On theatre

5 04 2010

I recently read this story about a Hollywood actor who refused to take a part because he refused to act in a sex scene. At first, I thought nothing of it, being that I usually do not have an opinion regarding such cultural “hot topics”. But then I realized that this is yet one more instance of the Catholic mentality changing its principles to suit the times. Far be it from me to determine for another man what he would consider putting himself in an occasion of sin, but the relationship between the Catholic Church and the theatre has been complicated enough that one wonders how one can be so scrupulous in the profession of dramatic actor.

I remember one spiritual conference in seminary in which we were read a manual for the behavior of clerics from about a hundred years ago. In that manual, the author covered everything from how to enter a church to how to eat at the dinner table. One of the general counsels that put a smile on my face was that clerics should never go to the theatre. I remember this because this was right before my few weeks of vacation in Buenos Aires, and I had every intention of going to the theatre. In fact, when I went to go see a chamber version of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, I went in full cassock. If I were a far more scrupulous person, I would have thought I was doing something wrong.

Perhaps this was just some old rule out of some crypto-Jansenist manual, but the aversion of the Church to the theatre had real victims. Perhaps the most famous was Molière, who was refused Christian burial because he had not repented from the profession of being an actor. (It probably didn’t help that he satirized the Catholic Church). Even the morality play of the Spanish Age of Gold, the auto-sacramental, was finally banned in the 18th century, probably for the same reasons that the Church objected to the theatre in general.

One could say that none of this has to do with simulating a sex scene, writhing in a bed with someone you are not married to in order to titillate the audience. Regarding this, I cannot help by think of the ballet. In nineteenth century Paris, ballerinas were often considered to be little better than whores in pointe shoes. Many men only went to the ballet to observe the ankles of the young and nimble dancers, and some to pick out a mistress. Of course, the ballerina no longer serves that purpose, seeing as men have moved on to far more obviously sexualized scenes at which to gawk. Nevertheless, one wonders about what “occasions of sin” a “good Catholic” ballet dancer puts him or herself in when dancing a romantic pas de deux.

I also thought of the old anecdote from the life of Saint Thomas Aquinas, which I will obviously get wrong here in the details, though I don’t think it matters. Some fellow friars decided to play a joke on the saint by looking quickly outside a window and saying: “Look Thomas! A flying ox!” At this, Thomas eagerly went to the window and saw nothing. His fellows laughed, but as a rejoinder the saint said to them: “What is worse: that I believed you when you told me that a flying ox was passing by the window, or that you told a lie in order to get a laugh?” Whenever I hear that story, I think, “what a wet blanket!” I bet the Angelic Doctor didn’t get invited to many parties. But is this also a guiding principle for a “good Catholic” comedian?

Again, I write none of this to judge the modern day actor’s decision. I do think it is a sign of the times, however. A hundred years ago, I do not think the Catholic Church would have been comfortable with any of its faithful being actors. Today, we have already had a Pope who was an actor and a playwright. Perhaps a hundred years from now, we will have headlines over an actor who is praised for the mere act of refusing to perform a gay love scene, or to perform in a play loosely based on the writings of Marquis de Sade. The way things are going, I wouldn’t be surprised.


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