Shakespeare’s been critical for me at critical junctures in my life. In Mormonism where The Bard is revered, I think this is common. In Junior High Hamlet was the gift of language that bootstrapped the monkey into a meaningful world. Celebrating the Ides of March together with the woman I desperately wanted to marry reversed the obvious set-up for a tragedy. It’s a memorial my family continues to celebrate each year with a brief family Shakespearapalooza. This last week has been filled with Shakespeare, culminating last night with a dream date my wife took me on to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance of The Tempest at Stratford-Upon-Avon. The artistic detail of the play was brilliant; Prospero mildly interesting and passable; Miranda simplistic and dull; Sebastian (a woman) very genuine and convincing; Ariel completely mesmerizing, haunting, and utterly unforgettable. Taken together it was a transformative production that upheld the troupe’s “royal” reputation.
All of this is mere intro. What inspires me to write is theatre itself – the way a well-written play is so essentially adaptable, open to reinterpretation in ways that reveal – either anew or for the first time – what genuinely lies in the text. The word is perhaps infinite in its ability to speak contemporaneously, in part because of its symbiotic relationship to the richness of human experience. I’ve never met anyone who decried theatres, directors, or actors and actresses (merely) for a reinterpretation – the idea is rather absurd. Instead, the greatness of the play (and to a large degree the greatness of Shakespeare) is in the way it has been such fertile ground for new interpretation and varied performance. There was no hiccup in last night’s Sebastian who was played by a woman. Rather, it was a genuine possibility within the constraints of the text, one that forced the audience to think differently about what was taking place and how it relates to our lives and experience. The malleability of a play is even more apparent with the multiple ambiguity of Caliban. Is he the repugnant moral rat that Prospero and even Miranda think he is (and are their lines to that effect evidence of ingrained prejudice or mild amusement)? Ought we to read genetic determination into his corrupt person? Or is he the unfortunate victim of mistreatment, perhaps the result of colonial oppression? Maybe he’s just a colorful, jovial sort of guy who receives mild pleasure out of tormenting those around him. While there may be infinite possibilities for its portrayal, there are still significant constraints which the script places on a character or scene – a play’s malleability doesn’t reach down to the atomic level. While Taming of the Shrew can say a whole host of things about gender norms and relations, it can’t very well ignore them. Hamlet might be to varying degrees virtuous or flawed, but he can’t be apathetic. Nevertheless, there are myriads of possibilities depending on the combination of how a Caliban or a Katherina is acted, the context created by the director and producers, and the wider context of an audience’s values and understanding.
This brings us to the temple and its own drama. The regrettable loss of the live endowment seems to radically shrink the possibilities (and even our (two?) remaining live temples are regrettably not immune to the crystallizing impact of our films). I see two related difficulties with this loss. First, once we’re familiar with the films they no longer force us to witness something new; we’re no longer exposed to a host of different renditions, including renditions that might challenge our entrenched prejudices and understandings. Rather than continuously working out Jacob’s injunction to forever search out the unknowable depths of the mysteries of God, we seem left with the default of repeating ad naseum a given portrayal until our own understanding calcifies along with the production. Even more nefarious, we might overlook the economic and logistical expediencies inherent in a church with exponential convert growth and internationalization that motivates a reduction to film, and instead decide that since our film productions are officially sanctioned, that they must indeed portray the one and only true interpretation. That is, for some members a naive passivity becomes the orthodox or righteous approach to temple worship. Second, there are clearly pernicious understandings and self-/community-interpretations that can come out of this (perhaps the most conspicuous of these are the various and common sexist and patriarchal – in the pejorative sense – interpretations). If a repugnant interpretation is taken to be the orthodox or righteous interpretation, not only are we falling into apostasy, but we’re doing violence to ourselves and our community.
I’ve already as much as admitted that I think we could do a much better job facilitating divine learning in the temple drama at the institutional level – only one race represented? only one woman with speaking lines that aren’t even proportionate? and oh, how I wouldn’t mind the church’s film crew taking notes from Terrance Malick’s creation drama. We all have subtle and not so subtle edits that we think would improve the play. But that’s not our individual prerogative and it’s not what I want to focus on or why I’m writing. As noted above, the acting and the production are only two thirds of the framework that makes a performance meaningful. Audience is the other – and it’s no red-headed stepchild in the game of theatrical translation. Here’s my point: as saints we have a moral obligation to resist hermeneutic calcification, and discharging this obligation, just like the discharge of all genuine moral obligations, is hugely rewarding – both individually and collectively. We need to be able to worship at the temple in the same (or at least similarly to the) way we worship at the theatre. We need to be able to see as many possibilities for Mother Eve as we do for Shakespeare’s Katherina – possibilities that the Spirit can reveal as we actively engage in rather than passively receive these ordinances. We don’t need to wait for the Church to make production-level changes. We can have ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts to feel. Now. It requires our imaginative work, our active contribution and re-envisioning and reinterpretation, our openness to the theatrical possibilities, while passing through the ritual. That’s my conclusion. Here are my reasons:
1. The temple drama simply IS a play. It’s NOT a creed. Consequently, reinterpretation is built into it. I think God set it up that way – perhaps as an antidote to our unavoidably mortal institution and failings, our inevitable getting-it-wrongs, our inability to or perhaps the impossibility of receiving revelation in a cultural vacuum and the resultant need to constantly work to both absorb and transcend our time and place. Theatre is a brilliant means toward this end, as the ancient Greeks well understood (an amphitheatre was often part of their temple complexes). If you subscribe to the belief that Joseph Smith was right – that the temple is the pinnacle of Mormonism and its ritual implemented (or at least endorsed) by God – then you ought to take seriously the aspect of temple theatre as theatre, particularly given its central role.
2. The temple films are painstakingly generic. In their current iteration, I think our films are perhaps closer to a script than an actual play. It certainly seems to be (and perhaps really is) the case that they were made with the intention of allowing a wide range of interpretation. Their generic nature can facilitate the Spirit’s ability to function as a director, revealing the richness, the theological possibilities, the cultural challenges, the pragmatic injunctions implicit in the script.
3. The two versions of our temple film, though both generic are very different, as is the tradition of live performance – not to mention the historical fact of editing (sometimes significant editing) of the temple script itself. All of this seems to invite a view of “officially” sanctioned divergent possibility within the actual drama. While deleting or adding lines and scenes is above any of our pay-grades, seeing Mother Eve as alternately profound, serious, droll, and sarcastic is not. We simply do not have an author’s annotated version of the script and God has not declared such things as which roles (including God’s own) must be played by a man or women, Adam’s reaction (as opposed to his ultimate decision) when variously presented with forbidden fruit, Lucifer’s possible motivations or metaphysical facticity, what it means for us to imagine ourselves as in the drama, or a host of other things which I’ll not go into in this context. God’s left all this open within the context of a theatrical play. We reject what we’ve been given when we deny both the divine and institutional opportunity to explore theatrical alternatives.
5. As a means of resisting the two dangers listed above, personal exploration of theatrical possibility simply works. This is particularly true if you struggle with certain (common) interpretive possibilities, and perhaps even more true if you don’t. (Note (again): I’m not here advocating a sort of relativism in our understanding and interpretation, just the deeply edifying experience of having our theological world disclosed anew and the importance of exploring multiple possibilities.) For some, the alternatives to hermeneutic openness run along the lines of self-oppression, head-in-sand-burying, resentment or cynicism leading to alienation, or simply avoiding the temple. I think all of these are clearly worse than revelatory, creative theatrical license.
6. Just like conventional theatre, sacred theatre changes along with our lives and context. As already noted, this is concretely manifest in the historical changes that (for better or for worse – i.e., as a blessing or a curse) have been made. But it’s just as true in our personal lives. Experiencing the temple as a missionary opened me up to (and closed me off from) certain things in the temple ritual, just as experiencing the temple as a father of small children does. Likewise, the temple can exert a greater influence on us the more we open ourselves up to fresh interpretations.
7. The difficulties posed by the current films (together with the related ritual) and some of the common interpretations of their meaning are not unique to temple worship. They are related to the difficulty of authentically appropriating and owning what is in its inception exotic (on account of our historical removal from that inception if nothing else). But it’s also the difficulty inherent in a codified (or quasi-codified) text that is multiply enacted. Some things are so precious they almost demand to be inscribed in stone (or metal plates). But as Nephi so aptly realized, doing so can distort or pervert or rob that thing of its richness and divinity. Ironically, trying to capture forever the preciousness of a moment can inevitably transform or even kill the thing. The classic example of this is the danger of trying to codify language – we can’t constrain the natural evolution; attempting to do so merely results in a dead (i.e., no longer spoken) language. Similarly, photography can capture the magic and meaning of our moments; but it’s an art; camera distraction can also ruin the moment. This codification difficulty is inherent not just in our temple ritual, but also in our scripture, our doctrine, our sacrament. We are perhaps more familiar with fresh readings of the scriptures than we are with fresh readings of the sacrament or the temple. One need not cast off their old notes and highlighting in the scriptures in order to have the Spirit breathe new life into familiar verses. Often, however, getting a clean, unmarked set of scriptures to mark up all over again is a catalyst for new insight and learning. The same is true of the temple drama.
In closing, the final words of The Bard’s final play – may they stir a tempest in your soul, and may your temple worship do the same:
Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint. Now, ’tis true,
I must be here confin’d by you
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell,
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands!
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair
Unless I be reliev’d by prayer
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
(Note: because of the sensitive nature of the topic and the raucous possibilities inherent in bloggernacle comment threads, I have closed comments.)