Gus Cuddy | Essays:

The theatre-church fallacy

23 November 2018

I hear this analogy often used, that theatre is akin to church. A place where we go to experience collective catharsis. And it’s the only place, besides church, where we go to do that. Which makes it vital. Or something along those lines.

But I think there a couple problems with this comparison.

The first problem is that it’s a little too precious. I fear us romanticizing theatre too much, convincing ourselves of the mythical and poetic Goodness of the form, rather than just making good theatre. Equating a night at the theatre to a religious experience might make us feel good, but I’m not sure it’s very helpful if the theatre is still bad.

But the bigger problem? Well, the comparison is actually a little too accurate, and that’s not a good thing. People forget that for many of us, church is really boring! Many people go out of a sense of obligation, not for the thing itself. They go to feel worthy, to say they have gone to church. And then, for the next hour or so, they are politely bored.

This is the same idea with theatre: people go to feel “worthy” for having experienced “culture”. They go to theatre out of a sense of obligation, and they expect to be politely bored for two hours. This is deadly.

In both theatre and church, the highs can be ecstatic. There really can be collective catharsis, in both cases. But more often than not, it’s just not the case.

The comparison is a little too easy. It lets us off the hook. Instead, we need to use more rigor for theatre, investigate it to its core. Yes, it is indeed a place of collective catharsis, a weird ancient ritual that we enact every night. Sure, yes. But the bigger problem? That ritual is often very fucking boring.

The church-theatre analogy makes us feel all nice, as if we’re performing something holy and sacrilege all at once. But it actually is dangerous, lest we become another fossilized ritual obligation.