More Thoughts on Morality and Theatre

‘ The Jesuit education that Diderot received, first in his hometown
of Langres and later in Paris, incorporated the performance of plays as an aid in the
perfection of rhetorical skills and as a method of teaching morality.’

Renee Troiano, Diderot and the Theatre (2012:36)

At some level, the Jesuits are probably behind every manifestation of modernity and post-enlightenment thought: not is some weird conspiracy theory, but just because they were the great educators of the eighteenth century. Diderot – and Voltaire – weren’t fans of the order, but they benefited from the Jesuit school system. Voltaire makes a joke about this pox that passed through all sorts of people but could be traced back to a Jesuit, a patient zero. It seems to be about sexually transmitted disease, but I have a sneaking feeling that he is talking about the transmission of an idea, metaphorically.

The Jesuit use of theatre as an educational tool (there is no hint that the productions of Langres or Paris were formally experimental, and from the scripts that still exist, it was fairly conservative stuff) might be another pox that has infected performance for the past three hundred years. Making theatre is not an end in itself, it is instrumental. It is only the projected outcomes that have changed. The Jesuits wanted good Catholics who could be engaged in society. Diderot wanted good bourgeois who could be engaged in society. Brecht wanted good Marxists… Tony Blair wanted…

The names and the aims change, but the song remains the same: theatre is a great place for teaching people moral stuff. I don’t think it is that good for teaching science, although You are Here introduces astronomy to younger theatre-goers with plenty of charm and wit. But apparently, it can stimulate the conscience.

This is not something that gets much serious debate. When there were moves in the nineteenth century to have a National Theatre in the UK, much was made of Shakespeare, ‘the great moral teacher’. Apparently, it is still a live topic.

One of the most effective ways of examining what is right and wrong is through the use of stories. Shakespeare’s plays offer a range of themes and moral dilemmas to explore, even for the youngest children. In Children as Storytellers, Globe Education practitioners work alongside teachers and teaching assistants with pupils aged 4 to 7. They use A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest to discuss key themes – choices, feelings, friendship and family – and allow the students to develop their social and collaborative skills in a safe environment.

Karen Kelleher

Kelleher is, unlike Schiller, presenting an argument for the moral instrumentalism of the 61nQ+66qN4L._SX489_BO1,204,203,200_theatre – and the Globe in London is offering support for the kind of education that I am sure a Jesuit institution of the eighteenth century would recognise (although I am pretty sure they’d be disappointed it wasn’t in Latin). I am interested in how ages 4 to 7 would deal with the strong sexual tensions in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but if they have a look at the colonialism in The Tempest, I’d be pretty impressed. I am also not sure whether it would be just as good to use a Superman comic – hold no, one of those DC Super Hero Girls comics – because by the time that Shakespeare has been adapted to be comprehensible to a youngster, much of what makes Shakespeare Shakepeare has been removed (the fancy language, the long running time, the rude jokes, the complex psychology).

Schiller’s idea was that watching Medea (or insert tragic protagonist to taste) somehow transmits a sense of right and wrong to the audience, but I don’t think the Jesuits saw it like that: they are closer to Kelleher’s idea, in which participation is the thing. But what projects like this do establish is that theatre is still part of the conversation. It is not so much whether it works that matters, but that it is happening.

 

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