Commedia dell’Arte and Performance Christianity

Commedia dell’Arte and Performance Christianity January 12, 2014

Imagine a time before Netflix and before smartphones. Before computers. Before cable TV. Before TV. Before radios and telephones. Imagine a time when the only way to hear a human voice was to be standing within earshot of that human being.

It’s said that within 50 years of our own deaths, every human being who has ever been personally caressed or lashed by our voices will also be dead; while technology can help keep our voices alive a bit longer, it’s not the same as the feel of air currents disturbed by our particular voices coming from our particular throats, is it? People have always craved that direct connection. That’s one of the benefits they get from religion–an instant context in which to perform together and to connect.

The Carnevale lives forever. (Credit: Will Will, CC-ND.)
The Carnevale lives forever. (Credit: Will Will, CC-ND.)

Decade after decade, human after human lived and communicated and moved and died, and until very recently, there wasn’t a way to make that communication or those movements known to any but a select and fairly small audience. And yet we kept doing precisely that. From the earliest time, we’ve staged performances for ourselves and each other–from the earliest Greek theatre performances to the little traveling bands of rustic singers and fools wandering around early medieval Europe to the way more extensive groups operating then and beyond, to modern conceptualizations of street and experimental theatre, we’ve found ways to express our creativity in groups.

Long ago, that’s all there was for entertainment. In the Renaissance, children from early ages joined little clubs that practiced religious stories about saints and Gospel fables to perform on holy days and during parades. In the Little House on the Prairie books, the children’s recitals and various group exhibitions are a constant feature of the series; I still love Laura’s breathless excitement as she recalled decades later how everybody in town looked forward to the break these evenings provided and how the children involved worked their tail ends off learning their pieces for recital or the songs for singing school.

There’s something in us that craves this collective storytelling. Put a group of children together, and very quickly they’ll organize a creative endeavor together–they’ll play House, or Everybody Gets Shipwrecked on a Tropical Island Paradise (my favorite, played with Lincoln Logs and Breyer horses), or Star Wars Jedi Princesses, or something even weirder. They’ll put on shows for any adults who can be conned into sitting still and watching. When put into groups in schools, quite a few of them like performing for their parents for PTA nights.

Sometimes we don’t outgrow our need to tell stories in such group settings and we’ll end up in Drama Clubs in high school like I did, or maybe even go beyond those into other creative storytelling endeavors like stage magic, ventriloquism, puppetry, or the like. We’ll do flash mobs and join community playhouses.

Or we’ll join a really zealous church and learn what real storytelling is all about.

The Comedy of Error.

I still remember the first time I realized that we were all just play-acting.

We were all in church and it was a revival meeting. It was nighttime and the preaching had been absolutely on fire. But then a sudden silence swept the congregation. The preacher, Lee, was a tall, lean, almost Jack Skellington-looking fellow who was quite famous in my denomination (and still is, despite facing an awful cancer episode without insurance). We all stopped and were praying mid-sermon for some reason or other, and then suddenly a woman stood up in the silence and began shouting in “tongues.”

English: Pentecostals Praising Location: http:...
Pentecostals Praising. Location. (Wikipedia)

Now, like a lot of tongue-talking churches, we differentiated between “speaking in tongues” and “the gift of tongues.” Speaking in tongues just meant babbling in prayer. It was understood to be cathartic and a baby-talk sort of proto-language. It wasn’t meant to be translated, though most of us knew urban-legend style myths about people whose prayers had been miraculously understood. There was a little girl in my church, an angelic little blond child, who was supposedly one of those miraculous tongue-talkers; apparently a man who knew ancient Hebrew had heard her praying in that language when she was like 3-4 years old, though of course this had never been proven or verified in any way and remained an urban legend (even then I thought it was a little odd that we had had this huge miracle in our very own church and nobody had thought to see if it was true or not).

SHARONDA RASHANDA. (Speaking in Tongues: A Primer.)
SHARONDA RASHANDA. (Speaking in Tongues: A Primer.)

This style of “tongues” was understood to be a sort of indicator of how topped-off someone’s spiritual tank was on Jesus juice. If you were really tight with Jesus, you talked in tongues a lot and over the strangest triggers both in church and in everyday life (“Waffles for breakfast? ROSHANDALA AH-SELAH!”). If you were struggling or facing some kind of massive sin in your life, then you seemed completely unable to do it. As you can guess, my apparent inability to climax talk in tongues during prayer was a real problem, both for me and for Biff, who was constantly trying to help me “break through” to the point where I often developed a (ahem) stomachache and made a beeline for the bathrooms after a service was over, and return only after I was sure he’d gone to the altar to pray with other people to help them “break through” instead. He was completely positive that I should be more than able to do this, since he knew I wasn’t struggling or dealing with any real sins beyond the normal stuff any Pentecostal girl might face, but week after week, nothing.

I guess I should have learned to fake it, but it just seemed so wrong to fake it. I got really tired of the super-earnest, brow-knitted hangdog panting expressions on my fellow Christians’ faces as they tried to “break through” to speak in tongues, which is probably why I can’t stand Justin Bieber even today as he wears the same look in every photo I see of him (when he doesn’t appear to be tripping balls so hard he can’t keep his eyes open), but until that night I’d never really doubted that a divine occurrence was really happening.

“The gift of tongues” was a different matter entirely, though; it was always meant to be interpreted because it was understood to be our god talking to us as a group to give us directions or encouragement somehow. It was usually done just like it was on the night I’m telling you about–as a sort of demonstration, not in groups, just by one person for the group as a whole. Someone would stand up during a lull in a service and yell in tongues, and then someone would translate. And our role as the group was to listen in total awe and then break out into spontaneous prayer and praise after the translation was given. Even as a newcomer I understood perfectly without anybody having to say a word to me about what was going on the first time I ever heard it. I think preachers deliberately built these lulls into their services sometimes just to provoke someone into standing up and doing a tongues demonstration; weirdly, every time it happened, we all thought it was this totally spontaneous demonstration that “the Spirit” had guided into being.

In the same way I’d seen “the gift of tongues” happen on other nights, I saw this woman speaking at length in this “miraculous language” that night. Like most Pentecostals, she was really good at making babble sound like a sort of real language (it’s hilarious to see a pair of ex-Pentecostals have entire conversations in “tongues”–and it’s so funny that observers can usually tell what is being communicated from tone and body language). This lady was a longtime member of the church, so she had had a lot of practice. I sat and stared like everybody else, but then I noticed that a couple of other church members had stood up to give similar “tongues” and she’d beaten them to it; they looked downright baffled and annoyed, and eventually they sat back down and let her have the stage. She went on and on, hands raised, face tilted to the ceiling, eyes closed, clearly having a grand time (the “I’ll have what she’s having” sort of grand, and no, I’m not the first person who thought speaking in tongues looked a little, well, lurid).

Then she sat back down, flushed and happy, even triumphant. Her work was done. She didn’t need to worry about doing anything else.

Now the ball was in someone else’s court.

Now someone had to translate.

This meant that someone would have to stand up and say in a clear strong voice what the “tongues” had meant.

Usually this happened right away, but tonight it was taking a bit longer than it normally did. The preacher helped it along by filling in the awful stretching silence with soft prayers muttered into the microphone he held while the piano player played something hymn-like very softly. Lee prayed aloud (because what good is a private prayer?) that the person his god had given the translation to would have the courage to stand and give that translation to the rest of us so we’d know what dramatic message had been given by our living god.

But the hint didn’t take right away. The moments stretched further into one of the most awkward silences I’ve ever seen, and I say that as someone who went to a public high school.

The Uncomfortable Sound of Silence.

As we waited, I got this sudden clear impression that there wasn’t a god at all here. We were all just play-acting. We all just had this need to get together and pretend we all believed in this imaginary thing. I began to think back to all the other “miracles” of this nature I’d seen, and each time, I suddenly realized, we’d never gotten any word from our god that wasn’t more or less rah-rah–“Keep the faith!” or “I’ll bless you guys if you obey enough” and random threats like “If this country doesn’t shape up, I’ma totally whale on y’all” and whatnot. Nothing about any natural disasters coming our way or major world events to prepare for. No cures for illnesses major or minor or solutions to big world problems. Nothing we couldn’t have figured out on our own or guessed he might say. Just encouragement and rah-rah. A god had deigned to reach down to inspire a human to be his living microphone just like the one Lee was holding in his hand, and these strangely generic things were about all he had to say when he could have said literally anything to prove it was really him.

A prickling sensation began to flow along my upper chest as we continued to wait. Something was wrong. Something wasn’t right. Where was the translation?

I saw others sitting near me glance at their friends. The sensation of horrified waiting was just exactly like being on a stage and seeing someone forget their lines back in Drama Club in school.

Then all of a sudden three men reluctantly stood up. Two began talking at once in equally loud and certain tones. One stopped talking and rather uncomfortably sat down along with the other who’d been beaten to the punch entirely, leaving the performance of the “translation” to the one remaining, and we got our generic rah-rah message, couched as usual in King James Version-style English. I don’t even remember what it was, just that it didn’t seem like it was so scary that it’d taken this long for the “translator” to stand up.

That message was, quite seriously, like a spoiled orgasm: all that fuss for a rather disappointing finale. And I didn’t miss that three different people had thought they knew the translation, but that the two who’d actually spoken aloud had said very different things. But I did notice for the first time that it was a little odd that an Ancient Near Eastern god always seemed to use King James English.

But this was all we were getting, so Lee ran with it anyway. The rest of the sermon went about as usual, but I never forgot that feeling of group performance, that sensation that had felt so much like seeing an actor forget his or her lines. And I began to start questioning this entire concept of speaking in tongues, and began to see that it not only wasn’t any kind of real language but that it seemed to have absolutely no outside divinities involved in its creation or its interpretation. Later I would learn that glossolalia isn’t even unique to Christianity–and of course that it has never been demonstrated to be a real language, but that goes without saying, though to some Christians it seems so real that they’ll even type in tongues.

I began to perceive that my religion was filled with a lot of performance art. Preaching, of course, was 99% performance art. The same sorts of skills and techniques went into preaching, singing, drama, motivational speaking, even salesmanship. Prayer meetings were all about performing for each other–acting super-sanctified. As you might have noticed in the comments a blog entry or two ago, at no time do most Christians perform more than they do when they’re out in public and trying to do “lifestyle witnessing.” Something about the more ostentatious type of religion appeals to certain people. It lets us play a part in our heads, where we’re big strong Christians winning the lost or being super-spiritual, and everybody else plays along because they’re doing the same thing.

This role that Christians play can be really harmful to themselves, though. Weakness cannot be acknowledged, doubt is the worst crime of all, and actual sin itself gets ignored and swept under the rug when it just doesn’t fit the narrative. It was really hard to realize, for me, that I wasn’t a very good Christian in a lot of ways. Even today, I run across Christians like the one I saw last night who insisted to me that his god had magically made him more respectful–all while treating me with extreme disrespect. I still don’t think he realizes even after I and others protested against his behavior that he isn’t anywhere near the magically transformed Christian he portrays. He’s busy playing the part, and he’s so invested in that part he can’t understand that it’s just a fiction in his head and not something played out in his everyday life in reality. And if he was just doing this play-acting around his church friends, they’d all be sanctimoniously nodding along with him and play-acting beside him. Instead, he was pulling the act around people who had no particular reason to let him off the hook, and he was downright shocked and indignant about our boorish refusal to play along with him.

Think I’m kidding? Even within the narrative there is a particular acceptable rhythm for many Christians to use when they need a little extra attention from their castmates. If you have Christian friends or haven’t outed yourself yet as a non-believer, watch for these “prayer requests” that get passed around. They’re nothing more than performance art, a way for people to connect with each other in a socially-approved way and indulge in a shared fantasy while trying to get the emotional help that is needed; sometimes the attempt works, though often it is ineffectual.

Of course, it’s not just religious people who submerge themselves into a group performance. People who get into dressing up as My Little Ponies and anime cosplayers heading to conventions all know the value of group performance. People who get into tabletop roleplaying (like D&D) or LARPs, naturally, are well aware of it as well. Entire academic careers get based around the examination of group dynamics within gaming communities and there are a surprising number of books that deal with the topic.

I wonder sometimes what evolutionary advantage there is in sharing a fantasy together. What is it that allows us to suspend our disbelief enough to act together as a group and why do we seem to gravitate so much toward doing it? How did we express this need before recorded history? Does it make us feel more bonded or maybe give us some huge cooperative boost to act out a fantasy together, to pretend to be other than who we are to tell a story together? Whatever is going on here, I daresay most of us get teary-eyed when we see some huge elaborate marriage proposal or a flash mob singing Christmas carols in a shopping mall. The science behind it is interesting, but ultimately we’re going to perform in groups whether we understand why we do it or not.

We just seem naturally inclined to band into groups and act out a shared fantasy. Not for nothing is one theory about the earliest instances of theater being an outgrowth of religious ritual; I’m not surprised to consider that we got tired of just watching the ritual and wanted to do more ourselves. Modern Christianity allows just about anybody to be a performer–you don’t even have to be good at whatever mode of performing you’ve chosen!–and it is definitely the biggest shared fantasy we could pursue.

Me, I love performing. I’ve always been a ham. I love to sing even if I’m not that good at it, and I’m told I’m an excellent actress. I have a great public speaking voice, too. I see people who are scared to talk in public or who hate having the limelight on them and though I’m sympathetic, I just don’t get it at all. I’m the one who volunteers for the party hypnotist’s act and the one who is happy to give a presentation at work while everybody else in my department is pretending to have a sore throat. When I discovered roleplaying games, I transitioned straight from my own private fantasy world (and oh whoa nelly was it an extensive one) to one I created and indulged in with friends. I still play tabletop games regularly. The community aspect of gaming interests me hugely and probably always will.

The danger comes in thinking that a shared fantasy is real.

The disadvantage comes when we use that fantasy as a substitute for reality–when we can’t put down the dogma to deal with pressing reality, or when we can’t see that we’re hurting ourselves or others with our fantasy play.

I’ve known way too many gamers who had trouble understanding when it was time to put down the dice and stop talking about their characters, SCAdians who wanted to wear their garb everywhere and only answered to their persona names, and–yes–religious zealots who had no idea how to function if persuaded to stop selling religion for a few hours. And I know why that is. The shared fantasy is so appealing that the people in them sometimes don’t want to leave and go back to the real world where they’re not nearly as bonded with the groups in the real world, where they’re just maladjusted schmucks who don’t have any special benefits or advantages beyond their own personal ones, where they don’t get any special nods or perks just for being in the correct group. (I still remember seeing that Darkon documentary and how my heart just broke for its clip of one young man who freaked out and melted down when his LARP group didn’t recognize his awesomeness the way his performance demanded they do. He wasn’t even given the ass-pats he felt entitled to receive there–what else did he have left?)

We shouldn’t have to perform to get a little human affirmation and contact. Oh, I mean it’s fun for a little while, but all the emotional benefits we get in our shared fantasies, we should be striving to get in the real world too. And we shouldn’t be so blinded to reality that we mistake our characters for our true selves. A little nonsense now and then is good, but there’s a balance to be found that I think many religious people don’t recognize is even necessary.

Then again, “balance” isn’t a word I usually associate with the more toxic flavors of Christianity.

Next up, we’re going to talk about magic spells and objects, and some of the ways Christianity utilizes both. Oh, many of ’em think they’re totally against witchcraft, but I sure saw plenty of it while I was in the religion from Catholicism all the way to Pentecostalism and beyond.


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