantism, Reformation and Counter-reformation, theatre was used by rulers like Elizabeth and James to make xenophobia an acceptable form of make believe patriotism, very much like what is happening today in America with the immigration issue. Moliere continued that trend in France under Louis XIV.

In modern days, we are dealing with issues that take innovation, courage and erudition that need to be brought on stage. In Raleigh, we have that in Burning Coal Theater which came to Raleigh in 1996. I am told that there were thirteen people in the audience of the first performance (no, I was not there.) It is always good to see a new work or a new artistic enterprise grow legs, even if at the beginning it seems unlikely to become a distant runner. It has been the delight of the region’s theatre lovers to see Burning Coal staging the work horses of theatre, such as Hamlet.

Saint Augustine of Hippo and Sufism “MONAJAT”

Saint Augustine of Hippo, whose biography and Book of Confessions were reviewed in this space, was born in 354, exactly 266 years before the birth of Islam. Prophet Mohammad Pbuh, the founder of Islam was born in 580 AD, and Islam was founded on the Prophet’s 40th birth in 620 AD. The influence of Augustine, a Christian convert, a towering intellect, who eventually became a Catholic Bishop, was vast and lasting. The Sufi, a branch of Islam, wrote prayers and poetry which reflected the ideas of Augustine. Some of these Sufi poems and prayers not only convey Augustinian ideas and words; they even follow the cadence and rhythm of Augustine’s elevated literary style and composition. Of course, Augustine wrote in Latin, and the Sufis wrote either in Arabic or Farsi.  Here is a translation of the Sufi, Khajeh Abdullah Ansari’s (1006-1088) “Monajat”  or “conversation with God.” It reads like Augustine’s City of God.

“Talking with You, Lord, is heightened awareness in all spheres: tenderness, oneness, fusion, spiritual elation, music and light…

All presided over and orchestrated by the ultimate Maestro, You the Lord of all…

You are the force of connectedness and love…

The fire of Your love in my heart is substantial, oak lit, and ember laden…

It is not a roaring brushfire condemned to death and termination…It is a fire with gentle warmth, permanence, immutability and depth…

The fire inside of me and the fire inside of You, oh Lord, connect us…

Outside, there is the moon…Not the coquettish, voyeuristic playful moon of the sophists…Not the moon of the Platonists, not the moon of Virgil, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle…Not the moon of Euripides and Sophocles…Not the moon of Moses and Mount Sinai…This is Your moon and my moon, thinly draped by a satin-textured film of cloud that gives it luminescence, gently eclipsing and enveloping the universe…Standing and looming..

For all this beauty and intimacy, O, Lord, I kiss the threshold of your throne… Amen.”


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.



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