Arthur Miller wrote Death of Salesman in 1949. The play serves as a stinging indictment of our capitalistic, consumer-based culture. In its first performance on Broadway, the play drew no applause. The audience sat immobilized and entranced. Finally, after several minutes, people began to leave in silence. They didn’t necessarily hate the play; they were stunned by its raw truthfulness.
One night an older man with several attendants accompanying him came to the play. He was a major retailer. And as he walked out, he commented to his attendants that never again would his company dispose of an older salesman in the manner he had just witnessed onstage. He left a changed man.
Drama has a way of doing that. It moves us. It compels us to reconsider our view of the world. That is the thrust of all storytelling.
Filling the Vacuum With Story
Well-told stories have always drawn us in, from listening to children’s folk tales to the saga of a quirky great-aunt. But now, in the 21st century, stories are even more captivating. Living in the debris of postmodernism, children and great aunts alike feel a desperate need for the nitty-gritty, for authenticity and certainty.
Gene Edward Veith writes that a generation ago, the primary mode of apologetics was to convince a neighbor of the reasonable, factual nature of the Christian faith. Today, true or false is no longer an issue. The question is not “Is Christianity true?” but “Is anything true?”
Veith asks the question, “How do we reach such a culture with the claims of Christ?” The answer: story. Now, as ever, the wonder of story should serve as an apologetic for the faith.
The one thing the postmodern generation seeks is authenticity. The younger generation is sick of the mantra of “reasonableness, rationality, and scientific evidence” as the true source of life. Look at the dazzling technologies around us; tributes to science and rational thought. Still, these technologies—like 3D animation and podcasting—are dry skeletons without the flesh of a story.
We have seen the end of the road “without story.” Youth following the generation of “scientific, rational” adults find their families torn apart by divorces and household division. Now, this new generation is discovering that relationships, communities, and authentic living offer some satisfying answers. And that is exactly what the best stories are about. [See related article here.]
“The Real Reason I do the Theater”
The Actor’s Studio and Group Theater in New York began in 1947 as a “renegade” group of actors who wanted to practice their craft with a realism and angst never before seen on the American stage. Along with this vision of realistic acting came a vision for a realistic confrontation of the culture. In its long history, this movement produced such wonderful writers and actors as Robert DeNiro, Anne Bancroft, James Dean, Eli Wallach, Sidney Poitier, Tennessee Williams, Steve McQueen, and many more.
The late Harold Clurman, a veteran actor/director of the Group Theater, delivered a lecture about drama and theater when he was in his 80s. “People come to me and ask me why I do theater. They ask why I have spent my life doing this ‘silly’ thing,” he said. “They ask, ‘Is it because you like the spotlight?’ or ‘Do you like acting?’ or ‘Is it because you enjoy writing and directing?’ I tell them that yes, each of these areas are attractive to me, but that’s not why I do theater.” Then he yelled with passion, “The real reason I do theater is because I BELIEVE THINGS!”
And that is why I do theater: I believe things. The power of the story compels actors and playwrights to engage their deepest convictions in the work of the theater.
Somebody’s Preachin’ – But It’s Not Us
But there are plenty of people who believe things that have nothing to do with Christianity—and they tell convincing tales on stage. In the early 1990s, playwright Tony Kushner decided to write a play about a subject untouched by playwrights: the new “gay disease”—AIDS. He wanted to make people see the human drama and tragedy involved with the disease. So, he wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America. Mother Jones magazine asked him, “Do you see your plays as part of a political movement?”
“I do,” he answered. “I would hate to write anything that wasn’t. I would like my plays to be of use to progressive people. I think preaching to the converted is exactly what art ought to do.”
His play went on to become an HBO six-hour mini-series and touched thousands of people. Audiences realized their contempt and hardness of heart toward those suffering from AIDS. But this powerful art form can be a two-edged sword: Hundreds have been swayed to a pro-homosexual worldview through Angels in America. The author knew the power of language.
The Ultimate Storyteller
Jesus told barrels of stories and parables. He engaged His audience with wit, cleverness, and wisdom while weaving stories of stinging conviction and calming grace.
The Christian community, as people of “the Word,” must wake up to the power of language. I regularly ask pastors and teachers to consider the manner in which their listeners are learning of the world in their “non-church” days and hours. I ask them to invest the time and money it will take to train Christians to speak properly, to speak through the art form of theater. Could we not use at least an elementary course in this new dialect?
Somebody is preachin’ out there, but by and large it is not the Christian community. The stage is where truth can be presented afresh. And with a truth-soaked storyteller it can be piercing.
After working with the Lamb’s Players Theatre in San Diego, Charlie and Ruth Jones founded a drama group, Peculiar People in 1987. Charlie and Ruth both write and act their own works, encompassing everything from sketch comedy to full-length historical dramas.