Theatre, Religion, and Football
Sir Tyrone Guthrie, founder of the
The first link between theatre, religion, and football comes from the psychological motor responses we experience when attending an event at these institutions. These reactions are triggered by a psychological phenomenon known as empathy. Why do people attend the theatre, go to church or watch a football game? Besides the common answers of “to be entertained,” “to worship God,” or “to cheer on the favored combatant,” there is another basic human trait that connects the three together. It can be expressed as “recreation,” but not just that recreation that refers to an enjoyable pastime, which all three institutions are. The recreation here referred to is “re-creation.” And that is what things called “recreation” are, re-creation of the activity itself. The re-creation of theatre, religion and football takes place on several levels. This paper will examine just two of them: that which re-creates the event itself, and that which re-creates the event within us.
The first re-creation, then is the re-creation of the event itself. Save for the details, one theatre production is pretty much like another, one church service is pretty much like another, and one football game is pretty much like another. If you have seen one, you have seen them all as far as the outer shell is concerned. It is the inner details that make each experience interesting enough for us to return again and again to each institution. Furthermore, the re-creation of religion is manifest in the yearly church calendar which celebrates the major events of the religion in a cycle of repetition following the history of the religion each year and re-creating it for the worshipers. This is easy and straightforward.
The second re-creation is more complex and more meaningful. It even may be the reason why these institutions exist in the first place. It is the re-creation of the event which takes place inside our bodies as a result of empathy. For the purpose of this paper, empathy is defined as “a physical involvement with a perceived stimulus that causes the viewer to vicariously experience the same feelings emotionally and to some degree physically as those who are participating in the stimulus.” What this means is that audience members, congregational members and fans watching a theatrical, religious or athletic event feel the emotions and physical sensations, at least to some degree as the actors, the celebrants or the players that they are observing.
We are all aware of physically jumping in our seats at the theatre when a sudden surprise takes place on the stage. We weep at the saddest moments of the drama and laugh with delight at the happiest or most ridiculous times of the comedy. Studies have been done wherein audience members at a play have been wired and their muscular reactions to a play recorded. It was found that the audience’s muscular movements were identical, although much smaller, to those of the actors. Thus, the plays we watch are re-created within our bodies as we watch them. We are therefore able to experience many things such as heroic actions, romantic achievements, and daring rescues of which in real life we are not capable. It is this re-creation within us that makes us return again and again to the theatre.
Many religions make a great effort to ensure that the congregations experience empathy with the ceremonies. The members are asked to stand, to kneel, to participate by singing, and on certain special days to wave palm branches or to march around the sanctuary. Revivalists are especially good at motivating empathetic responses in their audiences who often cry or shout “amen” and “hallelujah!” Many churches employ theatrical effects such as music, spotlights, projections, and so on, to heighten the effects of their ceremonies. All of these things increase the empathy and cause the rites to be re-created within our bodies. And, there is the Christian ritual of Communion, in which bread and wine are ingested by the congregation and then are transformed into the body and blood of Christ inside of them! The refreshing of our souls by our religion being re-created within us brings us back to church again and again.
No where is empathy, as we define it herein, more observable than at athletic contests. If we are watching a boxing match, we bob and weave with the fighters, feinting and punching and parrying right along with them. At a basketball game, all eyes are on the players in a closely fought battle; one of our players stops and jumps and shoots the ball toward the goal. And what do we do? When he stops and jumps, we leap to our feet and follow the arc of the ball up and down and through the net, rising and sitting in concert with the shot. Similarly, at a football game, when the quarterback hands off the ball to the running back and he suddenly breaks through the defense and dashes towards the end zone, we leap to our feet at the moment of breaking through and try to push him on his way, leaning toward the goal he is trying to reach. Or the quarterback fakes the hand-off and drops back and passes the ball toward one of our receivers. We again simultaneously rise to our feet, following the trajectory of the ball and sit again only when the pass is incomplete or after celebrating the pass’s completion. Oh, it is magnificent to identify with the heroic achievements of these fine young athletes! We, who are too young, too out of shape, too old, or in some other way unfit to participate in the sport, do so as we watch in the stands or on television in the comfort of our homes. Indeed, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The medium is the massage.” As the athletic contest is recreated within us while we watch it, we are the great heroes of the event.
Empathy, by allowing us to experience the events within us as we witness them, may well be the thing that makes our institutions of theatre, religion and football, important and ever lasting in our society. The origins of these institutions also closely embrace then and tie them together.
In prehistoric times we discover theatre, religion and athletics closely allied. Primitive man’s basic goal was to stay alive. He did this by hunting and learning to protect himself from predators. He was also very superstitious and attributed everything that he did not understand to be caused by a power or powers greater than he. Now, suppose a small tribe of aborigines had gone hunting and were successful. After eating, they sat around the camp fire and told stories of the hunt. They got so enthusiastic in their story telling that they leapt to their feet and acted out what happened while hunting and slaying their quarry. The other members of the tribe were spellbound as the storytellers became the prey as well as the hunters. The next day, they needed to hunt again and went out and were successful again. As they sat around the fire that night, someone opined that they had been successful because they had acted out a successful hunt the night before. Another member of the tribe added that the acting out of a successful hunt must have pleased the god of the hunt and that they should do this every time before they went hunting. Through the repetition of the enactments, the movements were stylized and formalized and thus the hunting dance was created. Similarly, rain dances, war dances, and other rituals were devised by the primitive people. These rituals pleased the gods and became their prayers. In the hunting rituals a participant needed to have the skill to throw a spear accurately and hit the surrogate quarry. In some societies the dances were so important that it was a capital offense to misstep while dancing! So one’s athletic ability was most important in the performance of the ritual. Theatre, by acting out the hunt for the tribe, religion through the acting out of the hunt becoming a prayer in the form of a ritual dance, and athletics needed by the participants in order to do the rituals correctly and not offend the gods. These are serious matters, but other matters also became part of their rituals.
Once successful in the hunt, with plenty of food on hand, primitive man’s concerns turned from the hunt to primitive woman. Secure in their ability to survive by having enough food, they became interested in surviving by having enough people. So their interests turned to procreation; and to assure success in their mating and reproduction, they developed fertility dances as prayers to insure their increase. Then, when the tribe was large and secure, they developed rituals which poked fun at those who were inept in the hunt and developed dances which were done for the mere pleasure of dancing. Such behavior was hardly prayers, but rather a good release of their energy when they had worked so hard to protect the tribe.
The highly civilized Ancient Greeks took these rituals a step further. Their development needs a bit of a preamble. Nearly all ancient societies practiced sacrifice to please the gods and to ensure the well being of their people. Beginning with human sacrifice, then for some reason—perhaps a lack of virgins to offer to the god, perhaps a Divine intervention such as in the story of Abraham and Isaac—human sacrifice gave over to animal sacrifice. The Ancient Greeks held annual rituals in honor of their god of wine and fertility (no doubt among the most popular of deities). His name was Dionysus and at the Great City Dionysia, celebrated in his honor, goats were led to sacrifice in the orchestra (dancing circle) of their theatrons (viewing places). As the goats were paraded in and dispatched to Dionysus, songs of sacrifice called tragos were performed. Soon, the highly organized Greeks held contests at the Dionysia to see who could write the best choral odes in honor of the god. In 534BC, a contestant won the contest by cheating. His name was Thespis, and during the presentation of his entry, he stepped out of the chorus and impersonated a character who answered questions put to him by the choral performance. Sensation! Soon Aeschylus added a second character and scenes between the two besides those with the chorus further developed the art of tragedy. Using the stories of the legendary heroes of Athenian myth and history, tragedies replaced the animal sacrifices with stories of the sacrifices of the past that made the country great. Civilization reaches a new height with all actual sacrifice replaced by the symbolic sacrifices of tragedy. Dionysus was most pleased with the advancement, but it is to be remembered that he was also the god of fertility. After sitting in the hot sun for several hours watching the tragedies, soon the comic relief of the satyr play was added to the festivals. These were spoofs of the tragic and mythological heroes which had a chorus of satyrs, half-horse and half man creatures, ever ready for copulation. So popular were the satyr plays that soon a new contest developed—out of the phallic songs of the Dionysia say many scholars—a play called Comedy in which lofty ideas and personages were made fun of in a fertility ritual story of romance that traditionally ended with a marriage. Religion and theatre wedded forever by the Ancient Greek society.
And what of athletics? In lieu of bloody
conflict to determine the greater city stage, Athens, Sparta and others
came together to hold athletic contests in honor of their gods who lived
on Mount Olympus. Thus, was the origin of the Olympics such as seen this
The historical links among theatre, religion, and football exist in many places and at many times, including Medieval Europe where is found the Battle of Summer and Winter, an ancient ritual in which the citizens of a village take sides in a huge snowball fight between forces of dark and cold on the one hand and light and rebirth on the other. The battle is held at mid-winter around the winter solstice. It is also rigged so that Youth and Spring always drive Age and Winter from the village. Here are theatre as those who do not fight watch the event; religion as the event is a prayer for the end of cold and the return of Spring; and athletics in the achievement of the good aim and strength of the participants to ensure the proper outcome. And when spring did arrive, the ancient Celts celebrated with Maypole dancing (an obvious phallic symbol) and other rites of spring including Tournaments and jousting held by the local Princes and Barons. Theatre, Religion, and athletics again are all as similar branches of the culture of the people. The Church Fathers eager to establish control of the people’s religion, made good use of these pagan rituals, establishing the date for celebration of Christmas to match The Battle of Summer and Winter and the date of Easter to match the time of the rites of Spring. The pagans, used to their traditional celebrations easily adopted the Christian ones to match their own. In the historic establishment of the three institutions can be seen their close relationships.
And so we arrive in the modern world wherein those close relationships continue to be seen. Two major sets of relationships, the lasting physical forms of the institutions and the philosophical or conceptual relationships are evident.
The physical forms are both quite evident and sometimes covert. The general architecture of churches, theatres and sporting areas are quite similar. The following chart will further illustrate the obvious and less obvious physical relationships among theatre, religion and football:
Theatre Religion Football
First, there are those who gather to witness the event.
1. Audience Congregation Spectators
Next, there are those who participate in the event.
2. Actors Celebrants Players & Officials
Then, there are those who ready the participants.
3. Director Priest or Minister Coaches
Fourth, there are those who oversee the cost of the event.
4. Producer Church Council Athletic Director
Fifth, there is the plan for the event.
5. Playscript Ritual Plays and Rules
The event must be prepared.
6. Rehearsals Rehearsals Practice
The participants must be properly clothed.
7. Costumes Robes & Vestments Uniforms
A slight stretch allows for the use of cosmetics.
8. Make up Ash Wednesday Black under the eyes
A guide to the order of events and the participants is provided.
9. Program Bulletin Program
You must pay to enter.
10. Ticket Price Tithes & Offerings Admission Fee
The event takes place in a specially prepared location.
11. Stage Altar Field
The event is enhanced.
12. Music Music Music
There are probably other physical resemblances among the three institutions. Other continuing relationships include both superficial or topical likenesses and philosophical or conceptual similarities.
Theatre, religion and football illustrate their relationships by the subject matter, the events depicted, and the characters all of which may appear in a play. The play may be about a religious matter, such as the conviction of a man to his ideals in “A Man for All Seasons” or “The Crucible.” Events such as weddings, wakes, and funerals may be part of the story of a play. Many plays have ministers, priests, monks, nuns and other religious characters in them. There are still some places where athletic contests begin with an invocation. These are the superficial and topical relationships still evident among the institutions. The ritual of each institution as seen in the order of events and in how we come together from many different places to all enter one place and be seated shoulder to shoulder for the beholding; and the moral and spiritual ideas reflected in plays through their dialogue and themes are the two major philosophical or conceptual relationships that still exist among theatre, religion, and football.
Thus these major institutions of our society have common roots, similar physical forms, and identical purposes. Tom Jones, the co- creator of “The Fantasticks” and other musicals, reflecting upon the value of theatre wrote:
“I love the theatre. And I love it not because it’s now but because it is then. It’s ancient. Primitive. I love it because it teaches something basic within myself. It’s a ceremony. A ritual. And something in me craves that ritual, needs it. People gather in a circle. An invocation is offered. A parable is enacted. And somehow, through these ancient mysteries of movement and music and poetry I am revealed unto myself. I am confirmed. Here gathered with my fellow creatures, I am part of a group knowledge that goes beyond any simple reasoning of the mind. Winter and summer. Regeneration and decay. There they are up in the spotlight, same as always: battling, struggling, making us laugh and cry. It is delicious. And somehow it is also ennobling.
“It’s like a fire. Like sitting by a fire. That is a primitive thing too. It is inefficient and ridiculously archaic for our day and time. But in some strange and ancient way it heals and soothes us more that turning up the central heating. It ‘roots’ us. It connects us with the past. And it releases us to dream about the future.”
It releases us to be human, to learn what it means to love and how to love. To live, and how we live—that the reality of our existence is that reality which we know is true in our minds and which, through theatre, religion and spectator athletics is made clear to us. It teaches us that the humanizing factor of our souls is our capacity to dream. To dream that our abilities, our actions, and our words are somehow more able, more heroic, and more poetic than are our everyday lives. That each and every one of us can reach a kind on omniscience because there is, after all, a spark of God within us. This is what the Humanities teach, to be human; what the immortal works of Shakespeare affirms, and what the theatre is all about.
American Playwright, Sydney Michaels sums it all up in his ‘Preface’ to “Dylan:”
“In the dark of the theatre we remember ourselves. And we know that we are not ordinary men and that Madison Avenue shall not sell us that we are. In the inner space of the theatre our blood turns red. Our nerves signal us, as via Telstar, directly across the orchestra pit to the pit of our stomachs with the pitiless speed of feeling, which if not faster, is more revealing than light.
“In the bell and siren of the theatre, the dormant half of the brain wakes up. Speaks up, saying, ‘Who the hell can identify with ordinary men?’ For none of us is ordinary to ourselves. And it is to ourselves we awaken in the morning of the theatre. Nobody is Joe Doakes, but everybody is Hamlet—prince, insane, with murders to commit, with trap-door graves of Ophelia-loves to leap into, with wit and poetry on the tongue’s apt tip. And everybody is Falstaff, gross drunk, thief, liar, scoundrel, lead-weight clown, tipable, but un-popable, whose windbag blarney has a quotable beauty. All men want to turn a flower girl into a princess. And all women, once having been turned, want to turn around and tell the teacher off. And both may relish having the mind of Shaw to do it with.
“In the free country of the theatre, our private selves are as differing pearls that yet hang integrated on a one strand, the force that through us runs and tethers us up together, be it called Heart or Soul or God or Being, but that enables us to seat ourselves all facing one way and pray for miracles; and if the miracle is laughter, up goes the general roar, and if the miracle is tears, out come a thousand handkerchiefs and dab two thousand eyes, and if the miracle is terror, we all have our hearts in our throats at once, and we share the fear and the courage to face the fear, just as we do when our President takes a live-or-death stand in our name and we spill over with pride and are shoveled full of the fuel of love, and we are never more alive or more crisply human. For weeks, after the fire-ice event, we stride in boots, and our lives have meaning; we are newborn and the air seems cleaner, for we have identified with an action which is just and courageous, and beautiful to us for those reasons. The theatre is not one speck a thing less than that.
”True, if as we walked about in the usual slim of day, we were to act like beanstalk giants, we’d be abruptly hoosegowed by the society whose Jack-like modesty we’d shaken. But that does not mean if there is no place where we can go to remember ourselves, we won’t equally endanger society by corroding it from within, sickening the whole apple because the core has gone brown and rots. We have as good a need, genuine as a gene to partake of that sweet, resurrecting occasion that nourishes us, in the survival kit of the theatre, as good a need as a bum has for his nightcap, a child for making shadows on the wall, or men and women for the love and respect of one another.
“In the weightless crater of the theatre, that is where the shrew is
tamed, where Hamlet’s palace is, and Lear’s asylum moor, and the
“And that is where we live. In the reality of the theatre. Not in the fiction of society. But where we can identify. Where we are extraordinary. Where we speak like angels, feel like saints, and act like heroes. Where life is as romantic and true and the telescopes tell us. Where we remember ourselves. In the passionate, compassionate, tall, large, deep, bright dark of the theatre.