Uncovering the historical relationship between theatre and religion.
Theatre and religion have been interlinked since the Greeks and Dionysus, their relationship standing the test of time. This is for one key reason: theatre and religion were one of the few things all social classes, globally, had access to. Theatre was a staple in informing and entertaining the illiterate population and also appreciated as an indulgent art form for the elites. Since theatre was entertaining everyone, themes tended to be ones that could be universally understood and religion was one of them.
So how did theatre become a propaganda tool?
Historically, religion was used as a tool of oppression, a justification for the hierarchies entrenched in society. Many of the wealthy, who wielded this tool, sponsored playwrights, meaning writers had a vested interest in pleasing their patrons. Thus, more often than not, religious messages were part of plays. This was a global phenomenon. While we tend to think of theatre as a predominantly Western cultural staple, one of the most interesting relationships between theatre and religion, in my opinion, can be found in Chinese shadow theatre. Despite religion being ingrained in Chinese culture and traditions, there was a large discrepancy between the religious habits of the elite and that of the masses. While shadow theatre had originally been secular entertainment, it began to adopt characters and narratives that were from the religious practices of the elite to please patrons. This had tangible influence on the theistic tendencies of the people. As shadow theatre became more religious in China, so did the population. Then, when religious belief fell hugely in the 1980s, a vast majority of shadow theatre troupes disappeared.
In an increasingly secular world where theatre has become expensive and elitist, theatre definitely doesn’t have the reach it used to have and that’s even before you take Covid-19 into account. While plays with religious overtones like Fiddler on the Roof and Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat have proved to be successful among non-believers and religious theatregoers alike, The Book of Mormon and Monty Python are premised on making fun of religion, and have had similar success. As more modern plays are written, they tend to move away from religion - even if they have a historical context such as Six. As society progresses, even people who do see propagandist theatre often do not internalise the message or even realise they are being subjected to any religious messaging. Instead, it is frequently those who study theatre or English who are aware of the message plays are trying to get across. A special mention to all who studied An Inspector Calls and The Crucible.
Ultimately, the relationship between theatre and religion is a unique and interesting one, even more so when you look at the context at the time of writing and performance. While it is no longer the effective and recognisable propaganda machine it once was, and considered more of a fine art or even a protest mechanism, there is no doubt theatre will continue to be a political and controversial space.
But who knows, maybe like me you’ll read a religious play, and think about how interesting it is, and pursue religious studies as your degree!