Spirituality and the Arts: Why We Need Tragic Drama

This fall Ellen Gainor and I will be teaching Paula Vogel’s remarkable play Indecent in our course at Cornell. Vogel is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and a lesbian feminist of Jewish heritage.
I was struck by her comment in a recent interview when asked if she considered herself a spiritual person and if that affected her work. Vogel responded:
“I don’t think there’s anyone in theatre who doesn’t consider themselves spiritual. I don’t really know any secularists. In terms of spirituality when it comes to theatre, you are dealing with, literally, the undead. Characters are bringing to life the sense of humans that don’t exist. I consider myself extremely spiritual.”
It strikes me more and more that in the kind of death-driven political climate we live in, the spiritual resources of the arts are more necessary than ever. We need life and more life and the courage to explore the depths of human suffering and the joy that can come even in the darkest moments of our lives. Vogel’s play, which I saw when it was still off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre, does exactly that.
So too for the Ayad Akhtar play Disgraced currently at the Hangar Theatre here in Ithaca. It was a bold and even dangerous choice by Michael Barakiva and  the Hangar to begin their season with this bracing tragedy, and it certainly stirs up for our attention the many forms of political and religiously inflected violence in the world today. disgraced image
But like all true tragedies, Disgraced does this with a deeply moral, political, and spiritual agenda. Here’s Rowan Williams in his remarkable little book The Tragic Imagination articulating the crucial spiritual and political role well-written tragedies can play:
“In this moment of my watching in the theatre, the only action that is going on is on the stage. I am both free from the necessity to act and bound to be still. I have surrendered this time to the action of others. And that, so Cavell argues, is where the tragic drama becomes transformative of my perception. I am enjoined as a spectator to allow to happen what the tragic agents on stage are struggling not to allow: I am affirming human separateness, the impenetrability of agents to each other, so that my/ our response to suffering is to some degree stripped of the corrupting drama of easy identification with the sufferer, the absorption of the terrible otherness of alien pain into my own story…
…my immobilization in the face of terrible pain has here a contemplative quality; and when tragic liturgy has decayed or disappeared, we are left with a toxic gap in our human repertoire. Once, as audience to a tragic representation, we had a ceremonial ‘doing nothing’ which showed us why we feel helpless in the face of pain and loss— because we are still learning the solidarity that comes out of recognizing the sheer distance between actual human persons, so that our stillness in the face of represented pain becomes a forced acknowledgment of our habits of avoidance and denial and a confrontation of the helplessness in the presence of catastrophe that we regularly experience and avoid reflecting about.
From this experience, we can recover a proper political ethic, we can learn better how and when to act. Without this liturgical moment, the only answer to the question of why we are doing nothing in the face of pain and terror— in the face, say, of constantly reported pain and terror, or pain and terror represented as entertaining anecdote; in the face of newsprint and screen— is that we have chosen to do nothing, a choice that ‘requires the same energy, the same cunning and avoidance, that tragic activity used to have to itself’.
And the implication of this is that a culture without tragic drama, a culture in which the tragic audience has been replaced by the assembly of spectators, is itself exemplifying tragic disaster; it is refusing to know what it knows about humanity, and so is at risk of dying from what it does not know, like any classical tragic protagonist.”

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