Kabuki is a type of Japanese theatre. It features highly stylized performances, and everything from what characters wear to how they move indicates who they are, what their roles are. Roles that are also heavily styled – sweeping sets of brushstrokes rather than detailed portraits. It might seem cartoonish if we expect the slanted realities of “serious” theatre or musicals. That expectation prevents any openness to a play of human beings speaking to one another as painted, gesturing symbols.
Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a Theological Dramatics (“Theo-Drama”) in which God’s interaction with the world and the world’s action within itself are understood through the analogy of drama. Balthasar pauses only once to tell us that this is a “play of freedoms.” In other words, the movement of the play is between its performers rather than resting in, say, the characters “themselves.” Hamlet is very different if there’s no Ophelia to drive into drowning madness. So Balthasar speaks often of freedom that expresses itself in the midst of action. This is his play.
God is the main actor – this is a theo-drama – he is the self-expressing freedom around which all our much more limited freedoms revolve. A bit like a galaxy of stars – if the galaxy could be said to inhere in that which is infinitely more than itself. In the case of Christ, we are offered fundamental roles in the play. Balthasar often speaks of these roles with his own stylized vocabulary, and here that way of speaking is intentionally biblical in shape. The roles, the characters, are biblical, and we find our character in theirs. Mary signifies the perfect love of the Church; John represents mystical love; Peter the gift of loving authority. And so on.
Balthasar’s way of speaking often comes under fire at exactly this point. The angle of critique is multiple, but the heart of it is rather consistent: Balthasar has stretched humanity into simple symbols that hurt rather than protect. Pulled all the wrinkles from our being. A bit like when someone doesn’t expect me, a “religious” person, to curse. They think of an idealized role that ends up having very little room for me and my damn bad habit. So when Balthasar speaks of surrender or gender or – buckle in – forms of surrender as if they had gender, scholars rightly wonder what the hell he’s on about. I’m sorry, what did you say about women?
I’m not about to defend everything he says. Not on my life. But I want to clarify the logic by which he arranges these roles because I think it’s a logic we can’t lose without implicating ourselves in an essential misapprehension of freedom.
Balthasar’s background is originally Western – he displays an encyclopedic knowledge of the surviving Greek tragedies – and one of the things that Greek theatre taught him is the use of masks. To project their voices and make their roles clear, Greek players would wear painted masks in the ampitheatre. This was to help the audience. Unless I have “court-side” ampitheatre seats, I won’t be able to make out who is who. The bright colors and stylized faces on the masks help me to know the action better.
Or, in kabuki, all of the colors, clothing, and movements help me to know the action. Balthasar actually learned about Japanese art forms and indeed cites them as examples for his analogy of the stage (kabuki is named explicitly at least once). I prefer the kabuki analogy because it gets at something Balthasar himself prefers: the “style” of the role is found in the person. How they act, who they are as it is “written” on their skin, their place among others. There are no blank symbolic roles that sit empty, waiting to be filled. Well, shit, I hate gardening, but I guess we need a gardener for the Lord. Balthasar sometimes slips into that way of speaking, but fundamentally the human being bears the characteristics of their own role. They have a natural facility for certain things, talents and temperaments and so on, that predispose them to certain ways of interacting with God and the world. While they’ll only really know their role if they receive its fullness from God and embrace it – pure grace – still that “embrace” means they’ve got to figure out how to be who they need to be. I care for the poor and I love them in this way. The role will always be shaped by who they already are.
Biblical figures are hyper-stylized, but it’s the same principle: the Virgin’s unconditional love is already a disposition to which she’s predisposed (especially in the Immaculate Conception). In other words, no role is imposed from the “outside.”
So when we look upon a role that has been played – one that say, we want to figure out how to mimic – we see the “style” of the person him or herself. It is hyperbolized to us; it is symbolized in our eyes; it is known in the broadness of major actions. I don’t know Joan of Arc’s entire life. Still I know her, and I know how she died, and I know the intensity of her devotion to Mary. This renders her a symbol that may well obscure her, but it reveals her as long as I never make a claim to it (to her). Ultimately, she reveals Christ to me – all that is good is always showing us Christ – and always in her way. If I want to be like her, it’d have to be in my way. Wandering around in armor would miss the point entirely.
Human beings are living, breathing images. This is what Balthasar is after, what he sees. Not stereotypes, but particular human beings whose gifts are able to be rasterized into the features for a character in a play. Saint Francis was not the first saint to love nature, wander around penniless, and reform the Catholic Church. Most of the virtues of his that we can imitate are old news among the saints. Oh, another one? Yes, another one. Of course another one. Because he is an image of a role we can play, his actions are movements of a character we can have by imitating.
Balthasar does not speak literally. He speaks in terms of a high drama. He is trying to name the movements that carry the weight of the play, the colors and the voices, the patterns of being. Hero, servant, foil, counterpoint. All as they have in various ways already been performed. What is so important and so hard to remember is that when Balthasar gives us a name, a virtue, a feature – he means it as drama. This is why he can call Christ both masculine and feminine. If we think he means chromosomes or appearance or social status, we’ve got it wrong. If we think he means something external to Christ (“not” his body and place, if you will), we’ve also got it wrong.
It’s a role in a play meant to reach the people in the very farthest seats.