Jeffrey Galbraith

"Theater as a Way of Knowing"

Dr. Jeffrey GalbraithFrom 1642-51, England experienced a civil war that pitted the forces of Parliament against those of the monarch Charles I. On the face of it, this historical event may not seem to have anything to do with this year’s CACE theme, “Theater as a Way of Knowing.” It is interesting to note, however, that when the parliamentary forces gained the upper hand in the conflict, one of the new laws that they passed was an ordinance “for the utter suppression and abolishing of all Stage-Plays.” [1] As the civil war drew to a close, the preservation of morality came to eclipse all other concerns. It did not matter, for instance, that Shakespeare’s plays adorned the English stage only decades earlier. For the stricter sort in Parliament, theater was a source of fear, “tending to the high provocation of God’s wrath and displeasure, which lies heavy on the Kingdom.” In light of such consequences, theatre was a dangerous “way of knowing” that warranted extreme measures for its control.

Perhaps the theater has always captured or provoked a culture’s fears, in some form or another. In our own age, we might consider that theater often appears as a metaphor for the way society prohibits the expression of individuality. “Be yourself” is an oft-heard phrase, for example, warning people against playing a part, as it were, or taking on a role. It assumes that individuals who live for others rather than for themselves suffer a lack of authenticity. They are not being true to themselves. In this use of the theater-as-metaphor, individuals are influenced to resist the social pressures that direct them to act in a certain way. They must break from the hum-drum life. They must seek their unique identity within. Only then will they experience true happiness or personal fulfillment. This kind of thinking is pervasive in our culture. You can find it in car ads and hit songs and Hollywood movies.

I entered the spring CACE seminar with a number of ideas about the theater bouncing about in my mind. Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that the seminar would be devoted to engaging our hearts, minds, and bodies in the work of associating and advocating for others. This was no time for a purely intellectual discussion. No, the faculty of Arena Theater wanted us to understand, on a deeper level, the charitable work of bodies acting out the stories of individual human lives. Remarkably, as we opened ourselves to different experiences, theater became a space for empathy and connection. By leaving my expertise at the door, I came to understand more profoundly what it means to put the needs of others above my own and view the world through another’s eyes. Thank you to Arena Theater and the Center for Applied Christian Ethics for showing me the best of what theater can do and be.