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Spring 1987 · Vol. 16 No. 1 · pp. 63–67 

The Uses of Drama

Esther Wiens

The interest in drama in our circles is slowly growing. There are not only more requests for plays to be presented for special holidays or to illustrate specific topics, but there is a growing interest in the essential nature of drama and an appreciation of its power.

A drama is like a dream . . . (that brings) us new insights.

The word drama means “a thing done.” It suggests an action, a piece of work, a worthy task for the human being. John Hay, former drama professor, presently a minister of the Gospel, says drama is a means of “enfleshing the word.” So it is not only “a thing done,” it is the abstract made concrete, the metaphysical joined to the physical. Its dynamic is like that of the “Word” becoming “flesh.” By taking on human form, Christ showed us the Father; it was in his life and death that he focused and made visible to the human eye the struggle between God and the Devil—between good and evil. He showed us truth.

Since earliest time, (5th Century B.C.) the word theatre has meant “seeing place.” The place where the enfleshed word in action could be seen by the group. And in spite of our fear and suspicion of the word “theatre,” it means the same thing today: it is the place where the group, the community, can sit back {64} and watch an enactment of the conflicting forces of life which, taken to their ultimate source, are the forces of good and evil.

The conflict is in the form of a story (usually fictitious) that in some essential way represents reality. But the dramatic story is different from the “short story” or the novel: the tale is told not primarily from the point of view of the main character but from various points of view. This objectivity allows the viewer to see the whole development of the conflict: its beginning, its development and its conclusion. Moreover, the viewer is enabled to see the interplay of opposing forces in all its complexity: the many faces of evil, its insidious entry into our lives, and its propensity to masquerade as good. But this interplay also shows us how good can come out of evil and win the day. The sermon tells us about this; the drama allows it all to be played out before us, turning the bright truth upon “the whole.” And because it is in story form, we are less likely to be defensive.

In this process we often see and hear things we do not like. Some characters may well offend us by their actions and their language (as people do in life). This is not to say that any evil act is either stageworthy or useful in presenting life with its many conflicts—a certain decorum and restraint must be observed. But to show only what we confirm and applaud, to force all characters to speak virtuously and sensitively, is to diminish the action and to deny the essential nature of the conflict. The morality of a play cannot be faulted for its parts. It must be judged as a whole, and on what it all comes to—the final resolution.

All this is to admit that drama has its disturbing elements, that it stirs up rather than sooths. It is just as likely to reveal our vulnerability and weakness as it is to point us to our source of strength and our potential for good.

It must be said that balance and objectivity are not the whole of the argument in favor of drama. The objectivity does not preclude a certain identification with the characters on the stage. From our position in the auditorium, the observers are able to identify first with one and then another. As we enter into another person’s struggles, fears, aversions, and despair, we are made vulnerable, but we are also enabled to recognize and face the darkness within ourselves. In the process we vicariously “. . . learn by going how to go” (Roethke).

A drama is like a dream that simultaneously raises thought {65} and emotion in order to bring us new insights (Bates, 19). And as we enter into the world of the play, we invariably sense that the essential struggle does not lie in the world around us: our neighborhood, the society, or the system, but in our inner world. The dialectical power of a great drama clarifies the struggle and brings it home to its source—which is the human heart.

All of this speaks of the high seriousness of drama. To stage a drama is to take a certain risk and to work hard. But there is a reason why the written script, which is the basis of the dramatic production, is called a play. To fully enjoy a drama as an audience member, one must be willing to play. The playwright wants to give pleasure to the audience. People do not attend a drama with the attitude of going to work, but to be at leisure. And we say of the actors, “They are playing their parts.” What is the nature and importance of this “play?” Should it be our aim? Does it build the body which is the church?

In drama, playing means entering into an imaginative world in which we temporarily free ourselves from the structures of “real life.” And whether purely for pleasure or for both pleasure and some other purpose, such as sharing a vision, we create a world on stage in which actors imagine themselves to be the people of the play. As the restrictions of “real life” are temporarily lifted, people are given the freedom to explore something new or something hidden deep within themselves. There is a certain abandonment in play that allows us to leave our everyday serious or inhibited self at the door and to call upon the “child within”—that aspect of personality which allows us to be spontaneous, eager, carefree and readily in touch with emotion. In doing this we may reawaken thoughts and feelings, ways of behavior and ways of seeing the world that have lain dormant for a long time. In the reawakening we enrich and rediscover ourselves.

One of the special features of a dramatic production is its intergenerational aspect. Many plays call for people of various ages. As the octogenarian “plays” with a child of seven, or with a teenager, the gaps between the generations are inadvertently bridged. A peculiar bonding takes place as people of different statures and ages commit themselves to a task that calls for a certain element of risk, commitment and play.

Another benefit accruing to the church family in all of this is the drama’s ability to call forth a wide variety of gifts in the {66} church. Even something as short as a one-act play may call for a number of imaginative and courageous people to act the parts, for technicians to produce sound and light, artists to design the set and programs, craftspeople to build sets, sew costumes, and make props. Finally, people with organizational skills are needed to direct and produce it. A dramatic production is not only play; it is also work, as anyone who has ever participated knows.

The plays that embody a Christian theme and that also “play well” on the stage are scarce. It is understandable that church audiences are more concerned with the content than the form. The person educated in drama is often more concerned with the play’s artistry, because he or she knows from experience that unless the piece “plays” on the stage, it is difficult to communicate its truth however important that may be. Plays that meet with the approval of both groups are hard to find. Many plays that would be spurned by the professional director, who can choose from hundreds of well-wrought scripts, will work to a greater or lesser extent—particularly where there is excitement and eagerness about dramatization. It is not unusual for a production to outweigh the manuscript.

There are also plays which are otherwise choiceworthy that incorporate some ideas which may make a Christian director uneasy. It is possible, in cases where the playwright is a contemporary, to negotiate permission to change or to delete something potentially offensive if it is not substantive to the play. I would caution against a too easy tendency to make changes, but I must admit to having changed some lines now and then, particularly when they present a theological problem.

Some plays are more suitable for the church college than for the church itself because of their length and difficulty. While I would encourage even the inexperienced group to begin working and playing at short plays (some are called sketches, not skits), I would discourage them from beginning with anything longer than a one-act play. To “enflesh the word” takes considerable time and energy. This is not to frighten anyone. A church director will generally find people in the church blessed with various skills mentioned above. Team work is of the essence and pays valuable dividends.

Some plays are most useful to the church if they are performed as Readers’ Theatre. Although this style of presentation {67} does not preclude memory work, it most often presents people with script in hand, sitting on stools reading their “parts.” It should be known that stools are not a necessity. Various boxes may be used for different levels, and in the case of a very short play, readers may stand. Anyone interested in using this style might be advised to buy a good manual on Readers’ Theatre, such as Readers Theatre Handbook by Leslie Coger and Melvin White (Glenview, Illinois: Scott Foresman, 1973).

In her book entitled, Eighth Day of Creation, Elizabeth O’Connor says, “When we describe Church we like to say that it is a gift-evoking, gift-bearing community—a description based on the conviction that when God calls a person he calls him into the fullness of his own potential.” She goes on to quote Gordon Cosby of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, where “gifts” are nurtured in a particular way: “When each person is exercising his gift, he becomes an initiating center of life . . . The Church of the Holy Spirit is full of variety. Sameness and conformity are the demands of alien spirits. No gift is unimportant” (O’Connor 8). Certainly not creativity—the gift that most reflects the nature of our Creator and Lord. Let us courageously and creatively work and “play.”


  • Bate, Walter Jackson. Criticism: The Major Texts. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1952.
  • O’Connor, Elizabeth. Eighth Day of Creation. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1971.
  • Roethke, Theodore. “The Waking,” Oral Interpretation. Charlotte Lee and Timothy Gura. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1982.
Dr. Esther Wiens is Professor of English at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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