Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Rhapsodic Theater, Part II

So what exactly is this Rhapsodic Theater that Karol Wojtyla (better known as Pope John Paul II) founded, and why should it have any bearing on his later work?

In short, the Rhapsodic Theater was focused on the "living human word."
What does this mean? Is not every theater a theater of the word? Does not the word consitute an essential, primary element of any theater? Undoubtedly it does. Nonetheless the position of the word in a theater is not always the same. As in life, the word can appear as an integral part of action, movement, and gesture, inseparable from all human practical activity; or it can appear as "song" -- separate, independent, intended only to contain and express thought,
to embrace and transmit a vision of the mind. In the latter aspect, or position, the word becomes "rhapsodic", and a theater based on such a concept of the word becomes a rhapsodic theater. And so without entering into deliberations on the primacy of word or movement in the art of the theater, we can safely assume that according to the rhapsodic principle, the word is a pre-element of theater.
(Karol Wojtyla, "On the Theater of the Word", from The Collected Plays and
Writings on Theater
The word is significant because it is capable of conveying a problem -- not just a problem based in material realities (Where do all the missing socks go?) but a problem that is rooted in an idea: an acknowledgment that something is not as it should be. How should it be? What is preventing it from becoming that which it ought to be, and what can we do about it? The word fascinates Wojtyla because of its possibility to express the objective realities (the ideas) that order our existence and behavior, and which in the end bring us to an better understanding of God.
The fundamental element of dramatic art is the living human word. It is also the nucleus of drama, a leaven through with human deeds pass, and from which they derive their proper dynamics. ("Drama of Word and Gesture", from Collected Plays and Writings on Theater)
One of the philosophical underpinnings of Wojtyla's thought, both as a young actor and as bishop and Pope, is the proper relationship of action to idea. Action (a term that encompasses the range of physical behavior) finds its purpose through the ideas it embodies, though the ideas can be more fully articulated by words. Theater is a perfect medium for exploring the hierarchy of idea, word, and action -- a relationship that "doubtless reach[es] even further, in a sense beyond theater and into the philosophical concept of man and the world. The supremacy of word over gesture indirectly restores the supremacy of thought over movement and impulse in man" ("Drama of Word and Gesture"). Years later in his Theology of the Body talks, Pope John Paul would return to the objectivity of action in terms of the marital act, which is the embodiment of the idea of total self-giving. (Seen in this light, contraception falsifies the act because it negates the objective expression of self-giving. )

From the conception of the word as the bearer of idea comes Wojtyla's first meditation on the person as gift, an idea which comes to fruition in his later writings such as The Acting Person, Love and Responsibility, and Gaudium et Spes (the Vatican II document that Wojtyla helped to shape). The actor gives himself in service to the text so as to faithfully transmit its meaning, rhythms, and beauty to the audience. Instead of trying to impose his own personality onto the play (think of every bad adaptation of Shakespeare you've ever seen) the actor strives to bring into sharp focus the original intent of the playwright.

Because of the simplicity of its essential emphasis on the basic elements of actor, audience, and the spoken word as bond between them -- developed out of necessity in the cramped and sparse conditions of secret performances during the German Occupation of Poland in 1941 -- the Rhapsodic style wasn't suited for traditional theatrical performances that demand intricate plots, rich characterization, or massive set decor. However, it was an ideal style for exploring other works of literature -- books and epic poems. (In 1964, then-Cardinal Wojtyla was impressed by a Rhapsodic version of The Divine Comedy.)

In his later writings Wojtyla expanded this concept of self-giving to encompass more that just an actor's service to the audience. Love and Responsibility deals with a total giving of self in the context of marital and sexual ethics. The Acting Person, a dense and almost incomprehensible philosophical tome (over which, I freely confess, I fell asleep many a night during my semester of Philosophical Anthropology) expounds on the possession of self and the gift of self (how can one give away what one does not first possess?) and develops the concept of solidarity as the answer to the quandry of how free persons should relate to one another. Gaudium et Spes offers a much more concise formulation: "Man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself" (24).

To be continued.


Fr Martin Fox said...

Thanks for your thoughts on our late, great Holy Father.

I don't know if you've noticed, but it's become somewhat fashionable of late for self-affirming orthodox Catholics to find fault with Pope John Paul II.

I think very highly of our late holy father; but I know he's not above criticism. But, on balance, I think he was a truly remarkable man, and more important, a providential man--how fitting a pope he was for our times.

And I do think there is something unseemly--impertinent--irreverent--to criticize the man now.

Maybe I'm terribly biased; but he was such a great and good man. And I say, Thank God for John Paul the Great!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Father. I really think that one day Pope John Paul will be remembered not only for his remarkable sanctity, but for his outstanding contributions to philosophy. He really did bring the philosophical understanding of the human person into the twenty-first century. I wish his theater and his philosophy were more widely studied, but I think that his overtly religious orientation cause many to dismiss him out of hand in those departments.