Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture










SCREAM  21 September 2004

Hebe's descendants and the invention of GOD

Art and science create their own models or contexts for explaining and exploring phenomena. Perhaps the existence and understanding of God is a similar human construct. And if so, it has implications for the practice of theatre arts to create a

Theatre beyond religion

A girl in a blue dress once sang Hebe's song from Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore. A young guy fell in love with her immediately because she sang like his mother or at least like his mother seemed to sing. That was in 1967. Strangely, the girl in the blue dress still haunts the boy in the man who remembers the girl in the blue dress singing Hebe's song decades earlier.

She was beautiful. But it wasn't her beauty that was remembered so much as her echo. A lingering sound embedded itself in his body; into the very cells of his being long after Gilbert and Sullivan's nonsensical play rescinded into the void of memory.

Perhaps it was the ritual of young girls' singing; dressed up and exhibiting a kind of special intimacy; like the girls doing their piano recitals or ballet performances or being presented in their debut while dressed in white. Perhaps it was the sense of mystery surrounding all young girls; that mystery kept shrouded in secrecy; secrecy which only women accessed; secrecy that was kept from the young boys!

The girl in blue was the angel of youth who would come disguised as the anima of death acquainting the older man with his fate; his deceptive evocation of personal grandeur and self worth; his connection with rejuvenating forces of a cultural heritage and sounds of his ancestral song.

But the girl could never know this as she floundered through life like most flounder and attempt to rise again. Her embodiment of the melody of culture and the ritual of adolescent adornment could never be adequately explained or harnessed to any notion of history or art or creation. Like a recurring dream, the melody of destiny becomes fused with the actions of a personal dhama; the rationality of dreams being more significant than any logic of free choice!

How often has the girl's song been incorporated into the bones of the city; the architecture of ideals; the voice of god; the rage against walls of time?

In discussing such matters, the writer has confused some personal resonance with the universal echo as if they are the same. At one point, there is a particular girl. Then she is an archetypical figure. Then the figure becomes somehow metaphorical for something that influences thought and action. In popular culture, we do this all the time. Someone of a particular race is seen doing this or that and soon "all" people of that race do this or that. We generally regard this sort of generalizing as a negative aspect of our thinking. Yet the insight is useful in how we regard our relationship to religion, philosophy, ideas and general world views.

In a positive sense, such generalization is a useful tool for art. Artistic creation and presentation utilize a kind of general referencing drawn from particular experience or reflections. Whether it be the case of King Lear or Mother Courage, the audience is left with a general perception based on deliberate particular selections by the authors and presenters. If something can be inferred about the human condition from observation of particularities of characters and contexts, then we can say that art uses this irrational model in a way that appears opposite to what may generally be classed as scientific method. Yet like science, art sets up contexts like scientific models for exploration of the human condition. In both, there is a demand to know or understand more about something relevant to existence.

And so to the creation of GOD

It is no wonder that there arose a notion of God. Just as with art and science, some construct had to be created that would allow for particular referencing to take on a universal meaning. As the sun rose giving warmth and the rain came to nourish the ground the particular observations grew into a myriad of experiences and necessary dependencies through which a human kind related and were inextricably linked. The human consciousness was naturally dwarfed by such phenomena. To explain the observable nature of things which were inherently inexplicable, early human beings pieced together models of thinking which reflected the particularities of their own experience. Out of these models emerged the concept of super beings or gods which controlled the order of all things.

As centuries passed these models were constantly refined as humans became articulate and developed time for personal reflective development. It was quite natural that notions of god and goddess and god-king began to take root as the god model of existence was refined and slowly codified.

The self awareness of the human environment complicated so much by emotional memory and the possibility of what came to be understood as the "ancient" allowed for the codification of invisible traits such as "good" and "evil" and "motivation" "fear" and "insight" etc. Even areas we take as given may not be as long understood as we may think. For instance the very notion of humans possessing a "creative imagination" has only been acceptable for little over two hundred years. It was articulated by the poets (eg. Coleridge) and philosophers of the romantic period. Previously, all understanding was determined by either observation, mimesis, rhetoric and argument or the direct word of god or gods (often through Shamanistic figures or the High Priest / Priestess or conjurer).

This constantly evolving deity model and concept of God is characterized by ever increasing abstraction. As words of prophets and witnesses to this or that concept of enlightenment are translated, reproduced, re-interpreted our model becomes contradictory and fragmented. And reinvented.

Adherents to such models condemn as blasphemy the very notion of the human invention of God. God's word is final. God's word is binding. But who's word is being attributed to God. When God became a personality with wishes and emotions like us mortals, God became a narcissistic reflection of ourselves. God within us and universal God are entities that speak and broker deals that are for the taking. Do this and we get God's grace. Do that and you don't!

The invention of God and resultant models become more than explanatory tools. The invention of God has proved a more powerful and destructive weapon than any nuclear weapon. The human psyche has become adept at being wired for destruction shielded by the weapon of God. This point is acknowledged by Religious representatives who decry the use and invocation of God for such purposes. But underneath such decrying, there is still the presumption of an "all knowing God". The notions that "God is great" or "God loves us" are examples of the reduction of God to human qualities to give acceptability and definition to the undefined and unknown. The need for definition is well understood by the definers of God.

Yet in all of this, there is a paradoxical reality that the problem with God isn't so much in God's existence but in the definition and modelling process. In arguing from the particular to the general as a means of proving or /and defining the existence of God, there is the obvious logical fallacy while there is also a recognition of particular experiences or observations that come within what might be called the invisible and unknown realms of things pertaining to a notion defined as God.

Does it really matter though if human beings constructed gods and goddesses? Rather than the other way around? Does it matter if they never could have been real? Does it really matter if God, as described by those who claim to know him, doesn't exist? Like the fourteenth earl of Gurney, lord of the sprawling Gurney Manor in Peter Barnes' play and film The Ruling Class, God is adopted by all manner of beings from the aesthetic to the terrorist. When Barnes' character is sprouting love and tolerance he is deemed mad. When he sprouts vengeance he is the most sane of men.

Either way, the god of love and the god of vengeance are metaphorical models through which real phenomena is described and experienced. Barnes' highly theatrical character made famous by Peter O'Toole in the film version embodies in a contemporary way what Zeus and a variety of old gods did in ancient times. All are absurd. All embody particular characteristics in metaphorical ways and used by authors to make social, sometimes political and philosophical points. All are attempting to distill some form of knowledge or difficult to define experience or world view.

Carl Jung's anima is as much a goddess as is Hebe. Just like the ancient creation of gods to explain difficult areas of existence and experience, Jung has created a model predicated on assumptions, observations and experiments. His model includes "the Persona, the Ego, the Shadow, the Anima/Animus, and the Self."

Shadow House PITS is largely inspired by the ideas contained in Jung's model. But it also accepts that it is SOLELY a model and not sacred fact. Jung as the prophet of archetypal thinking and the Individuation Process is not the cypher through which holy fact is writ. Yet his work is very useful in coming to grips with the way our theatre and our art works. It is a kind of practical philosophy and guide posting to seek, explore and express aspects of human existence that once were the realms of the gods and goddesses.

Like religious belief, the acceptance of a model for exploring understanding is a useful tool for guiding approaches and behaviours. The Marxist model for social existence was also a useful model for studying history, economics and sociology. Flawed as it was, it was only when used to motivate violence and the use of power to control and destroy human input into social development that the model was deified into a god-like weapon.

Religion, psychology and political / social theories are each trying forge tools for modelling some over-arching principles for existence. Each presents a kind of god in different guise. There is the God with a morality and a personality as proposed by many religions. Then there is the God of archetypes comprising collective principles or forms which underly observable behaviour. Then we find political and social theories or philosophies that motive organization and action. There are other models of course not discussed here. Buddhism, for instance, doesn't discuss a personality of God.

And so back to Hebe, daughter of Zeus and Hera

The motivating song from the girl in the blue dress, though abstract and ill-defined as far as its influence may go, is as real as anything from the observable universe. It's as real as the harvest rain; the rejuvenating spring; the feeling of vengeance; the motivating desire; the driving lust. If there ever could have been a goddess of youth, then her voice surely sounds in dreams and memories where the actual personage is surpassed by the ideal of the person; the effect of some indefinable element in a person that remains and haunts the real life in others.

The need for a female model of god is a very powerful force. Christianity had difficulty with the goddess religions that preceded it. There is a credible theory with some evidence supporting it that the Holy Trinity was derived to placate the need for a goddess: The Holy Ghost in fact being the female aspect of the trinity. The adoration of The Virgin Mary as understood through the feast of the Assumption is very close to the creation of a god figure from a human being. That this was formally introduced by the Catholic Church as late as 1950 indicates something of the need for the female aspect in the process of adoration.

I think a key point in all of this, is that religious thinking and belief is not as straight forward as most adherents might imagine. The history of religion is one of constant variations, adaptations and inclusions. There is no basis in the Bible for Pope Pius the twelfth to declare the "truth" of the taking into heaven body and soul of Mary. This was done on the basis of an on-going revelation. It might then be a surprise for average Christians to discover how God's word has changed or been changed by people over time.

So is it right that we should now scoff at the ancient gods as if they were mere fictions any more than our own? The reduction of the infinite possibility of the Universe into particular human characteristics and vanities is just as prevalent today as it was when Zeus was created. Rather than scoffing at any religion or religious creation, perhaps it might be more useful to examine the phenomena that give rise to religious and quasi-religious belief.

With so much emphasis given to patriarchal gods, perhaps it is time to look closely at those experiences and observations that give rise to the concept of the goddess. As each day, a new suicide bombing takes place because a male god "is great" and the god of war and the vengeful gods are aroused, then perhaps new models of explanation based on a feminine resonance need invoking.

And this is where theatre has a place and a role. Our models for creation are ephemeral. The models are only useful while being engaged in production. As Artaud observed, political change is not effective in bettering the human condition. Only through constant change in form and application can there be real and penetrating changes in human existence matched with the natural environment.

Were all religions to become theatre then violence, or real violence enacted in the name of god, would be impossible. The enactment of ritual and social regeneration through stories and sensual stimulation might well be better placed to evoke the invisible world of inner experience and inner action tempered by the psyche than any adherence to a model of god that presupposes its legitimacy and its permanency while ignoring the vital fact of its arbitrariness.

Of course, the theatre practiced and presented in most theatres, is light years away from this possibility. The mindless distractions presented as entertainments are not the basis for the kind of theatre suggested here. What I am suggesting here, is that theatre has the potential to offer all the rituals, reflections, transformations, sensory experiences, meditations, offerings, affirmations and catharsis that are associated with religious ceremony. Its advantage is that theatre doesn't have to provide the fixed model of God as suggested by religion. Rather, it can start with where people's needs are subdued and submerged to draw out the human and spiritual dimensions of everyone.

Then let God's existence or otherwise take its own course. The moment we stop trying to invent a notion of God, is the moment we accept our humility and forego our vanity in the face of nature and an unknown universe.

We need to come back to experiences in theatre where a young girls' voice can stimulate change throughout a life time; where Hebe's youth infects the very mechanisms that would halt dynamic progress; where human beings experience each other in safe and yet challenging environments; where moments of spiritual ecstasy are still possible; where even the most real moments can be seen for the absurdity which they are. And along with all of this, we come to know our own absurdity and cultural shadow.

Joe Woodward (sept 14th. 2004)

NOTE: Joe Woodward's play THE NAKED GODDESS premiered in October 2006 at DNA Studios, Ralph Wilson Theatre in Canberra. See the review from the Canberra Times here