Write Laura Capelle in The New York Times has published a “Critic’s Notebook” that begins with this premise: “Where can you find elaborate costumes, choreographed flourishes and live music in France right now? Not in theaters. Since the country eased its second lockdown in late November, the show has resumed in only one setting: churches.”
Catholicism is the predominant faith in France, and on paper, a Roman Catholic Mass and a stage performance aren’t all that different: Both events involve a cast of professionals addressing a seated, and now socially distanced, audience.
The connections don’t stop there. At several sung Masses over the course of a week this month, I had a feeling of déjà vu, even though I had attended only a handful of religious services in my life. The ritualistic nature of the event, the dramatic buildup from scene to scene — even the slightly labored monologues — are all part and parcel of regular theater attendance.
If anything, I understood how a first-time theatergoer must feel, because it was clear everyone else knew things I didn’t: when to stand, when to sit and when to join in singing.
Yet it isn’t frowned upon to attend just for the aesthetics or the experience, in part because all churches built before 1905 are public buildings in France. And Mass, as a staging, isn’t nearly as fixed or staid as I imagined. On the contrary, it owes a lot to the decisions of each parish — artistic and otherwise.
Theater and religion have crossed paths for centuries in France. The country was once known as “the eldest daughter of the Church” for its early adoption of Catholicism as state religion, and faith colors the work of many French playwrights. The 17th-century tragedian Jean Racine, for instance, drew on his austere beliefs to write two plays based on the Old Testament. In the early 20th century, the playwright Paul Claudel led a revival of Christian theater.
Yet nowadays, when only 37 percent of French people have a religious affiliation, according to government statistics, the church and the theater mostly operate in parallel universes. But there are exceptions: Olivier Py, for example, the director of the Avignon Festival, is a fervent Catholic who often returns to religious themes in provocative ways.
She visited several churches and sampled different liturgies, including Tridentine, and concludes:
I was moved, at Mass, by the love and devotion I recognized in many attendees, because that’s how I feel at the theater. The decision to allow religious services while theaters and museums remain closed has been met with scorn by many in the arts here, but there is no reason to begrudge believers their worship.
Fairness demands, however, that the show go on everywhere, when it can.