Carnival Justice (Or, So a Theologian Walks into a Theatre...)

Prof. Anthony D. Baker is the Clinton S. Quin Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Seminary of the Southwest.  Prof. Baker is the author of Diagonal Advance:  Perfection in Christian Theology and is currently working on a book that explores theological themes in the works of Shakespeare.

Toward the beginning of Plato’s Republic, there’s a funny line about imitating roosters.  I thought of this recently, when I had the opportunity to watch seemingly well-adjusted young adults imitate scoundrels, cowards, and murderers for about 30 hours one week.  

Perhaps I should explain, before the FCC shuts the website down?

This fall I’m playing a small part in a production of Macbeth, as part of the research for my next book, a project on Shakespeare and theology.  During Tech Week especially - that remarkable time just before production when costumes appear, scripts disappear, and, along with the set, The Scottish Play actually seems to build itself before all of our eyes - there was plenty of time to sit and think about things like identity, imagination, and Plato’s roosters.  

The remark comes in the midst of the argument by Socrates that all poets and players should be banned from his ideal, imaginary city.  Though this conclusion has struck generations of readers as singularly offensive, the reasoning is precise:  “pantomimic poets” are dealers in injustice, and the entire hypothetical construct of the Republic is based on a defining of justice.  

Strange, perhaps, to think of the poet as a dealer in injustice - or, in fact to think of the poet’s art as having anything, directly, to do with justice at all.  Justice is about precision, and demands the de-equivocating of language, so that there is as little ambiguity as possible to terms, utterances, and descriptions.  This allotment to that person, this punishment for that crime.  

Poetry, on the other hand, thrives in the land of ambiguity, if it is to thrive at all.  Double, perhaps triple entendres, shades and hints and suggestions that never quite boil to the surface (the sort of craft in which Shakespeare was and remains peerless).  These innuendos and illusions are, like any good joke, ruined by a demand to spell it out, and spelling it out is exactly what jurisprudence demands.

So isn’t banning poets for injustice like banning a house painter for not using a spoon and fork?  Isn’t it just a different set of tools?  

The key for Socrates is that justice is about calling things what they are, so that we can give them what is due to them.  Poets, and in particular the imitative poets who compose and play in tragedies and comedies, ply their trade by being something other than what they are.  Which brings me to the line about roosters.  Such a poet 

“will narrate anything, and, the worse lie is, the more unscrupulous he will be; nothing will be too bad for him: and he will be ready to imitate anything, not as a joke, but in right good earnest, and before a large company. As I was just now saying, he will attempt to represent the roll of thunder, the noise of wind and hall, or the creaking of wheels, and pulleys, and the various sounds of flutes; pipes, trumpets, and all sorts of instruments: he will bark like a dog, bleat like a sheep, or crow like a cock; his entire art will consist in imitation of voice and gesture...”

Not that my fellow cast members and I are doing a whole lot in the way of bleating sheep or rolling thunder; but certainly we are attempting to be other than we are, and in fact the success or our play seems to depend on “nothing being to bad for us.”  During tech week we sat in the theatre and watched, over and over, the murder of Lil’ Macduff - in this case a 10 year-old girl - so that they could get the blood splatter just right.  We applauded even as we cringed when little Hallie managed to convince us that they really “have killed me, mother.”

There is something so absurd about theatre.

Shakespeare in fact loved to play around with this absurdity, for instance, in at least a mock-serious way, in his chorus character in Henry V, who keeps interrupting the story to tell us that the Globe Theatre is not in fact the fields of Agincourt, and the armies were in fact much larger.    

Our cast loves to play with it as well.  Much of the cutting up during tech week, and back stage now that we’re in production (but quietly, Director Kevin, we promise) is about highlighting the distance between ourselves - men and women who work at book stores, offices, cafes, and a seminary - and the roles we are playing.  “Come on Young Siward, you can beat him this time,” says one of the witches back stage, just before Young Siward once again tries that running thrust that makes him a decorative ornament on Macbeth’s sword.

But perhaps that very absurdity, that energetic insisting that what is isn’t and what isn’t is, is also what redeems the art of mimetic poetry that was the ply and trade of our playwright and his players.  The Macbeths - or in fact Erin and Brian - cringe every time Brett stabs little Hallie, because in fact the “more unscrupulous” the actors and actions on stage, the more we see ourselves for who we really are.  We don’t “become the thunder,” or - what was the bigger issue for Plato - instruct young people to lose themselves in an attempt to win applause or payment. (Only one of which, by the way, factors into community theatre.  I’ll let you guess which).  

In fact, if justice is in part about calling things what they are, one could argue that the absurdity helps recall us to ourselves in new and surprising ways.  “Playing” at passions, battles, and entrapments builds a kind of tension that comes out in tech week laughter and back stage riffing that draws us out of ourselves in ways that are surprisingly real, true, and in that sense “just.”

“It may indeed be that all the world is a stage, and we never step out of costume,” the players implicitly agree.  “In that case let’s own up to the ‘false ceremony’ for a scene or two, after which we can all laugh ourselves back into being.”  There is an element of truth gained through the intentional staging of an untruth, something like the way that the truth of Lent can only be approached through the topsy-turvy world of Mardi Gras.  It’s a kind of carnival justice on display, in which speaking the truth about the world and ourselves is first a matter of calling things that are not as if they were.  

Now, whether or not that would have been good enough to get Socrates to allow us back in to his city with the just poets at the end of the Republic is another question.  But the City Theatre, where the management is somewhat evasive on questions of Socratic ethics, has seen fit to invite us back in for two more weekend runs.