Art for God's Sake: An Augustinian Defense of Theatre

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Rousselle, Francesca
Augustine , Theatre , Plato , Christianity
In City of God Augustine refers to the theatre as a “pestilence” on the morals of the Roman people. Further, he devotes a large portion of the third book of the Confessions to outlining his own sinful experiences with the theatre and a Platonic attack on the poetical arts. From these passages in his two most famous works it would be reasonable to see theatre as incompatible with an Augustinian worldview. However, by expanding upon O’Connell’s Art and the Christian Intelligence in St. Augustine, Smith’s “Staging the Incarnation: Revisioning Augustine’s Critique of Theatre”, and Drever’s “Entertaining Violence: Augustine on the Cross of Christ and the Commercialization of Suffering”, this study shows that a complete condemnation of the theatre cannot be sustained in light of the wider Christian framework within which Augustine operates. This thesis begins by examining the similarities between Plato and Augustine’s critiques of theatre on both ethical and ontological grounds. Having established that the basis of their attack lies in three elements: imitation, the emotions, and material images, an exploration of Augustine’s views on material creation, the Incarnation, Resurrection, and human persona shows that neither the emotions nor material images can be condemned on the Platonic assumption that their natures are inherently corrupting; in fact, both of these are shown to be moral goods that, while liable to corruption because of the Fall, are innately good. Given that they are moral goods, it becomes possible to make room in Augustine for the possibility of a ‘redeemed theatre’ where the mimetic imitation inherent to the theatrical arts is not a moral hindrance but a devotional aid. Indeed, Augustine’s use of theatrical elements in his own writing points to the efficacy of this method of evangelization.
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