Lessons, Observations from Performance History Patterns, Practice
By Diane Howard
Throughout the history of Western performance, we can observe various periods that begin with substance, artistry, universal themes, complex characters, and more that characterize great art. Over time, we generally see this greater art degenerate to lesser forms of art which are characterized by crude language and behaviors, situational comedy, violence, and more. Then, it seems that God has raised up one person who along with others who have served to turn the tide to bring human life, including performance, back within Biblical boundaries and to greater depth and height with absolute universal values and skilled artistry. Three key figures at great historical turning points seem to have been Constantine, Martin Luther, and Cecil B. DeMille. None of these men were perfect humans, but God has seemed to use these men with their imperfections for great good.
Writers/performers can learn valuable lessons about aesthetic elements, dramatic content, and theatrical style from the history of performance. We can gain special insights from the history of ancient performances of poetry, oral storytelling, and singing of tales. Early examples of such performances were the following: rhapsodists, reciters of epic poems in ancient Greece; scops, who composed and sang songs of heroes in Anglo-Saxon England; and jongleurs, who were itinerant minstrels in medieval France.
Every ancient civilization used dramatic performance in some way in the following: religious ceremonies, funeral rites, and storytelling. Some of the books of the Bible, such as the Song of Songs and the Book of Job, were written in dramatic form. The earliest records of theatrical performances were made in Egypt. One stone tablet was carved 4,000 years ago, depicting the story of a three-day pageant. In this production Ikhernofret arranged and played the leading role. The pageant was made up of actual battles, boat processions, and elaborate ceremonies. Carvings and murals on ancient temple and tomb walls were produced to show highly theatrical pictures of dancing girls and of triumphal processions.
Greek Tragedy to Constantine
Greek performance structures and ideas have had tremendous influence throughout history to the present time. In 300 BC, Aristotle identified the significant elements of tragedy as plot, character, thought, diction, music, and spectacle. His classifications have been used in analyzing, writing, and producing drama to the present day. Common, contemporary, Greek theatre terms, such as orchestra, scenery, and proscenium, have been used to the present.
Aspects of Greek theatre structures and the actors’ performances in those spaces have persisted in influence. In front of the Acropolis, the theatre of Dionysus was completed in 340 BC. The theater’s seats were built into the side of the hill. From that vantage, spectators had a clear view of the orchestra, where Dionysus was worshipped with choral dancing and singing. Across the back third of the orchestra was a ten-foot platform, which in time became a stage. Across the rear of this platform (stage) were the decorated fronts of stage buildings, which provided a backdrop and dressing rooms. Greek theatres were roofless. Performances were done in daylight. Changes of scenery were rare. Stage machinery was limited to thunder machines and cranes, which lifted actors who represented gods.
Actors wore masks with built-in megaphones to project their voices. They portrayed great legendary figures, wearing heavy, ornamented costumes, high boots, bushy topknots of hair, breast and stomach pads, and trailing robes. Their costuming caused them to look larger-than-life. In view of the basic, external simplicity of the Greek theatre and staging, performers depended largely on the imagination of the audience and on the writing of the playwright to produce dramatic impact and insight.
Theatrical contests emerged to honor Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility. In 534, Thespis won the first dramatic competition. The term thespian (actor) came from his name. Patrons defrayed the expenses of staging the competitive plays, and no expense was spared. A director trained the chorus, whose function was to provide objective commentary on the dramatic scenes. A public commissioner supervised the production. First, second and third monetary prizes were awarded to the playwright/poets for their trilogies. Musicians accompanied the chorus. Music was a fundamental part of Greek education and of the plays. An altar stood in the middle of the orchestra. The Greek worldview included the supernatural and the plays were a part of religious worship.
Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides wrote great Greek tragedies, which are still performed today. Aeschylus introduced dialogue between two characters. Sophocles included a third character in the exchange. He also created dramatic action that led to a definite plot and more realistic, life-like characters. Euripides developed the human-interest element.
The tragedies revealed conflicts between the will of the gods (often larger-than-life personifications of men characterized by amoral actions) and the ambitions of men. The gods of fate were always more powerful than men, although tragic heroes were portrayed with dignity and courage. Usually, heroes were confronted with difficult moral choices, struggled with hostile forces, and in the end were defeated (often in death). Greek tragedies were dramatically complex. They dealt with significant ethical problems, which the protagonists struggled to solve for the good of the aristocratic society. The tragic plays were designed to purge the spectator’s soul through the emotions of fear and pity. They were also designed to help the spectators accept the challenges in their own lives by seeing the characters in the plays experience far worse difficulties. Leading characters commonly met their demise due to tragic flaws, which were excesses of otherwise good virtues.
Tragedy on stage declined after 400 BC, but Greek comedy was alive. It was more natural in vocal delivery and more energetic in movement. However, it was dominantly bawdy, obscene, and farcical. Aristophanes developed Old Comedy, which was satirical of political and social issues. New Comedy, which followed, emphasized domestic, situational, private, and personal intrigues.
Elements of Greek drama have continued to provide instructive models for effective theater performances today. Greek tragedies recounted stories, which traced the cycle of death to life. They encouraged an acceptance of the difficult and even tragic events of life. Violence was not portrayed on stage. Rather, it happened off stage and was reported by messengers. The protagonists were larger-than-life characters who struggled with universal issues. Their tragic flaws were often subtle excesses of good virtues. Greek performances incorporated elements of music and poetry. Classification of dramatic elements facilitated analysis and interpretation of the plays.
The development of Greek drama from tragedies to political comedy, to domestic or situational comedy is instructive. A gradual downward spiral developed, to be repeated later in dramatic history. This was marked by the decline of the religious and philosophical nature of the dramas to that which became increasingly coarse and more entertainment oriented.
Roman drama copied and imitated Greek drama. Although Roman versions in Latin later influenced Shakespeare and other playwrights, Roman imitations of Greek drama were often inferior. More popular than plays in Rome were the spectacles of chariot races, gladiator battles, and fights with wild animals. Romans, in general, did not seem interested in performances that provoked thoughtful reaction. They seemed more interested in theatre that would entertain, arouse passions and thrill. As the empire wound down (destroyed from within), Roman life, in general, became more decadent. Romans became increasingly involved with sensuality and violence. During much of the history of the Roman Empire, audiences were entertained by violent, bloody and obscene spectacles. Eroticism became more excessive. Exaggerated sexuality began to adorn architecture, as in Pompeii. Creativity decreased in the arts. Music even became more bombastic.
Constantine to Luther
Constantine, the first Roman emperor approving of Christians, started to stop the bloody spectacles in the Roman coliseums, and 75 years later Emperor Honorius canceled the games. As the Church came to power in Rome, much of the decadent Roman entertainment was stopped.
Some Roman dramatic techniques in plays did survive, however. Seneca’s techniques of the five-act form, use of elaborate and flowery language, themes of retaliation and revenge, magic rites and ghosts, and the device of the confidante or trusted friend, influenced later playwrights. Elements of adaptations of Greek New Comedy by Plautus and Terence survived to influence later works. Some of these tropes were mistaken identities, free-spending sons, deceiving fathers, and humorous intrigues among slaves (later among servants). Pantomime was also evident in Roman entertainment and has survived until today. In the Roman culture, words were written for the ear in public oratory.
During the Middle Ages, most plays were religiously oriented. They portrayed Bible stories or conveyed church doctrine. The language of the Bible and of the church was Latin, not the common vernacular of the people. Thus, the people were dependent on the priests to teach them the Bible and church doctrine. Drama became an instructional tool to teach biblical stories and lessons of the church. Passion plays depicting the life of Christ were produced in chancels, which were at the front of the churches. Plays depicting the lives of saints were produced in naves, which were in the main interior of churches, closer to audiences. Then cycle plays were performed on outdoor stages at the entrances of churches for viewing by outside audiences.
The typical stage upon which these plays were performed was a plain wooden platform. At one end, were the pearly gates of Heaven, and, at the other, were the flaming jaws of Hell. At the conclusion of the play, the good characters went into the gates of Heaven, and the bad characters went into the gates of Hell. In time, this stage was put on wheels to be made moveable. Thus, the first pageants and pageant wagons were created. The word “pageant” meant “rolling platform.” Guilds produced cycle pageant plays. In the hands of laymen, however, imaginative material was added. For example, Noah had great difficulty persuading his wife to come along in the cycle version of the story of Noah. Having put her aboard the ark, he came forward to urge the men in the audience to take their wives in hand early in their married life. Noah’s wife came forward, as well, to warn the ladies that if they were wise, they would not marry at all.
The plays on pageant wagons drew great crowds. In some cases, innkeepers saw this as a chance for business. Actors with these pageant wagons were probably enticed with food, drink, and lodging, if they would perform their plays in the courtyards of inns. However, the audiences in these environments would have been primarily interested in entertainment and in hilarity. Earlier audiences, who had come to the entrances of churches to see religious plays, came more out of reverence, worship, and desire to learn biblical truths. The audiences of plays on pageant wagons were often more entertained by the characters who went into the flaming gates of Hell than those who were righteous and went to Heaven. The players, who had freedom with changing and improvising their lines, began to accommodate to the entertainment interests of audiences. There was a gradual downward spiral in the presentation of great biblical characters, from models for religious education to performances of these characters as buffoons for amusement.
Drama in the Middle Ages degenerated from an educational tool of the church to more of a vehicle for merriment. An historic pattern seems to have been repeated. Greek drama had declined from religious plays with great universal themes to amusing productions with more domestic, crude, situational comedy. Similarly, the religious drama of the late Middle Ages declined to more coarse entertainment. The emphasis on theatre productions as forms of religious worship, teaching, and inspiration shifted to an emphasis on dramatic performance for entertainment and amusement.
The Dark Ages were not totally dark, however, in performance history. Simple, aesthetic performances were common in the forms of mime, improvisations, and storytelling accompanied by music. Bible stories were recounted through drama. However, aesthetic deterioration was facilitated, when performances were given in environments where rowdy, sometimes drunken audiences reinforced coarse, comic elements.
Luther to DeMille and Beyond
Martin Luther and other Reformation leaders reacted to, stood against, and changed much of the religious distortion and degeneration of the Middle Ages. In 1643 Puritans closed the doors of theatres because they subverted, in their opinion, public morals. However, the arts, especially music and visual arts flourished in northern Europe within biblical boundaries and within the Christian concept of reality. During the Reformation and Renaissance, natural and realistic art replaced that which was mystical and symbolic. In Reformation countries, art was produced for the glory of God, who was at the center of the universe for Reformation man.
As the Reformation took place in northern Europe, the Renaissance took place in southern Europe. In Renaissance countries, art was produced which glorified man, who was at the center of the universe for Renaissance thinkers. The Renaissance was generally humanistic in orientation with little reference to absolutes, universals, or a unified concept of ultimate truth.
Thomas Aquinas, as a Renaissance forerunner, had opened the door to the exalting of the human mind and to individual relativism, when he stated that man’s will had succumbed to the Fall but not his mind. There was a return to the classical Greek philosophers, who were to stand beside the great biblical figures, including the apostles. For example, Michelangelo’s David was created with larger-than-life David was not circumcised, indicating that he was a humanistic David (not necessarily the David of the Bible). Great art flourished in the Renaissance but morality in art gradually declined. Mary, for example, was painted as a real figure, but the king’s mistress was used as a model.
Great dramatic literature flourished under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth. Earlier religious plays were replaced with the sweeping histories, tragedies, and comedies of Shakespeare and of other great Elizabethan playwrights. Actors were respected members of society during the reign of Elizabeth. They often traveled with repertory companies and played a variety of roles. Acting was more natural, but the roles of women were still played by boys. Actors’ performances were open and presentational to audiences in Elizabethan theatres, which were of simple design. Actors performed to highly involved audiences. Members of the audience were close to the stage in the yard into which the elevated platform projected. This yard was in a large, unroofed area, which was enclosed by a three-storied gallery.
William Shakespeare wrote in blank verse during this period. He followed Thomas Kyd, who had established this writing style as a hallmark of the period in The Spanish Tragedy. Shakespeare also borrowed from earlier fiction, histories, myths, and playwriting techniques. He contributed few new playwriting elements, but he brought them to greater aesthetic heights. Like the Greeks, he wrote about great philosophical issues, probed to the depths the complexities of his characters, and portrayed human emotion with intensity.
Shakespeare’s theater, the Globe, was situated across the Thames from London, on the “wrong side” of the river. Queen Elizabeth conceived this compromise arrangement to pacify the Puritans. The Globe was a simple, open roofed, circular, wooden, tiered theater. Staging was simple. Shakespeare’s dramatic literature was rich in aesthetic elements and characterizations. Performances were energetic and intense. Members of all strata of society were represented in Shakespearean plays, and they related to all classes of people. However, many of his plays, like those of other playwrights of his time, included coarse elements for popular appeal.
In the seventeenth century, comedy again became the dominant dramatic form. Women appeared on the stage for the first time. Unfortunately, these women tended to be the mistresses of the male actors and were often viewed as sexual objects. Actors wore extravagant costumes. Likewise, the set and stage effects were elaborate. A proscenium arch was used to frame the stage where scenery was changed. Situational comedy was the dominant dramatic form. Comedy of Manners made fun of the upper classes’ attitudes and moralities. The acting voice was elevated. Movement was carefully stylistically executed.
Racine and Corneille turned to the Greeks as models for their tragedies. Moliere produced great comedies. The characters of Moliere were more psychologically complex than characters of English Restoration, gentlemen playwrights. Restoration characters were more one-dimensional. Restoration comedy primarily involved witticisms, repartee, and risqué intrigues for comic entertainment. The Restoration theatre provided a seated pit, galleries, and boxes for its aristocratic audiences. It incorporated wings off the stage, a system of flat painted scenery, and an entirely roofed-in theatre. A managerial system of non-theatre people emerged.
The development in English theatre history from great Elizabethan drama with complex, universal characters to seventeenth century, domestic comedy with one-dimensional characters is reflective of earlier downward dramatic declines, as in Greek and medieval dramatic history. The pattern of the development of great, didactic, religious, and tragic drama to situational comedy was repeated. There was again a downward moral, aesthetic spiral in dramatic content and style, especially in England. Powerful complex Elizabethan plays declined to Restoration situational comedies, which were more simplistic in dramatic nature even though they were staged elaborately.
During the Enlightenment, Reason was exalted. The middle classes were on the rise and so was social consciousness. Man was considered perfectible by his reason. In theatre, a pseudo-sophisticated attitude was evident. Neo-classical ideas, such as those concerned with unities of time, space, and action, overly constrained plays. There was a general focus on logic, rationality, reason, and control. It was also a period of revolution. France experienced the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Peace came later at the price of the dictatorship of Napoleon. In France, where individual human reason was the primary authority, there was not a general belief in universal absolutes. In the United States the American Revolution ended with the writing of the Constitution, which was guided by biblical principles and based on a belief in absolute Lex Rex (law above the king). It established American representative government.
Because performance opportunities were limited for English actors, who were not attached to one of the two London theatres licensed by the king, one-man “entertainments” were devised to circumvent and to provide relief from theatrical restrictions imposed since the Restoration. Samuel Foote, a British satirist, and failed tragedian, seems to have originated one-man burlesques. He was skillful at mimicking well-known actors of the day. George Alexander Stevens, who performed with actor/manager David Garrick, was popular as a one-man burlesque presenter and monologist. In his satirical lectures, Stevens poked fun at famous people and at social stereotypes. Thus, one-person performances flourished in England in the eighteenth century.
The emphasis on reason shifted in the nineteenth century to a dominating, romantic appeal to man’s emotions. There was a fascination with gothic, supernatural, fantastical, and eerie themes. Self-expression was emphasized. Beethoven produced in this stream. So did poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. Rosseau encouraged autonomous freedom and a return to the concept of the noble savage. He promoted a return to nature. He believed it was society that corrupted man. Leading artists who tried to live according to this Bohemian ideal, however, despaired in the end. Gauguin, who went to Tahiti to find and to paint the noble savage died in desperation, as did many of his impressionistic artist friends.
Plays were loosely concerned with facts, but more with emotional extremes. Plots were contrived and dealt more with an imaginary world. Romantic actors were frequently melodramatic and flamboyant.
One-person performances received unprecedented popular support in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century. This was the golden age of platform performances.
Several factors contributed to the popularity of one-person platform performances. First, they were considered commercially viable. Secondly, during the Victorian Age, there was a strong clerical resistance to the theater. This was somewhat justified as prostitutes frequented the third tier to meet clientele. The platform with its lectures and solo readings of literature was considered genteel, dignified, respectable, and edifying. Thus, it was able to draw broad popular and mainline support. After the American Civil War, the demand for non-theatre entertainment was strong. There was widespread literacy and interest in hearing the written word read or recited. The travel needs of solo performers were provided by railroads.
One of the most popular performers in Britain and in the United States was Charles Dickens. He was adored by the public, more like a popular star would be today. His was the greatest one-man show of the nineteenth century. He had aspired to be an actor in his youth. He performed characters from his writings, breaking from the elocutionary style of the day. He characterized his presentations as popular entertainments. His daughter, Mamie, wrote that he threw “himself completely into the character he was creating and…had become in action, as in imagination the character of his pen.” He was wonderfully expressive with his body and face, performing with energetic character gestures. His reviews were mixed, however. It was said by some that he succeeded in dialogue more than in recitation, as he was more of an animated storyteller than he was a reader.
In the nineteenth century, platform lectures or performances were common. Lyceum bureaus, which were usually paid a ten per cent commission, served as booking agencies for lecturers and contracting parties. Notable American and English figures spoke on American platforms during this period. Among the most celebrated were Daniel Webster, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Alexander Graham Bell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Distinguished authors publicized their writing and secured supplemental income by platform presentations.
During the nineteenth century, as Charles Dickens was distinguished for his character performances, Edgar Allen Poe was noted for his performances of poetry. During the American Civil War, James Murdock, a popular Shakespearean actor, served his country with benefit readings, designed to arouse patriotic spirit.
Anna Cora Mowatt, Fanny Kemble, and Charlotte Cushman were also popular platform performers in the mid-nineteenth century. They brought prestige to their art, securing respectability and acceptance for female solo artists, who would follow them. Mowatt, who performed material from major and minor poets, received excellent reviews in New York newspapers. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Henry James praised Fanny Kemble’s platform readings of Shakespeare.
At the end of Charlotte Cushman’s career as a platform performer, the Chautauqua Assembly was founded. Chautauqua gatherings primarily began as Sunday-school meetings held in the woods for lectures, lessons, sermons, devotions, and conferences. People who attended the camp-like meetings were housed in tents. The first two-week course was held on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in New York. What began primarily for religious instruction was broadly expanded for cultural education at various sites. Fifteen years after the first course at Lake Chautauqua, there were one hundred independent assemblies across the United States. Lyceum presentations were conducted in comfortable auditoriums in the winter, but Chautauqua meetings were held outdoors in the summer. Famous performers, seen on both circuits, were Robert McLean Cumnock, Helen Potter, and Leland Powers. Robert McLean Cumnock, who excelled at interpreting Dickens and Scottish literature, was a teacher of elocution at Northwestern University. Helen Potter was known as a credible impersonator of notable female actors and lecturers. She portrayed Susan B. Anthony, Sarah Berhardt, Charlotte Cushman, Fanny Kemble, and Elizabeth Cady Statton. She also depicted national, male figures such as Edwin Booth and Abraham Lincoln. Reviews provided commentary on her depth and range of performance. Leland Powers appeared simply in evening clothes to portray a host of characters. He was described as one of the first to present modern plays as monologues.
Chautauqua presentations were originally considered more respectable than other types of popular entertainment, such as vaudeville shows. Vaudeville had developed from minstrel and variety productions and had become increasing popular. Around the turn of the century, Chautauqua, and Lyceum performances, which originally appealed to the gentry, became more entertaining. Vaudeville entertainment, which originally appealed to the masses, became more respectable.
During the last decade of the century, a remarkable personality appeared on platforms. It was Samuel Clemens as Mark Twain, the popular American humorist and master storyteller. John Gentile described him as “the best of the American writer-performers as well as the finest platform humorist of his age.” Using relaxed, colloquial language, Twain performed with the impression of improvised, momentary, impulses, which he described as studied fictions.
The turn of the century was marked by new motion pictures films. Great platform performances of literary dramatic monologues and solo stage and platform performers were still prolific. They were described in various ways as the following: elocutionists, readers, reciters, characterists, impersonators, monologists, storytellers, and expressionists. This development reflected a romantic interest in the individual. It was a rich period for one-person performances of great literature and of fascinating characters.
At the turn of the twentieth century, stage plays were often marked by the development of realism and then naturalism with sad or tragic themes. New experimental theater forms emerged after WWI, which were commonly marked by chance, fragmentation, and hopelessness. There was little appeal to reason and logic, but rather to non-reason and non-rationality.
On the other hand, twentieth-century, one-person performances were more frequently characterized by positive, redemptive and celebratory elements. Early in the century, platform performance developed into solo theatre believed in what she was performing the audience would believe it, Ruth Draper broke all records for solo performances in her vast array of characterizations for the New York Comedy Theater’s 1928-29 season.
Ruth Draper was popular with common people and government leaders in the United States and in Great Britain for nearly three decades. Other popular performers from 1920-1950 were Cissie Loftus, Dorothy Sands and Charles Laughton. Particularly notable was Cornelia Otis Skinner in her performances of the multiple Wives of Henry VIII and three generations of women in Edna His Wife, which was a full-length adaptation of a best-selling novel.
After WWII, some American playwrights developed psychologically realistic plays with penetrating analyses of human characters in simplified settings and in compressed time. However, sadness, tragedy, cynicism, pessimism, and/or hopelessness often pervaded these plays and their corresponding films. New theater forms emerged after WWII, which were often marked by desire for escapism. After WWII Theater of the Absurd became influential. Because Absurdists thought there was little hope in reason or in the emotions, they tended to emphasize the illogical, confusing, and hostile elements in life. Their plays put strange people, in strange episodes, in strange relationships. In this vein were Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Edward Albee’s Zoo Story. For modern, twentieth-century, humanistic man, there was commonly little reference to universal absolutes. For many there was little hope except in existentialism and non-reason. These plays small, usually university audeinces.
At the same time, great theater flourished on Broadway and in London. The Golden Age of Broadway and London theater featured powerful moral and themes, such as the musicals MY FAIR LADY, CAMELOT and THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Great dramas and comedies also flourished, such as AUNTIE MAME (in which Dr. Ted Baehr’s father starred), THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK and SUNRISE AT CAMPOBLLO. Great theater continued to capture audiences up to and beyond LES MISERABLES and CATS.
A refreshing renaissance in one-person shows emerged in the 1950’s and 1960’s on stage and film. Emlyn Williams portrayed Charles Dickens. Hal Holbrook presented Mark Twain. One-person biographical shows were prolific in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Julie Harris portrayed Emily Dickinson and Charlotte Bronte; James Whitmore- Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Will Rogers; Alec McCowen- Rudyard Kipling; Henry Fonda- Clarence Darrow; Ben Kingsley- Edmund Kean; and James Earl Jones- Paul Robeson and so forth.
In the 1980’s, one-person performances of Shakespeare and the Bible emerged. John Gielgud performed the Ages of Man. Ian McKellen presented Acting Shakespeare. Alec McCowen presented St. Mark’s Gospel. Ben Kingsley won an Oscar for his film portrayal of Gandhi. Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, and Eric Bogosian were famed monologists. Dylan Thomas was popular as a writer/performer.
In the 1980’s, performers of biography presented their characters impressionistically. A resistance to character duplication, replication, or reproduction developed. Many notable performers sought to subtly reveal their character’s subjective experience through suggestion. Julie Harris said of Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst, “This is not a literal life of the poet. We tried to capture her mystique.”
There was a performance shift from biography to subjective autobiography and to autoperformance. In the 1980’s-1990’s, Spalding Gray captivated audiences with autoperformative storytelling. He was followed by other autobiographical monologists, who performed in a storytelling style like Gray’s.
In the 1990’s, Anna Deveare Smith promoted social awareness and facilitated social understanding, as she remarkably performed a host of African American and Jewish individuals in her one-woman show and film, Fires in the Mirror. Concerned with individual voices within conflicting racial groups, Smith immersed herself in the inner-city, minority cultures in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York. Her intervention involved listening to and then performing individuals, who normally would not be heard, from the conflicting, racial groups. She conducted lengthy personal interviews of key individuals from the Black and Jewish communities. These individuals had been involved with the tragic death of a young
African American boy. The boy was playing on a sidewalk, when the car of a rabbi went over the curb and killed the child. This incident touched off intense racial hostilities.
Smith transcribed with great precision the voices of those she interviewed. She established the identity of those she performed by listening to, transcribing, and replicating their speech. She then mirrored many of these individuals as she portrayed them. Through Fires in the Mirror, she performed individuals from both groups by using their own words. She used the process she developed in Crown Heights in Los Angles following the Rodney King verdict to produce her one-woman production, Twilight. She built bridges of understanding. Her research and subsequent powerful performances were novel. Her approach was others-based. Her research and performances brought compassionate insight into racial tensions in inner cities.
In the 1990’s, female performers were especially concerned with real, specific, social, and political issues. The significant questions of these feminist performers were concerned with a woman’s place in society. Feminist artists frequently performed events from personal history in exploration of self-discovery and in celebration of self-empowerment, in such ways as to produce forums in which they were able to reach out to other women with experiences like their own.
Feminist performers frequently presented multiple personae or identities. In the late 1990’s, female performers seemed to be re-thinking self-representation as not only individual but grounded also in particular cultures, in specific communities, in race, in class, and in gender. They were concerned with providing a voice for hitherto silenced and suppressed groups. Their performances were a telling of the self that developed over time: invented, reinvented, fluid, and changing shape and character no matter how solid the facts.
In the late 1990’s, performers were often more self-reflexive with heightened awareness of issues of identity in social, cultural, and political life and due to the desire to give voice to marginalized groups. First, feminist performers, then performers from other marginalized groups, in the late 1990’s, sought to establish specific, authentic identities and to disengage themselves from false identities constructed for them by the dominant culture. Further, it seems performers as members of marginalized groups sought specific, true identities to effectively position themselves for social and political activism. They seemed to believe that intervention in dominant psychological, linguistic, social, and cultural, as well as political, theatrical, and performative systems required truthful identity positions and representations, even if they were in progress or flexible. These flexible representations presented changing selves or multiple roles, sides, or facets of self.
Marked by significant social activism, twentieth century performers promoted awareness of the need for truthful identity in marginalized groups who had struggled to free themselves of imposed, stereotypical, and/or false identities imposed by dominant cultural groups. Diversity in performance was encouraged. University performance departments expanded theater, dance, literature, and other related studies to include performance issues from cultures around the world. Multi-media technologies enriched visual and auditory production elements. Video, computer, television, and film technologies facilitated access to performances. American and international musical theatre richly developed. Theater pieces, which expounded biblical truth and provided hope, emerged. Revivals of romantic, classic tales and early American musicals provided refreshment in an era often characterized by escapism and non-reason (reflected even in Seinfeld’s situational comedy-about nothing).
It was also an age of post-modern thinking commonly characterized by little belief in absolutes or universals. Ambiguity and uncertainty were often dominant. It was a century commonly marked by pessimism, cynicism, and hope only in existentialism. In the twentieth century, the comic-tragedy genre developed; laughter was stimulated by slapstick activities of pathetic people in pathetic situations. Almost anything was accepted for comic relief. Often visual spectacle superseded substance in performance. Drama became increasingly coarse, erotic, and violent. At the end of the twentieth century, artistic performances frequently reflected elements at the bottom of the downward aesthetic spiral, which were evident in earlier periods of dramatic history.
However, at the turn of the century, we began to see new developments in media, especially in movies, which built on good, artistic, redemptive performance elements from the past. A major turning point was first THE JESUS FILM of 1979 then Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and continuing through THE CHOSEN series, followed by a fresh and growing Renaissance and Reformation of content and artistry in redemptive, faith-based movies for theaters and home use.
New Reformation and Renaissance
We have learned valuable lessons from the history of performance from its practices and patterns. First, we have observed that central to good stories are intriguing and colorful characters. If a performer plays a character who displays a fascinating personality with an engaging use of language, he or she is more insured of an aesthetic, engaging, impacting performance. Further, we learn that classic stories, which survive the test of time from generation to generation, seem to be about characters who are larger-than-life and whose lives reflect universal issues. These characters often overcome significant physical, personal, social, or cultural barriers. Having complex, multi-dimensional personalities, they are often paradoxical. They are usually intense, passionate, or energetic. They are frequently unique, colorful, reflective, and insightful. Through their responses to life events, they commonly teach and inspire. As they develop over time, they are often role models.
In recent years we have seen an ongoing Reformation and Renaissance in movies produced for theaters, churches, and streaming for home use for all ages in many genres: dramatic, documentary, biopic, animated, and more.
The modern Renaissance and Reformation continues with the production and distribution of good redemptive movies. Today we continue to see on big and small screens, a developing Renaissance with its heightened, multi-dimensional appeal of excellence in artistry and the growing Reformation of content with its appeal to universal absolute moral values.
During the lifetime of Shakespeare, there was both a Renaissance of artistic expression in England and a Reformation of content in England due to the influence and patronage of Queen Elizabeth the First. We have been seeing this happen again in the 21st and 22nd centuries.
We have especially been seeing developing and improving performances in redemptive movies in a wide range of genres. Many of these movies have been inspired by real events in which we have observed how someone or something has become redemptive, positive, and worthy, despite former negative states.
Redemptive films present realistic, naturalistic, and honest stories in which the characters go on ultimately edifying journeys that lead them towards positive results from that which was originally negative, toward reconciliation, and toward Truth.
Redemptive films have edifying stories that reveal universal ideas and lift viewers from negativism, cynicism, and/or pessimism to what is positive, renewing, and hopeful. Although, they present honest, difficult struggles, they turn what is paralyzing, degrading, and debilitating into what is freeing, beautiful and eternal.
Redemptive movies are authentic, honest, and believable. They entertain with stories that are also uplifting, enlightening, and/or educational that reinforce universal ideas of unconditional love and absolute moral values. Best practice redemptive movies also include the best of artistry in cinematography, directing, acting and more. The modern Renaissance and Reformation continues with the production and distribution of good redemptive movies with the patronage and support of investors and consumers.
The ultimate Redemption is that which our Lord Jesus Christ has provided for us. Redemptive movies are those that line up with this Truth. In our present darkness of national and international strife and threatening evil elements, redemptive family movies have been providing refreshing reprieves and hope. Redemptive family movies with Christian values are showing us how to find healing, unity, and a positive way forward in the intense, competing divisiveness of our day. We can observe how our Lord Jesus Christ has made a way to lead those who know and follow Him to ultimate Redemption.
By Diane Howard, Ph.D.
Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. George Santayana
Editor’s Note: Diane Howard, Ph.D. shares “Observations from Turning Points in History” from her book Autobiographical Writing and Performing published by McGraw-Hill. It is used by permission
Now more than ever we’re bombarded by darkness in media, movies, and TV. Movieguide® has fought back for almost 40 years, working within Hollywood to propel uplifting and positive content. We’re proud to say we’ve collaborated with some of the top industry players to influence and redeem entertainment for Jesus. Still, the most influential person in Hollywood is you. The viewer.
What you listen to, watch, and read has power. Movieguide® wants to give you the resources to empower the good and the beautiful. But we can’t do it alone. We need your support.
You can make a difference with as little as $7. It takes only a moment. If you can, consider supporting our ministry with a monthly gift. Thank you.
Movieguide® is a 501c3 and all donations are tax deductible.
Enjoy articles like this? Sign up for our mailing list to receive the latest news, interviews, and movie reviews for families: