Thoughts on CACE Seminar Countercultural vs. Anti-cultural
There is a beautifully conceived scene at the end of the Lookingglass Theater’s production of Sara Gmitter’s In The Garden that offers the audience a moment of conciliation- a piece of hard-won common ground amidst the difficult landscape of a marriage that has endured significant hardship.
The play, an impression of the domestic life of the naturalist Charles Darwin, centers on Darwin’s relationship with his wife Emma Wedgwood, a person of ardent Christian faith. Like all marriages that remain marriages, the couple weathers various storms. Many of theses are precipitated by Darwin’s work on theories of human origin, culminating in the book that many of his contemporaries (and many of ours as well) consider to be a direct assault on Christian creationist doctrine.
There are occurrences in life, however, that are an assault to us all regardless of our beliefs about these important matters, and the couple endures an event of this kind late in the play. The scene that ends the evening includes the kind of reconciliation that acknowledges difference. Yet it also illustrates a tender regard in the couple’s relationship and perhaps, even, a balm for suffering and loss. It is a moment of healing reconciliation that occurs where the only real healing reconciliation does- not so much in the mind as in the heart.
I was able to see In the Garden in the fine company of colleagues from across disciplines at Wheaton. It was a convivial evening that concluded three days of engaging scholarly presentation, fruitful interaction, and the warm hospitality of CACE, which sponsored that centered on the question of whether it is possible for Christian scholarship to be truly counter-cultural rather than merely anti-cultural.
My personal reflections, both during our Seminar and since then, have had to do with questions of conciliation in my life as a Christian theater practitioner and scholar. Merriam-Webster’s first definition of the word, interestingly, says that to conciliate means “to make someone more friendly or less angry”. To reconcile, relatedly, means first “to restore friendly relations” and secondarily “to make congruent or consistent”.
It seems to me that conciliation should lie at the heart of rightly conceived theater practice. A good play operates quite naturally as a bridge, connecting an audience’s life experiences with those they are being asked to contemplate in the play they are viewing. We go to a play to consider a series of human events absolutely other than, and yet deeply connected to our own.
The space between our own experiences and those in the play allow us the distance to actually take in and process what we are experiencing; but the best moments in theater go further, catching us unexpectedly and resonating deeply with our own life experience. In The Garden could have rested comfortably (as well as fairly predictably) in simple debate; two very different individuals married to one another attempting to move forward together despite deep ideological differences. Indeed the play seemed content to operate in this terrain for its entire first act and for a good part of the second.
The actor Peter Ustinov once said, “We are divided by our certainties, and united by our questions.” If the play had been entirely composed of mere debate, we as audience might well have left the theater simply more entrenched in our own points of view, or perhaps feeling that our own perspective was not given its most compelling voice in the argument. But the play became a play when we were no longer allowed to remain comfortably separated by ideology and when we were caught humanly by historical events in the lives of Charles and Emma, united as an audience by circumstances common to all our lives.
The CACE Seminar helped me to once again to stand in my own peculiar intersection, on my own bridge, and to contemplate the very different kinds of perspectives and communities between which I am privileged to labor. As a Christian theater practitioner, I hope always to reconcile those perspectives and communities in the work I choose to present. I do this not by underlining their respective certainties or by trying to force them to agree, but rather by inviting diverse audiences to approach one another and to stand for a time on a bridge together and, once there, to acknowledge that our deep differences are inextricably mingled with the shared congruence of our brief and precious existence here on the planet we share.