Theatre sprung up out of religious rituals and existed for many years along side of religious holidays and festivals. The Medieval Roman Catholic Church used the Mystery Plays to tell Bible stories to their congregations in the vernacular language. This theatre is what gave way into the professional theatre. With this in mind, I would like to look at possible theatrical elements of a Catholic Mass.
Plot – A mass has a clear beginning middle and end. The mass begins when the priest and his party enter a defined area (or stage) and likewise ends when they leave.
Character – This may be the weakest argument among the six elements. But you can definitely make the argument that there is first and foremost the character of the priest who has a very specific role to play, actions to take, and lines to say. Following that there are other participants in the mass who have very specific and scripted parts. There are also the characters in the Bible stories that are read as well. While they are not ever present before the congregation, they do have actions that must be considered.
Thought – Much of the proceedings are about thought. The Bible stories that are read definitely put forth a doctrine that is to be considered and interpreted. The priest will deliver a homily or sermon that is all about lessons from these stories and how to interpret them
Diction – If you want good playwrights involved, consider the Jacobian writers who compiled the King James Bible. While not a Catholic version of the Bible, it opens the door to the Bible as literature which is read in each and every mass. Not to mention all the memorized prayers which are recited by the priest and congregation alike.
Melody – Hymns are a very prominent part of any mass. Some masses may be sung all the way through – all the prayers can be sung. Melody figures highly in this event.
Spectacle – The beautiful sanctuary of the Church can often be a spectacle in and of itself. The mass begins with a procession. Other things that may happen are sprinkling rites, baptisms, incense burning, and many other rituals. The mass is a balance of personal reflection and gross spectacle.
There are many obvious arguments over why a Catholic mass can’t be considered a theatrical performance. The way the audience is an active participant is very different than theater. The characters do not convey a story in the same way that follows theatrical convention. But when one thinks of the higher purpose that theatre often strives to achieve, I cannot help but think back to the Mystery Plays and their intertwining with another purpose.
A wise man once said that this mass "is in the world but not of the world. The similarities between a liturgy and a play are perhaps more streams of consciousness than actual ties that bind." Indeed, I think the connection between the two is an experience that is ethereal and fleeting that derives meaning from being participated in and shared withing the community.
Happy Birthday: Frank Wedekind (1864-1918)