tlf news Vol. xii #1 March, 1991

A History Lesson

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot

Theatre in "our" (contemporary Western) world began in Europe in the tenth century.

Stop and think for a moment what that means.

(A footnote to still the voice inside that screams: "That's not true: it started with the Greeks!" Of course it did. But along with everything else in the Graeco-Roman world, theatre died with the fall of the Roman Empire. There followed half a millenium when all that remained of that tradition were acrobats and jugglers and probably troubadours, the latter-day equivalent of Homer's ilk. Theatre had to be re-invented, and our theatre comes from that re-invention. Only much later, in the neo-classical period, were the traditions of the ancient world grafted onto the trunk of the medieval theatre, the trunk that had already produced Marlowe and Shakespeare and Cervantes and Lope de Vega and that would go on to produce Moliere and Goethe and Ibsen and Sam Shepard and August Wilson and....)

Stop and think for a moment what that means. A rural society, almost universally illiterate, in which books are non-existent in normal experience. (Among other things, the printing press hasn't been invented yet and a book is a rare treasure. Remember the role of the library, a few centuries of rapid development later, in The Name of the Rose.) Throughout Europe power is concentrated in the hands of local thugs who have taken possession of the land by force and/or trickery. The mass of our European ancestors are landless, powerless, and voiceless.

We shall not cease from exploration....

The thugs employ flunkies called knights to enforce their rule, and they control what little there is of communication (based on the remains of the system established by the vanished Empire to serve its military pretensions and its profit). The foot is our almost universal mode of transport, which means that there are few of us who have seen much beyond the neighboring village or the next valley. There is only one place where we are allowed to gather and try to discover who we are: the village church.


That means THE GOSPEL: LIVE. As in "BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN & THE E STREET BAND: LIVE." It's the name of teatro la fragua 's ongoing project of dramatizing the Gospels.

The first years of teatro la fragua were years of search for a style and structure that would speak to and express a disinherited, voiceless people. With no history of theatre, Honduras presented a unique challenge: how to build a tradition. While these early efforts by the professional troupe were encouraging, the teatro yearned for a window into the daily lives of a broad cross-section of Hondurans, especially of the great majority who live outside the cities. Finally we stumbled on the obvious: the way to reach the people in the villages is through the Church, the tried and true gathering place. Suddenly there was a potential theatre at the center of the life of every village in the country: the village church.

The Church is the obvious place to start: that is where "our" (contemporary Western) theatre started. teatro la fragua copied the model of the Medieval theatre, and the actors developed dramatizations of the Gospel as part of the Mass. EL EVANGELIO EN VIVO is essentially an attempt to re-create the development of Western theatre. (How's that for pretentious-sounding?) Western theatre began in Church rituals; it began with dramatization of the gospel stories. As it developed, each of the European countries came to a national theatre which expressed a specifically national character. If they could do that in Europe, why can't we do it here in Honduras?

The actors offer workshops on dramatizing the Gospel, and EL EVANGELIO EN VIVO has become a vibrant presence in parishes throughout the country. These workshops are a firmly established element of Church life in the departments of Santa Barbara, Ocotepeque, Copan, Yoro and Colon, Honduras, and in Managua, Nicaragua; last week saw our first workshop in Belize. This represents a geographic region that spans the continent and includes mountain, jungle and coastal plain. Hundreds of actors and actresses organize, manage and present performances in their village churches for thousands of parishoners, many of whom are served only intermittently by clergy. These actors and actresses have become dramatic delegates of the Word, and have become leaders in organizing their peers within the parishes.

The effects of the Gospel program have extended far beyond the original goals. Not only have we brought teatro la fragua into the daily lives of a broad cross-section of the people. Not only are children and teenagers and adults learning acting techniques. They are also learning something most Hondurans never learn: they are learning to work together. They are learning to act as a group. A major weapon of every oppressor is the "keep-them-divided-and-fighting-amongst-themselves" factor.

Another unforeseen side effect is literacy. People take a text -- a text that is at the center of world literature -- and in reading it, repeating it, memorizing it, putting it on its feet, they learn that those symbols on the page relate to their own reality. They learn that the written word communicates something real, something related to their own experience, something that has personal meaning.

And that realization gives people the power to speak up. They can use language. Their own voices can speak the phrases that formed our modern languages and gave eloquent voices to writers from Dante to Cervantes to Brecht to Hemingway. The Bible is THE Book (that is, after all, what the word means). For most people, as it was for our European ancestors, it is the only book they ever see and hold; and for almost all, the only book they ever read or hear read from. It is also the cheapest performance text of which we can find multiple copies.

The Gospel dramatizations are simple story theatre. Alec McCowen's St. Mark's Gospel taught us the power of the Gospels as story. The Royal Shakespeare Company's Nicholas Nickelby gave us a model of how to dramatize a narrative text. The visual style owes much to Medieval and Renaissance paintings: the art historians tell us that the painters learned composition from the stage pieces.

The Medieval and Renaissance painters made no attempt to recreate the historical "look" of a scene; they situated the scene in their own time and place. Take a look, for instance, at Peter Breughel's The Census in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph are obviously arriving at a Flemish village of the early sixteenth century. There is not the slightest attempt to say that this is Judea of the first century. And those soldiers: which Empire do they come from? A glance at the coins on the census-taker's table reminds us quickly why it is that a ruler orders a census. This is a contemporary, real world of children skating on the pond and a soldier's horse scratching its behind on a tree.

Taking this very traditional cue, then, teatro la fragua situates the stories in a contemporary Honduran village. And the moment you do that, it's amazing how they come to life. The macro-parallels are striking; they even include the fact that like Jesus we live in the north of the country, the center of agriculture and fishing, while the Capital and power center is in the south. Jesus journeys "up" to Jerusalem; we must climb the mountains to Tegucigalpa. The Roman Empire may have fallen a while ago, but Breughel's Low Countries had the Spanish Empire to contend with and the Honduran newspapers routinely refer to the U. S. ambassador as the Proconsul. The micro-parallels make people see that the Gospels are not only talking about something that happened 2,000 years ago: they are speaking to our own everyday problems in any village here in Honduras.

The core of EL EVANGELIO EN VIVO -- as it is the core of the Gospels -- is the Passion. tlf Passion Play exists in several variations, from a simple version that can be done by village groups to the much more polished version which the professional fragua troupe present through Lent and Easter time. The simple version is the St. John Passion from the Good Friday liturgy. The extended professional version tells the whole story from the journey to Jerusalem through the Resurrection. It is a series of black-and-white pictures -- turning around the medieval practise of painting from the plays, we play from the paintings -- structured around one of the chorales from Bach's St. John Passion. (Naturally, the Resurrection bursts into major keys and colors). Even after several years the Passion remains a moving piece to perform. And a piece which speaks deeply to the mass audience who understands all too well the meaning of suffering.


In that place where our European ancestors gathered, they practised a once-forbidden ritual. They learned to sing together, they learned symbolic gesture and ritual dialogue. They learned about ritual costume and color relations. They learned the meaning of entrances and exits, they learned spatial relationships and ritual movement within that space. The very structure of the ritual taught them the basics of dramatic form, of climax and suspense and rhythm.

Suddenly, in the tenth century, at the very moment when the ritual touched the most inexpressable heart of its mystery, "one of the brothers enters and goes to the place of the sepulchre." At the same time three others come in from another direction, "haltingly, in the manner of seeking for something" until they "come before the place of the supulchre".

The writer of the manuscript seems to have paused a moment. A word of explanation is necessary: "These things are done in imitation of the angel seated on the tomb and the women coming with spices to anoint the body of Jesus." Then he wrote on:

When therefore the seated one will see the three approaching him, wandering about as it were and seeking something, let him begin to sing in a sweet and moderate voice:
Whom do you seek?
The three answer with one voice:
Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified.
He to them:
He is not here; he has risen as he said.
Go, announce that he has risen from the dead.

The celebration of the central event of world history became the decisive moment for the development of Occidental theatre. The idea catches on, other biblical events are "represented", the representations become independent of the ritual and then spill out of the building into the town square where they meet up with the wandering troubadour and the jongleur, and soon the whole of Europe is theatrically literate and the theatre becomes the people's spoken, dramatized newspaper.

Our anscestors had found a voice.

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Jesuit Mission Bureau, Inc.
4511 West Pine Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63108

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