General 1-26-2004

Joe Dowling on Ethics and Spirituality in the Theater

Dean Seal hosted a series of talks at Grace-Trinity Church on ethics and spirituality in the theater. Seal asked Dowling to participate; he had heard him speak on theater as "secular spirituality of the shared experience."

This article is edited down from a talk that was about twice as long.

Dowling: I would like to start with a quote that always struck me as being very telling. It’s from Canadian theater director John Hirsch: “Theater is an ongoing illumination of man: his problems, his dreams, his visions, the society that lifts him, and his relationship to God. It’s also a celebration; a coming of the values which society holds: To be truly human has to be learned, and relearned, over and over again. And one of the places where we learn about
being human is in the theater.”

It is essential that as a community, as a culture, we learn, and re-learn, our own humanity. When [Hirsch] talks about the communal sense of who we are as a people, combine that with our relationship with God, and you get what I think is kind of a second spirituality.

It is no coincidence, that as I stand facing you, and you sit watching me here in a sacred place, we ape the relationship between actor and audience. The theater contains both the sacred and profane. Its origins come from both traditions – Greek and Roman traditions, which saw both tragedy and comedy
side by side, and the liturgical traditions of the Middle Ages, that led directly to contemporary theater. With those liturgical pieces sit the profane, the vulgar, the fun – and those two should never be forgotten in the pursuit of our
humanity; the pursuit of who we are as human beings.

I come from Ireland, where theater has a very specific place in the community. So much of the theater and arts were political in their structure in Ireland; and many people looked to the theater as a place where the personal
stories of their own humanity would combine with metaphor to help them understand
the shift in political times.

The poet W. B. Yeats, who founded the Abbey Theater, was to write a play–“Kathleen ni Houlihan” – and that is a name given to Ireland by rebels.

During times of great difficulty, when anything Irish was immediately suppressed by the British, the poets would look to different sources of inspiration and metaphor. And one was church references. One [such source] was that the faith helped us, as a people, to get through through difficult times. And the second was images of art, and of beauty.

After 1916, which was when the major rising took place (that led, in 1922, to the foundation of the Irish State), Yeats began to wonder. It was a rising that led to the deaths of many people, and was inspired by artists, poets, and which had at its center a complete religious iconography. Yeats asked,“Did that play of mine send out certain men the English shot?

The question [is] whether art, specifically theater, can have an influence beyond the personal. How much does theater matter to us? How much can it help us; how does it shape who we are? [I have] two small instances to share with you that helped me understand [what] the power of theater could be.

I was a young actor in the Abbey Theater, working on a play that we brought on tour, to the Aran Islands. The play was “Riders to the Sea,” by John Millington Synge–in my view, the greatest one-act play ever written. It
tells the story of an old woman living on the Aran Islands on the west of Ireland, the story is of her battle with the sea. There is a tradition that you never, ever, fight the sea. If the sea wants to take you, the sea takes you. The woman has lost her husband and five of her six sons to the sea. At the end of the play, this woman comes on to the stage, and she starts to speak about her sons, and husband, and her opening line is: “I can rest now, because there’s nothing more the sea can do to me.”

We were putting on the costumes of the period. We sat there waiting for the audience to come in (in Ireland, eight o’clock means a quarter to ten). As we watched the people coming down the hill, all of them were dressed in exactly the same clothes that we were dressed in, although our play was set 70
years before.

When we got to the moment where the woman of the house stood up and spoke, and said; “They’re all gone now, and there’s nothing more the sea can do to me,” we started to keen, that was our job as actors. The hairs stood up on the back of my head as I realized that all these people sitting out in the
auditorium were taking up the chant of the keen.

What to us was Art, something to do with a play, something removed, was for them an immediate experience – an experience which was, by definition, a transcendence from art to life. This play spoke directly to their experience, and told those women in the audience of their lives, in a way no amount of
description could have done.

For the first time in my life, I was awed by the profession that I had chosen to be a part of. I was awed because I knew that when the theater gets it right, we can change lives. We can make people realize the values that they
hold, the ideas that they have; how crucial those are to the survival of their spirits.

The second incident I want to recall also taught me something about the power of theater: I was the Artistic Director of The Abbey, and I was invited, during the Communist rule in Poland, to come to view theater in Poland. It was one of the most boring weeks I’d ever had in my entire life, because all of the theaters were State-run. Art had stopped being about anything other than
what some bureaucrat thought was appropriate.

Some of the plays would go on for four hours, and they were tedious beyond words. The night before I left, my interpreter said to me; “Would you like to see something different tonight?” (and she was taking quite a risk!) I said, “Oh, would I ever!” She took me to a little cafe – and in a back room, there was the tiniest stage possible. We crowded into this space, a group of actors got up – and it was very much the review-style evening; like something you would see at Brave New Workshop. But you could feel that this was a very different experience; that this audience was engaged. I didn’t understand a word, but it was quite clear to me that subversion was going on. That these sketches were telling these people something that they needed to hear. They were involved in a way the audience at the State theaters had never been.

I don’t think there’s any coincidence that at the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe, many of the transitional governments were led by artists. Why? Because it was in the time of hopelessness, darkness, desperation, [that] artists kept the faith. They recognized the true metaphor, the true ideas
they could articulate, whether it meant they would go to jail for those ideas; or whether, like others, they would keep it at a subterranean level – that eventually those ideas would actually be dominant. It’s also true, that in any totalitarian society, it is not the military rebel whom dictators fear. It is the artist, the person with ideas, who can transmit those ideas and so create a kind of communal sense of the unease.

So art does matter. Art is important in our lives. Art can help us both to identify ourselves as human beings, and much more significantly, can help us to form as a community; a common culture.

The Arthur Miller play we did last year at the Guthrie, Resurrection Blues, was about the televising of a crucifixion, but more fundamentally, it was how our contemporary world has abandoned belief, how hard it is for people who believe to actually survive in such a crass world. There’s a wonderful speech
by a philosopher in the play, where he articulates how appalling [it is] that every value is debased; that every piece of principle is reduced, how so much of what happens in modern culture (particularly television) dictates the lowest common denominator approach to spirituality and values.

I think Miller, of all the writers working today, is the most moral writer. He constantly asks questions about our values, more specifically, about our material values.
You look at Death of a Salesman; the idea at the end of that play, when this man is crushed by the weight of this impossible American dream he tries to live, Miller’s plays always deal with these huge moral issues, but that’s what makes great writing and great theater.

Theater makes us think, and makes us feel. The value of the theater is that it makes us be aware of the possibility of change, but ultimately it’s about our emotional truth; about who we are as human beings; teaching us about our relationship with God, and with each other, and the communal values that
draw us together.

Many thanks to Kay Kirscht for transcribing these events.