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Classical Christian Movement

The Play’s the Thing

By January 1, 2013January 27th, 2023No Comments

There is a story going on around us. It began before time and reaches to infinity. And it is a story: a sequence of events, not random, but full of meaning. Man plays his part through action; his deliberate movements influence, change, and even cause events. We are all actors in a play so huge and various that we may pass through it only vaguely aware of anything but our own parts , unless, as Chesterton says, “the play is pared down to [our] tiny sight”.

So Aristotle in his Poetics points to The Story, though not by that name, as a first principle. He presupposes that events are purposeful and meaningful and have connection with one another and with us, as they influence and are influenced by us. But to grasp these purposes, meanings, and connections we must examine events in units small enough to comprehend. He calls the presentation of these small units the “imitation of life”, in which we represent a particular experience that we may hold it before us, and, by examining it, glimpse experience itself, and acknowledge the natural order of things. Art, then, for Aristotle, is the process by which some part of the Story is imitated and thereby apprehended, whether by the historian or the poet, whether what is described is “the thing that has been” or “a kind of thing that might be.”

Imitation of a part yields discovery of the whole, which in turn yields delight as we recognize the Great Story in its elements. When we recognize that something has been accurately rendered, we experience amazement and pleasure, even if the thing rendered is not in itself delightful. Any accurate imitation teaches us the Story; even when order is proved by the shock of disorder, or congruity is demonstrated by the shock of incongruity, the pattern delights us, even if we are persons of limited capacity. So a child is delighted to learn something of order and disorder when he shouts, “Look! that man has his hat on upside down!” He is seeing a small scene in the Story. And we are not surprised when Aristotle reminds us that the principal way a child learns is through his own imitation of events.

We are also not surprised when Aristotle points to drama as the trunk whence all other arts branch, since drama is story-telling itself, encompassing virtually all other arts – dance, literature, music – in its work of imitation. For to him, rhythm , language , and harmony are the chief elements through which the Story is imitated, and it is in drama that we experience them in their full, natural fusion. Through these together we apprehend what is knowable. Through their rich and original commingling in drama, Aristotle says, man can tell how he influences and how he is influenced, how his part “fits” into the great pattern of the Great Play.

How different this is from the modern approach, which atomizes life to understand it and dissects living art into its disciplines the better to serve the fragmentation. What then of Aristotle’s “rhythm, language, and harmony”? Neither rhythm nor harmony can exist in fragments, and deconstructed language must be meaningless, nor is it odd that some moderns find
no pattern, no purpose, no Story at all in life, for they themselves have obscured the connections. They study only discrete particles; they deliver as their finished product only disparate bits of facts. They shatter the Story and then display the pieces as all that can be known.

But the commonality of things remains: We ourselves are not yet dissected; thought and action remain components of an organic whole. And in the unity of drama – thought, language, action, music, and dance moving in harmony, rhythm, pattern and purpose – Aristotle saw the great and the original means for the imitation of life, for the understanding of the Story .

We have said that drama embraces many arts (indeed, that virtually all arts were born in drama) in an essential and meaningful fusion. We have said that drama imitates life and so teaches the Great Story, including our parts in it and how best to act them. Let us illustrate what we mean.

Man begins to tell the Story by telling his family about the bear that he has encountered while hunting. He was there. It was there. He has chased it away. His children learn how to live in the woods where the bears are. The story is retold; the very language becomes an essential element of it: the sound and the style of the teller are imitated. The listeners are delighted as they recognize him, and also as they recognize something larger: this could happen to them. Their hearts pound. And so a drum is added. Someone becomes the bear and someone else, the hunter, and now we see: This is what it looked like. This is how bear and hunter moved. They move to the drum. It is happening to the actors. They remember. The bear was like this. The fear was like this. The observers shout the fear. The victory was like this. The observers sing the victory. The next time, they are the chorus. It will be told this way again and again. Language calls for heightened language which calls for drums which call for movement which calls for actors which call for chorus and for song. The story becomes stylized in its telling and the elements of its telling become controllable – and powerful – as they become freighted with convention. Finally, many have seen the bear. Many have seen the man. They have been the bear. They have been the man. They are delighted. They have learned that there is fear, and there can be courage, and there will be victories. The play has caught them up into the Story.

We have spoken of arts branching from the trunk of drama. The tree we had in mind was the entire process by which man imitates and apprehends the Great Story. The roots are language itself. The trunk is that living fusion of all means of expression which so vividly conveys experience. It is drama in its original and richest form. As we move up the trunk the patterns represented become more and more universal and abstract but retain organic unity with events, and all arts are employed in their imitation. Then the tree branches, as modes of expression, separate one from another. The main branch is now written language and it is largest, but still smaller for its separation from the rest. One side of the tree has branched into what we now think of as the separate arts. The other side of the tree has branched into what we call the separate sciences – each side of the tree regarding the other as “other” indeed. If we drew the whole tree we would see that it is all one thing. But we do not often look at it that way. We tend to see only the branches. (Indeed, some admit no unity either in the whole of life, nor in our modes of apprehension.) These are the fragmentarians we noted above, who saw off the branches and then assert that their unity was only in the mind of the beholder.
But this is short-sighted. It produces vast numbers of people who know what wind velocity is but are shocked at what hurricanes do and know not how to pray as one approaches.

Let us take children and slide down the trunk with them. Rich, living drama with its unity of thought, word, action and arts teaches powerfully. For young children are act-ors by nature. They encounter their world on a physical level. That is why they put so many things in their mouths and why one can generally distinguish the sofa of a child-blessed family from that of a less populated household. Children understand action, crave action. They need to move and they seek understanding of their surroundings through movement, at least observed, at best, performed. It delights them, as cartoonists and TV people have understood. But action need not teach false lessons such as those taught by the advertisements on children’s TV. Action may plainly reflect massive elements of the Great Play, for actions are sequential. Actions cause, and actions have effect. Actions are of varying duration. Actions are controllable. Some actions are more fruitful than others especially in a moral universe of purpose, plan, and meaning. And here Aristotle reminds us again of the principal way children learn : by imitation of action.

And drama is just that imitation of action which, when accurate, produces delight, and delight in learning, a powerful means of awakening and enlarging the minds of children especially when approached low down on the trunk at its richest, most inclusive level where the whole child, eyes, ears, hands, feet, tongue and brain, may be “caught” by the play, and caught up into the Great Drama which surrounds us.

Consider the power of historical drama – surely the closest to original drama. As man meets bear and triumphs, so Thomas More meets Henry VIII and triumphs in an even greater way; and how vividly the child actor grasps both the historical event and its place
in the Great Story. He has seen the tyrant; he has seen the beleaguered saint, and the courtier and the compromiser. He has been the tyrant; he has been the saint, or the courtier, or the compromiser. He has spoken as them; he has listened to them. He has sung their songs and heard their music. He has acted their actions after them. How clearly he grasps the details which elucidate and make accurate this image of the event. He may even learn to love to learn dates, not begrudgingly, merely for the glory of good grades, but as he prizes birthdays; each significant event is “born” into something larger on dates, in time. Most importantly, he has learned once again in his flesh and blood that great theme of the Story: There will be danger; there can be courage; there shall be victory.

And so with all great themes of the Story, even those that may seem most abstract. For example, if sequence is not real, as the fragmentarians suggest, then all things are inconsequential , and children may never need basic skills such as tracking , or sounding out the sequence of letter sounds, or understanding that 900 B.C. is closer to our time than 1900 B.C. As it happens, sequence is real. We may ask any child who has taken part in a play, that is, who has “become” part of that formal sequence of events. To actually move one’s whole body from one place to another in space on cue teaches something about the reality of sequential events that simply cannot be as vividly conveyed by mere talk.

If cause and effect is not real , as the fragmentarians hope, then all actions are insignificant, and children must be excused from determining, as they read, what is significant and what is not, and from finding any significance at all in the apparently unconnected events of history; so also all mathematics must remain for them an impenetrable mystery. But, by “doing” drama, students learn, in their very muscles, to control each cause, to produce an effect: the gesture, the movement, the tone of voice, the word, so that it becomes clear how each causes a reaction: the fight, the exit. Each cue is cause for something to happen. Surely, students may learn cause and effect vividly through , say, hitting their brothers: punch causes punishment. Or, and better, the same huge pattern may be apprehended through acting out a role, being a cause, knowing ahead of time what effect must be caused , and then observing from within the play how one’s own actions do bring about change outside of oneself.

And we must continue, for what great matter is there that drama can not teach, since it exists to capture in small the Great Story itself? So, in drama, students experience something of the relationship between events and time. Things can happen more
than once. Indeed, repetition is an important and positive aspect of experience. So phrases and words and themes are repeated throughout a play to accentuate the underlying unity of what is being portrayed. In a farce, the underlining unity of ridiculousness might be punctuated by such a simple line as, “You rang?” In fact, mere repetition of the words themselves enhances understanding – it is simply true that human beings need to hear things more than once to remember them. That human beings need to hear again and again, that we need to do and experience again and again is often, by the merely modern, considered unfortunate: a flaw, or an impediment in the head-long rush to personal or societal progress . But a young child knows the satisfaction of having the same book read over and over. No poet is ashamed to repeat sounds within a work, and no musician, to repeat a motif. It is the fragmentarians, tossing their unconnected bits of experience behind them into oblivion, who have told us that repetition in the educational process impedes learning rather than enhances it. This they urge, even as they drill young soccer players daily in their skills and insist that their children practice their piano scales. Surely, mindless repetition blights education, but so also does a mindless parade of events- as-novelties. Is it not mindless to say of a Beethoven Symphony, “Heard that,” or of The Brothers Karamazov, “Read that”? Accurate imitations bear repetition and even require them that the Story behind and above them may be more fully apprehended. And that Story is replete with purposeful repetition: as the repetition of the seasons,
of morning and evening, and of the circling track of the stars. The child who learns a play, its words, its music, its movements , learns the fruit of repetition and learns to prize memorization of what is worthy. Each time he runs lines, a passage or a scene grows richer for him. Meaning becomes clearer. The whole is more interesting each time it is repeated, and in drama, every participating child learns first hand that memorization can make a thing of beauty and meaning, and make it his own, even as it makes language patterns that are new to him his own, and clear and vivid. By and large, children write and speak
as they hear. In drama, what they hear can be chosen for them and given to them in a way that technical instruction cannot emulate.

Aristotle wrote of drama evoking fear and pity from the audience, that is, fear and pity for those others depicted on the stage, and therein lies implicit the greatest advantage which drama provides in the instruction of a child. Drama draws him out of himself. He may at first force himself to do this embarrassing business of speaking, moving, singing or dancing, simply because all the others are doing it. So he will force himself past his own self- consciousness, if only for fear that by failing to do so, he will draw more attention to himself rather than less. Even on this lowest level, to make himself secure, he must set himself aside. And, indeed, he must, for if he does not, the others will surely let him know what he has spoiled by
his absence. And “spoiled” in fact, for if the play could go on without his part, it is a flawed play; Aristotle is quite right: “That which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole.” Plainly, in any good drama, there are no unimportant parts.

But beyond this, the child who participates in drama learns to set himself aside, not only for the sake of his popular appeal , but also for the sake of the character he represents . This child learns to say, “I am a boy, but since I am to be a kangaroo, I must not act like a boy. I cannot walk as I please; I must hop. I must lose myself in kangarooisms, and to the best of my ability, forget who I am in myself.” For the sake of the character , a child cannot simply assert. “I don ‘t talk with a Southern accent. I am a New Englander.” He must leave his own speech patterns and drawl instead. On the way, he learns about himself in a way that leads far from self-absorption. Rather, he learns who he is and how he habitually acts, so that he can consciously choose to “leave himself” and act with self-control. As a precious side-product, he learns that his feelings of chilliness, puckishness, or itchiness (or loneliness, anger, or jealousy) need not dictate his behavior. “I am timid,” he may discover; “but as this character, I need to behave as someone who is overbearing.” And the freedom he finds may be life-long. At the very least, the next time he needs to be quiet or to be amiable, he will know that his behavior is a matter of his own choice.

But above all, the child who has taken part in drama learns to leave himself not only for the sake of his peers, nor for the sake of his character, but simply, for the sake of the truth. He learns to say not, “Look at me,” but rather, “look at this,” that is, the play. In order to imitate the event chosen from the Great Story, the actor forgets himself and everything that would impede the understanding of the audience, that they may know, learn, and be delighted by whatever part of the Great Story is being represented before them. In his way, he is like the parent sacrificing sleep for the infant, the soldier sacrificing his life for the common good. Indeed, it is training for such acts which echoes and portrays the highest event of the Great Story.

To lose oneself in and for the truth of the Story: this is the highest lesson drama can teach. In drama the child learns that what is larger than he is objective, and that he may enter it, whether we speak of historical drama teaching him the objective reality of history, or of comedy teaching him the objective reality of our finiteness and frequent folly. Either way, he has set himself aside
in search of what is outside him. He has practiced that selflessness which makes objectivity possible. If he has dared, he has come to know that the Story is not centered on him, but that in comprehending it he may take his place in it. And he knows he must. The Author has written him in.

Event on event, character after character enters the stage and nothing is random; there is an author with a purpose, to which the actors must yield. There is order and meaning in the whole, which the actors in every word and movement must serve. Whatever is not of the play hinders the Author’s intent and is mere distraction and obscurity, and must be denied . So students who
have experience in drama understand the call to leave themselves behind to seek and serve the Author’s purpose. They have rehearsed it. They have learned to dismiss and refuse what does not serve the telling of the Author ‘s tale, even if it be in themselves.

And if it is true that we are all born , in Luther’s phrase, incurvatus in se, that is, coiled on ourselves, it is
hard to imagine a means of education more useful than drama, by which we may not only imitate and learn
the patterns of the Great Story, but also be drawn out of ourselves to know and act within that Story now, in the present ignorance, until ignorance ends and imitations are needless and we enter the endless happy ending .

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