Going to the theatre is not a means of escaping from the “real world” and all its problems; nor is it a purely passive activity, or merely recreational, as in watching a ball game. Or at least it needn’t be, and sometimes shouldn’t be. Great drama—great art—can edify. It can enlighten; it can lift us into the presence of the good, the true and the beautiful. It can also strengthen us in the commitment to fight political tyranny; it can be a powerful means of resisting corrupt government. In short, it can be a force for good in the political sphere.
From its earliest days, drama has fought the power of evil and fortified souls to fight for freedom. In around 442 BC Sophocles wrote Antigone, the first of his three Theban Plays, which highlights the perennial tension between secular power and religious freedom. The play’s eponymous heroine defies the secular power, insisting on her right to bury her dead brother in accordance with religious custom, in spite of a decree that, as a traitor to the state, he was to be denied burial. Knowing that she would suffer severe punishment, probably death, for defying the law, Antigone knows that the law of the gods and the dignity of the human person take precedence over the law of the state. She is bound by divine law to give her brother the religious burial that is his right and which is commanded by the gods. She knows that no merely man-made law can supersede these unchanging laws which transcend time and government. She is aware of her eternal destiny and is willing to die for her religious beliefs. She is true to the gods and true to her brother. In order to be true to these higher goods, she has no choice, morally speaking, but to become an enemy of the state, a political dissident, so that she can remain true to truths which the state has no right to deny or contradict.
Cordelia, the courageous heroine of Shakespeare’s King Lear, is confronted with the same choice that Antigone faced. Commanded by the King to pledge the entirety of her love to him, she refuses to comply and suffers exile and eventually death as a consequence of her defiance. She tells the King that she is willing to offer him all the love that is due to him, as both her own father and as the political ruler of the realm, but that she cannot offer him that love which is not rightfully his. She cannot offer him the love that will be due to her future husband or, by implication, the love that is due to that other Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.
Moving into the twentieth century, T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral dramatizes the real-life dilemma faced by St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his defiance of the power of King Henry II, which resulted in Becket’s murder in 1170. Eliot’s verse drama, first performed in 1935 as communism and fascism cast their secularist shadows over Europe, palpitates with contemporary and perennial relevance. As with the timeless relevance of Antigone’s defiance of the power of the state, and of Cordelia’s, the heroism of St. Thomas Becket resonated with those suffering persecution for their Christian beliefs in Russia and Germany. In this way, the dramatic portrayals by Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Eliot of the individual’s principled stand for religious liberty serve as inspiring icons of the power of the human spirit to resist the encroachments upon liberty by the secular state.
One can hardly discuss this inspirational aspect of drama without mentioning Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, a play which has also metamorphosed dramatically into two excellent motion pictures. In Bolt’s play, the courage and wisdom of St. Thomas More rises magnificently against the monstrous tyranny of Henry VIII, the latter of whom had sought to subject all religious belief to the law of the state.
Now there is a new play that follows in this noble tradition. The Sheen Center in New York City is producing the American premiere of a play from London’s West End, entitled All Our Children. The World War II drama, which will run at the Sheen Center from April 6 through May 12, plots the dilemma faced by a morally-conflicted pediatrician complicit in the Nazis’ barbarous T4 program to exterminate special needs children. One of the pivotal characters in the play, who serves as the plot’s moral compass, is Bishop von Galen (played by TONY-winner John Glover), the real-life, courageous Bishop of Münster who publicly opposed the Führer and was beatified by Pope Benedict in 2005. David DiCerto, Director of Programming Administration at the Sheen Center is understandably excited that the Center is the venue for the American premiere of the play. “It is a timely play that addresses the responsibility of speaking truth to power, even at great personal risk. It’s a message we as a culture need more than ever.”
It is grimly ironic that All Our Children is making its American debut in the blackened heart of New York, a state which recently passed a law sanctioning the killing of babies right up to the very moment of their birth. As such, this prolife drama will serve as a powerful testimony to the dignity of the human person in the midst of this latest manifestation of secularist tyranny. Those attending the play should not be surprised to find the ghosts of Antigone, Cordelia, St. Thomas Becket, St. Thomas More, and Blessed Clemens August Graf von Galen hovering in the wings, their spirit infusing this latest dramatic defense of freedom.
Author’s Note: Those wishing to know more about the Sheen Center’s production of All Our Children or, better still, those wishing to purchase tickets to see it, should visit the play’s website.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from “The Trial of Queen Katharine, ‘Henry VIII’, Act II, Scene 4” by Henry Andrews (1794-1868).