How does one receive and consider religion: as a bringer of unity and camaraderie; as the means through which humanity is imparted a moral centre; as consolation in arduous times; or – as I do – extraneous to community spirit; for there exist myriad conduits through which companionship is realised; as malignant; in the figure of the indoctrination of the young and as unnecessary for probity; for this is – and must be – passed to us by our parents However one regards religion…
…theatre as we realise and appreciate it today – essentially; the whole of it – was introduced by the ancient Greeks; specifically, Classical Athenians, and was a fundamental ingredient of their culture; it was moreover, decidedly political in that it was framed inside religious context; and what is more, the Athenian calendar integrated the three foremost festivals in a year: Great Dionysia, Rural Dionysia and Lenaea; all in cities named for the god, Dionysus. Classics Scholar, Paul Cartledge, regards Athens as a performance culture, which hosted more religious events (performances of both drama and tragedy for competition) than any other Attic state.
Whether deemed respectable or not by the reader here, the watcher there – or the writer of this piece! – Greek tragedy was each time framed within a religious perspective.
To wit: Antigone buried her brother, Polyneices (who fell at the hand of her other brother, Eteocles, who was interred with the formal rites) in defiance of Creon’s decree that he be left unburied; the fact she was an unmarried woman whose father was deceased, resulted in Antigone’s rejection of φίλος (family; I present a contradiction: both her former brother and once-uncle/now-father are Antigone’s relatives): her late brother was regarded as eχθρός (enemy) by Creon; and Antigone proceeded, in every respect certain the gods would assess her conduct as honourable; and divine judgement transcends mortal principles and deeds. There exists, within Greek tragedy, bipolar aspect, which necessitates two disparate sides, sans grey areas; and the inevitable tragedy lay in the reality that an unquestionable outcome — a catastrophic one — is imminent for one side.
As both a woman and an atheist, I am acutely conscious of another conspicuous incongruity: in addition to the absence of legal status afforded to Greek women, and imposed seclusion and separation (see Solon Laws), women were moreover, forbidden attendance at religious events; however, they were integral to them; and, it may even be alleged that women were superior to men in religious festivals; however, there is no compelling evidence one way or the other on the subject of the presence of women at either the Great Dionysia or Lenaea.
Whether one embraces or discards religious beliefs, it is indisputable that Athenian creeds varied immeasurably to those adopted by countless people presently; and in the main, polytheism is more benign than monotheism; specifically for the reason that polytheists did – and do – not pursue or maltreat other polytheists.
I close by pronouncing that as a theatre-goer, woman and even an atheist, I express gratitude to religion (or the “STARS…” in your multitudes!) for Les Mis!