–Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
Sir Ralph Richardson once electrified an opening night audience and other members of his cast when he suddenly stepped out of character in mid-scene. He turned toward the auditorium and shouted, “Is there a doctor in the house?” When one stood, the acclaimed actor asked, “Doctor, isn’t this play awful?”
Like Richardson, we would be wise to bring our judgment along with us when we attend the theater.
The great French mathematician and philosopher Pascal knew of what he spoke when he observed that theater is something to be feared. The power of the pen working from the page to the stage is indisputable. Shakespeare echoes the idea with his rhetorical question: “Know you how much the people may be moved—by that which is uttered on the stage?”
We cannot fear that which has no influence. And if something has influence, it likely contains meaning—a message. Francis Schaeffer’s observation that “all art has a message” rings true and the ability of the theater to convey a message makes it a powerful medium. Thus we may discern that stage entertainment such as “Mary Poppins” contains, among many messages, the ideas that childhood innocence is worth protecting and that parents too busy to raise children ought to pay closer attention to them or suffer the consequences.
So if and when we attend “Wicked,” or “A Chorus Line” or “Sweeney Todd,” or “Rent,” are we accepting their “entertainment” at face value or are we asking ourselves, “what are the various messages these stage works contain?” We can be sure that the respective writers and composers want us to contemplate both the messages and the worldviews they have, without question, inserted into their works. It is then up to us to discern how our viewpoints square with theirs. Are the messages redemptive? Are they worthy of application to our own lives? Why or why not?
Time magazine reported many years ago that six like-minded businessmen pooled their considerable financial resources to invest in the development of a new stage musical. That musical went on to become a box office bonanza, a national tour and a movie. This particular musical contains a number of messages and world views I find abhorrent. If I shared the title with you, I suspect you would find the content and views expressed as reprehensible as I do. (Like the Apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” however, I will not reveal the specifics in the hope you will think critically about what you yourself have seen presented on stage and in film). The six businessmen, however, supported these messages and wanted them in the marketplace of ideas that theater provides. They were so intent on using the shiny bait of “entertainment” to convey their misguided “message” and hook audience members, they were perfectly willing to risk—and lose—hundreds of thousands of dollars in the effort. And, by the world’s standards, they were successful.
While I disagree wholeheartedly with the aim of these businessmen, I have to grudgingly admire their willingness to risk so much to convey so little that is redemptive. I would love to open Time magazine one day to read about six businessmen of faith who are joining together to bankroll a substantive, inspirational production that conveyed values most societies have traditionally upheld.
In the meantime, when we consider watching a play or film, may we remember that we are paying to have someone’s point of view pumped into our heads. We are paying to give someone the keys to our hearts and minds. We are paying to give someone considerable power.
If we agree with Schaeffer that “all art has a message,” are we choosing what to absorb wisely?