Theatre and Spirituality: Hamlet in a Church?

During our recent auditions for Hamlet, held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, one of the actors who hadn’t seen our production of Macbeth last October asked, “Why are we performing here?” I answered that the church has a very supportive Reverend and congregation, that the atmosphere exudes the feeling of Shakespearean drama in the Elizabethan era, and that the stage and backstage areas rival some professional theatres. But I neglected to discuss the connection between theatre and spirituality.
It’s a cliche for a performing artist to refer to their theatre as “my church” or to their production as “ a religious experience” but the fact remains that the connection between worship and the performing arts goes back thousands of years. A recent article in the NY Times theatre section,
written by Laura Collins-Hughes (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/02/theater/when-theater-is-a-religious-experience.html), who
cites both a number of current and recent productions in Off Broadway theatres that have a religious core that drives the story. She also notes that the mingling of drama and worship goes back thousands of years to ancient Greece and the festivals of Dionysus.
Both the Old and New Testaments are filled with theatrical moments: Moses at Mount Sinai, the parting of the Red Sea, Jesus walking on water, the crucifixion and resurrection. Charleton Heston and a slew of other actors have made names for themselves playing Biblical figures.
The medieval passion plays that depict the Easter season in dramatic fashion are popular today as they have been for hundreds of years. Here’s a Wikipedia description of the “The Thorn,” performed in Colorado Springs each year: “The Passion of the Christ meets Cirque du Soleil, an epic portrayal of Jesus’ life and death featuring indoor pyrotechnics, acrobats, aerialists, and a cast and crew of nearly 1000.” VIP seats are $50.

The story of Hamlet begins when, after returning to the family castle in Elsinore for the funeral of his father who was killed “by accident”, Hamlet encounters a ghost that is apparently his father,
the former King Hamlet, now suffering in Purgatory, Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night, And for the day confined to fast in fires, Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.
This encounter with the ghost sparks the events that lead to the tragic finale with bodies and blood littering the stage. Along the way, Hamlet has the opportunity to slay his murderous and incestuous uncle, but stays his action because his uncle is at prayer:
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven? No!

It’s not just for Hamlet to avenge his father’s murder. The vengeance must include a trip to the underworld for the villainous King Claudius, not salvation for his sins.

The religious and theatrical collide throughout the text of Hamlet. He urges his mother, Queen Gertrude, to seek forgiveness for the sinful marriage to Claudius:Confess yourself to heaven;
Repent what’s past; avoid what is to come.
Ophelia – Hamlet’s cruelly rejected girlfriend/lover – apparently kills herself by drowning. Given the church’s view of suicide as a sin, the priest forbids her burial in sacred ground. Laertes, eager to avenge his father’s death and Ophelia’s madness, seeks the death of Hamlet not just anywhere but: To cut his throat in the church. Shakespeare makes the ending of the play a final exchange of forgiveness between Laertes and Hamlet, that neither should suffer the torment of damnation:
Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet:
Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me.
When I was a child, one of my earliest religious experiences was sitting in a stifling hot synagogue on a September evening, clad in a sticky and itchy mohair suit, listening to the mournful solo voice singing of Kol Nidre in ancient Aramaic on Yom Kippur eve. For those few minutes I was transported to a place that only theatre takes me now: an emotional place that feels primeval, visceral, and outside of human experience. Divine? That’s up to you to decide but it’s the main reason that Hamlet in St. Paul’s, opening just days before Yom Kipper, 2019, is much an ideal location for a play that may touch your soul as well as your heart.

-published in Valley Voice, Steamboat Springs, CO, September 2019

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