The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Church as theater

Some unusual news out of Brooklyn, where a Catholic church is playing a starring role in a theatrical production of “Murder in the Cathedral.”

A snip from the New York Times review:

Comparing the buttoned-up experience of seeing a play to going to church is an old insult, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Or at least that’s what you might think while watching the dynamic modern-dress revival of T. S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral,” which takes place in the pews, inside illuminated confessional booths and under the cross of a grand church in Brooklyn that has seen better days.


The verse play about the final month of Thomas Becket (Godfrey L. Simmons Jr.), the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose power struggle with Henry II, the king of England, led to his assassination in 1170, could easily come off as a dated costume drama. Moving mechanically from one elegant monologue to another, the play is organized like a series of arguments. Becket is visited by four tempters, who, in this production presented by the Church of St. Joseph and the nonprofit Brooklyn Arts HQ, arrive in business suits and, standing on a tall platform, are rolled down the church’s long center aisle.

The director, Alec Duffy, smartly uses his vast, upside-down boat-shaped space lighted by golden candle flames to create an atmosphere that is as authentic as it is otherworldly. What stands out most is the grand scale of the nearly 100-year-old Church of St. Joseph — no theater has ceilings this high — and the echoing boom of the actors’ voices gives the poetry a lift. While speaking clearly and with purpose, the fine cast underplays its passion, wisely, because the acoustics turn a whisper into a baritone-voiced song. A choir of 15 women adds lush vocals accompanied by a score (including organ) by Dave Malloy, who composed music for “Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage,” a recently performed thrashing rock version of the epic poem.

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posted September 27, 2010 at 1:26 am

Theater has its origin in Greek religion. Some of the power of religious ritual derives from theater, but ritual, even to a nonbeliever, is more than theater. Ritual is precise and repeatable; without these qualities ritual loses its gravitas and its power. The conservatives are right about one thing. The conversion of the ritual of Mass to an arbitrary, individualistic theatrical display does nothing but facilitate apostasy.

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posted September 27, 2010 at 7:21 am

That picture looks like a scene from the movie “Angels&Demons”???
after the Carmelengo was found out as the fraud, and he runs towards the altar to burn himself.
CAPTCHA: dovedist have

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posted September 30, 2010 at 10:59 am

As the producer of the show, I’d like to thank you for spreading the word about our production of “Murder in the Cathedral”! It’s appreciated.
@Frank: You bring up an interesting question; though most theater practitioners would argue that an intrinsic aspect of theater is that it too is “precise and repeatable.” And many believe that ritual and some forms performance are interchangeable; or, that our modern notions of performance grew from old notions of ritual (the Greeks, to name one, as you mentioned). The production doesn’t take a stance on these many questions; however, if you’re in the NY area, I’d encourage you to check out the play and decide for yourself what the choice to mount the play in this church facilitates.
@AndreJohn: We’ve had many audience members tell us that the staging of this play lends itself to something very filmic, insofar as it is a very 3-D experience! I think the photo captures that.
More information about the play can be found here:

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