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The Five Act Play of God’s Story

Posted by Remy on May 2, 2009

From my friend NT Wright, the Bishop of Durham:

“Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play, most of whose fifth act has been lost. The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a remarkable wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearean actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.

Consider the result. The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted ‘authority’ for the task at hand. That is, anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that some character was now behaving inconsistently, or that some sub-plot or theme, adumbrated earlier, had not reached its proper resolution. This ‘authority’ of the first four acts would not consist -could not consist!- in an implicit command that the actors in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, containing its own impetus and forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in an appropriate manner. It would require of the actors a free and responsible entering in to the story as it stood, in order first to understand how the threads could appropriately be drawn together and then to put that understanding into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency.”

13 Responses to “The Five Act Play of God’s Story”

  1. joshgibbs said

    I think one crucial thing is left out here, and it’s funny that Wright doesn’t mention this because Wright is sharp and creative… maybe this is the kind of thing Capon would say… Remy, you really need to read more Capon, by the by. “Parables of the Kingdom” will just knock you down and around the block. Life-changing book, much like “Against Christianity.”

    Anyway, here’s the best part that Wright doesn’t have here- he doesn’t really describe what happens in the last two scenes of the fourth act. For the first three and a half acts, Shakespeare has been speaking through the voices of his characters. His voice can be felt in the play, as always, but the players aren’t doing what he writes for them and even the characters aren’t turning out how he wants them. It’s a two-fold problem. Weeks elapse in the production, but thousands of years elapse in the play. No one is happy, not the characters or the players or Shakespeare.

    So to fix this problem, Shakespeare shows up to act in the play and when he shows up, he gives everyone the pages for the end of the fourth act and there’s a character named “William Shakespeare.” And this “William Shakespeare” character keeps telling everyone that the rules are changing: up is the new down, least is the new first, poor is the new rich, dead is the new living, living is the new dead. And it’s perfect, really, because all the players think this is a goofy idea, but Shakespeare’s written all of the characters they play to think it’s a goofy idea, too. The William Shakespeare character keeps telling other characters not to tell everyone he’s “the author” because he doesn’t want to confuse.

    In the end, Shakespeare disappears with a note for the players declaring they have to finish the play, but the fifth act is incredibly long and they never finish it. So after the players are dead, the audience wanders onto the stage and says, “Maybe we should finish the play.” Then an argument arises. They can’t agree on how the play should be finished, but what they don’t know is that their argument is kind-of-sort-of turning into the fifth act of the play and it’s kind of turning into a tedious play for the new audience. The players claim that Shakespeare was there last week and was giving great stage directions, they show the new audience the “William Shakespeare” part and the new audience is incredulous. Anyway, the players tell the new audience they have to join in the play and that this “William Shakespeare” character had a pretty profound life-philosophy about turning the world upside down. But all the players argue so fiercely about what the W.S. character was talking about, they start killing each other and the new audience runs out of the theater so they don’t get hurt.

    By this point, more of the argument about how to finish the play has to do with the arrival of the William Shakespeare character and the slow, mind-boggling realization that the argument about how to finish the play has somehow become the play itself. While the first three acts truly prompted the dazzling fourth act and the ever-expanding fifth act, what we’ve got in the end hardly seems like a play anymore. It’s been metaphysically changed into something bigger and greater than a play.

    Eventually, between killing each other and arguing about the W.S. character, the players make homes for themselves in the theater, then they get too big for the theater and break down the walls and start carrying on in the parking lot and then in the P.F. Chang’s next door to the theater. Now what?

  2. Remy said

    These are just two paragraphs of many many many from the Bish.

    The benefit of the five act play is that the previous four acts are important and details given in act one cannot be ignored simply because another act follows. Certainly things are transformed, things are change, and some things have been disregarded, but we cannot understand the story if we only focus on the fourth act, or just wing a fifth act.

    As for Capon, I dig quite a lot on the fellow. I’ve either read Parables of the Kingdom or Judgment. Problem I had with the one I read was that he constantly misstates many details or maybe he just misses them. His case isn’t nearly as powerful as he thinks it is. On the whole I like his attitude, though I think he’s pretty horrendous on some details.

  3. Josh said

    Remy, check out Leithart’s homily on Paul knowing “nothing but Christ crucified.” You can’t in one post decry theological intellectualism and then in another say we don’t understand the story “if we focus on the fourth act.”

    While St. Paul quotes from the Old Testament, that’s for the benefit of the Jews. St Paul hardly encourages the gentiles in his young churches to begin studying the Old Covenant so they can figure out how to live or so they can figure out who Jesus is.

  4. I suppose you’re correct St. Paul wrote Hebrews to Jews. But the Holy Spirit intends that Hebrews is not only for Jews, but also for gentiles like you and me. And I do think he tells us to imitate him as an imitator of Christ, which would mean, perhaps even chiefly, imitate his hermetic.

    I’m not sure what your point is with Dr. Leithart’s Good Friday homily is. He surely doesn’t say “don’t look to the Old Testemant to see the Cross of Christ” (the mere thought of Dr. Leithart saying that is enough to make me laugh) but rather “when you read the Old Testemant, look for the Cross in it, for there is nothing in it but the Cross.”

    I think Fr. Stephen is getting at more or less the same thing here.

    Also, regarding the point about intellectualism, we surely aren’t saved by being intellectuals, but those of us who are intellectual refuse to engage our intellect with God to our own peril. Not every saint is a holy fool. St. Vladimir, equal to the Apostles, wouldn’t have been a saint if it weren’t for his kingship, and St. Maximos the Confessor, or St. Gregory Palamas wouldn’t have been saints if it weren’t for their doctrine. (I suppose St. Photius the Great, father of Orthodoxy is one of the chief examples of an intellectual saint, as is someone like St. Cyril of Carthage.)

  5. I meant St. Cyril of Alexandria.

  6. Remy said

    Josh,
    I don’t know that I decried intellectualism, but I suppose if you emphasize the “ism” aspect I don’t mind you saying that. Once again, we don’t have to go all or nothing. It is vital to study the word of God.

    Christ said that the Hebrew scriptures speak of Him. We can’t understand Him without them.

    As a personal favor to me would you mind stating to me what you think of Marcionism?

  7. Josh said

    Rems,

    “Christ said that the Hebrew scriptures speak of Him. We can’t understand Him without them.” That’s an impressive logical Grand Canyon that you’re trying to leap between those two sentences. Maybe I’ve overstated my point in the past. I read the Old Covenant and I think it’s helpful in understanding Christ, but more often than not, I think it’s helpful in revealing what we’ve been saved from, not as a blueprint for what we need to reconstruct with a Jesus flavor. The Old Covenant was impotent to save back then, impotent to save today. Of course, we’re likely on the same page so far as that’s concerned. Leithart has some damning words for Christians who try to use the OT as a blueprint for a new society. You can do a search for “death penalty” on his blog to find that…

    At the same time, CS Lewis wrote that the flavor of several of the psalms was “demonic,” and well, no one on the corner has wagga like CS Lewis, as M.I.A. once versed. Not saying that’s the word I would have used, but…

    Sure. Marcionism. It’s gay, as Jason would say. Although, if the Wikipedia article on Marcionism is to be trusted, claiming that God is the de facto source of evil seems more like something a Calvinist would have to hem about (I know, I know… that was just a little Trinitarian skylarking for you).

    Although, I mean, what do you care about something being declared heresy by the Church? Of all the things ever declared heresy, which ones meet with your personal approval and which ones don’t?

  8. Remy said

    I think the assumption you have about the “OT” is the same as the people who get nutty with it. It seems -and you let me know if I’m off on this- like you think the old covenant system was designed to save, like those that want to drop it down wholesale in the new covenant. But if you think of it like a scaffold, good for its purpose, but it wasn’t the building. The hard words Jesus, St. Paul, and PJL have for the old covenant aren’t because it was an awful thing, but because it had become something it was never intended to be. The plan had always been to tear down the old.

    I’ll save the attitude toward the Psalms and that screwball Protestant Lewis for later.

    As for Marcionism, I didn’t ask for my sake, I asked for yours. If you’re going to have a go at this Orthodox thing, might as well do a good job of it.

  9. Josh said

    Rems, I am way more than content to think of the Old Cov as a scaffolding for the New Cov. *handshake*

    “It is finished” is mysterious, though, and while I don’t want to make as though the New Cov. is done, I do.

  10. Josh,

    What if you said that the Old Covenant is like the prosphoron, prior to its liturgical use. It is good, and holy, but finds its holiness because of how it shall be used. Judaizing then would be like ignoring the Eucharist, for the sake of the antidoron. Marcionism, which it does seem you tend toward, would be pretending there was no gift of bread in the Eucharist, that the prosphoron is not holy, and that at the Epiclesis the Spirit does not come down upon the prosphoron, making it the Divine Mysteries, but that instead the Spirit creates new matter at the same instant as He Consecrates it.

  11. joshgibbs said

    No, Matt, I don’t really see it that way. Sorry.

  12. Meaning you don’t understand, or you just disagree?

  13. I mean, what do you do with this? Or this? Or this? (The first is an icon of St. Moses, the second of St. David, and the third of St. Solomon)? It is true that we can only know Christ in the Church, and we can only know the Hebrew Scriptures in the Church, reading them as the Church reads them etc. But I’m not sure you’re just saying that we should read the Prophets in Church, but almost that they aren’t written for Gentiles. But then, they are read in the Church, and there are numerous icons of Old Testemant Prophets in Church–I’d be willing to bet they’re on the ceeling of your church, though I don’t know–and St. John the Forerunner (cheif of the Prophets) is one of the most popular saints, and many Churches are dedicated in his honor.

    In my opinion, the Virgin Mary prior to being Theotokos is the ideal Old Covenant saint, is even in some sense the perfect Israel, and after she is our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever virgin Mary, she is the Church. There is a radical difference between the two, but its the same Mary either way.

    But again, you may just be reacting against the idea that we should learn what the Church is like by studying the Old Testemant, rather than that we should learn the Old Testemant by reading it in Church.

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