Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture










SCREAM No. 53: October 2011


The historical explanations for god and religion are simply semantics and metaphors framed within the experience and knowledge of the time. But giving credence to the existence of such binding connectivity is not the same as promoting fairy tales or the emperors' new clothes of delusion and illusory realities often adopted by religious dogma.

digital design, animation and artwork by Jo Howard
music by Sophie Howard, Molly Dickson, Alana Cunningham, Ken Harris with additional arrangement and musical direction by Maria Tolfree performed by Sophie Howard, Molly Dickson, Alana Cunningham, Ken Harris, Kate Walker and Maria Tolfree

As students watched the You Tube video of Pol Pot being interviewed, the curiosity in their eyes was reflected in their comments. None of them had ever heard of Pol Pot and his relation to the genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s. All they saw was a frail old man being jeered by his former comrades in a jungle trial. As the key was passed around the circle, the students expressed pity and empathy for the poor old man who seemed wrongly done by. Here was no Hitler or Stalin. Just an old man trying save some dignity for himself after being accused of ordering the murder of a former colleague and his family.

Seeing and encouraging students working with such enthusiasm and naivety on the theatre work, SACRED FIRE, was a source of joy tinged with a sense of worthiness; yet it also brings with it a saddening and brutally wounding feeling of mortality and dissipation.

The paradox of engagement with creation is that it sparks awareness. This awareness is in the constantly shifting and moving gravitations between extreme poles of acutely felt sensations. The sense of grounding in knowing one's function and role in life is sometimes pitted against the dreams and possibilities of what might have been or still could be! And one only sees in the students those "dreams and possibilities"!

As we worked on SACRED FIRE I was confronted by the corruption of power and idealism in historical contexts while acknowledging my own sense of loss and impotence. As we considered the lives of Robespierre and the likes of Pol Pot and Nuon Chea (a real life figure and character in SACRED FIRE) I must say I felt a strange identification with Nuon Chea and his own personal corruption of idealism and his having to live long enough to have it all revealed.



Nuon Chea, Brother No. 2, second in charge of the Khmer Rouge

And yes, he is certainly a strange person with whom to find some identification! Yet I find in Nuon Chea the horror of certainty that results from idealism. A couple of years ago I wrote "to believe is to kill". The more passionate one's feelings relating to necessity and action: the more likely the resultant regret! A paradox! The source of creativity and motivation: also the seed of destruction and death! The unprovable feeling about the nature of reality, once codified and elevated as fact, once removed from the sensory and the intuitive; then the platform for good or evil chosen by chance but weighted towards the horrific and the dark abyss of illusion and deceit. The ultimate organization of social and mind control!

There are so many amongst us who see the edifice of religion as a concrete construction that weighs down on our consciousness. Yet this is possibly a mistake in perception as the edifice and the source are not necessarily the same.

In 1961 I learnt to serve the Latin Mass. Apart from my father, my prime teacher of the Mass was Father James Long, an MSC Priest who lived in the presbytery a hundred metres up a hill from my home. We used to walk to the church together at 5.30am to offer a Mass at 6.00am. One day in 1963 he turned to the congregation at the commencement of Mass and said:

"Today's Mass will be offered for the repose of the soul of the late John F Kennedy who was assassinated some hours ago!"

That moment stunned me as I knelt wearing my red and white robes of the altar server. It cemented that day as a significant moment. Later that morning I went to Brisbane State High School to complete a music exam. Forty or so years later, I stood over Father James Long's grave at Douglas Park near Bowral in New South Wales where the MSC order still runs retreats and various training programs.

In the intervening forty years, I had found religion to be a totally destructive force on human imagination and a socially divisive form that sought to control every facet of one's psyche. It used guilt and psychic control to impose its own straight jacket. I had seen a member of my mother's family being destroyed by the religious paradigm as she struggled with acceptance following her "mixed marriage" with a protestant. I had seen members of my extended family having their lives turned upside down over pregnancies outside of marriage. I had experienced my father's rejection over my marriage because it was outside the blessing of the church. The anger I felt towards the religious basis for horrific social consequences could only be channelled through political and artistic commitment; a commitment I gladly assumed.

My current ambivalence can only be the result of having worked with some of the warmest hearted people I have ever known; and they happened to be members or associates of a religious order. It was a Catholic priest who once offered a mass and proclaimed what we seek is a "face of love": someone to love us, someone worthy of our love, the face of beauty that can be there for us in all our experience! This face being the manifestation of that which cannot be explained: ie. god! Not some moralistic prick in the sky that offers us wrath and rewards like punishments and sticky gold stars; not some great ruler presiding in some invisible castle called heaven; rather a notion of some principle, some binding connectivity that draws everything into a constant forever changing milieu; the commonality that connects all things in existence!

From that one point, all thought and philosophy and science can proceed in perfect and logical cohesion and dialectical relationship. The historical explanations for god and religion are simply semantics and metaphors framed within the experience and knowledge of the time. But giving credence to the existence of such binding connectivity is not the same as promoting fairy tales or the emperors' new clothes of delusion and illusory realities often adopted by religious dogma. Both the attackers of religion and the defenders can be correct in their arguments while both can be equally wrong in providing seemingly diametric opposition to each other. Such is the arrogance of the human mind that it can take limited knowledge and understanding and derive absolute conclusions; making them binding on hapless followers; imposing regimes of terror to inflict such punitive actions on society, humanity and even family members!

So in considering a way through Sacred Fire, it was necessary to adopt a dialectical approach that gave full credence to opposition to religion and its hold over the human psyche while also highlighting the very real and personal struggles of people within the religious traditions who strove and still strive whole-heartedly to promote a deeper and meta-understanding of human existence and action.

The approach centred around the notion of "love" and its possibilities as espoused by Father Jules Chevalier, the French priest who founded the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart in 1854. His break from dogma while focusing on the relationship of Jesus and his mother, Mary, provided a starting point to assess the possibilities of a re-evaluation of the "all you need is love" pseudo-philosophies of the 1960s. This re-evaluation could only be possible in light of the experience of the past two hundred years or so!

The idealist who identifies the corrupt nature of society and its organization can be excused for a feeling of rage against the machine of privilege and manipulation of populations. The identification of the churches and the religious with such manipulations must also be recognized. It is this identification which gives easy virtue to the opponents of religion in any guise; myself included!

Yet now, my ambivalence towards all forms of religion is fueled by experience of the MSC traditions and the work of Fr Jules Chevalier. I can see his thinking working in the school where his thoughts are taken seriously by at least some of the staff (not all) and certainly by the administration. There is a spirit of ecumenism and investigation. It is possible to discuss and debate in the school issues that are mostly problematic for religion and religious schools.

Sacred Fire certainly was a product of this possibility: a possibility that could not be tolerated in Government schools nor most religious schools with their agendas of propagation of particular aspects of faith!

And so the production could be reflected in both the NOW and the historical! The now is the school; the historical is history!

With the French revolution was born the argument that the rights of liberty and the people could be furthered by the application of tyranny and oppression. Certainly, the idealism of young revolutionaries such as Robespierre and Marat in France and later revolutionaries such as Pol Pot and Nuon Chea in Cambodia affirm this phenomena. The past two hundred years has been blighted by such warped idealism on a horrific scale. The simple message of a French priest, Father Jules Chevalier and his mission of love, needs to be viewed in light of this paradox.

History is not "out there" but is within us. Sacred Fire challenged our responses to the refugee and the real world of people and their aspirations and lives; people from within our families, communities and throughout the world.

Sacred Fire also attempted to highlight the very ethos of the school which is run by the inheritors of the Jules Chevalier mission. The ideal and the real do not always coincide. Just as religion and the enlightenment are bound by tensions which have experienced contradictory consequences.

For my part, I have certainly been challenged to provide an authentic piece of community theatre which did not compromise the experience of the students, the mission of the school and the MSCs and my own sense of what is important and significant in artistic creation. Judging when to step back and knowing when to intervene and shape responses has been something learned over thirty years of creating this kind of work. But still it brings with it a kind of depression that comes with one's own impermanence and recognition of change. A project of this nature cannot be created from ego or vanity or sense of one's own significance. Rather, it required observation from a distance and a very strong team of hands-on participation. It was never a case of forming opinions or agreements or disagreements. Rather it was a process of considering reasons and social momentums against a backdrop of actual and real history. It meant constantly challenging the student actors to consider their role in the story and how it related to now!

Through the use of iconography, drama, dance, digital media and music Sacred Fire attempted to draw our attention to the conflicts of ideas surrounding and shaping our experience and our relation to history. It sought to reveal something of love's necessity for our survival and how, without it, all idealism is doomed to mirror that of its oppressor.

Joe Woodward


            Trinculo's Shadow

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