Monday, June 13, 2005

Embellishment, part3

Ok, last one before moving on. For the new reader: I have been exploring the human tendency to exaggerate. In terms of visual communication, embellishment seems to be the norm. Perhaps it dates back to the Cro-Magnon campfires where our ancestors proudly related their adventures to one another, leaping about and waving their arms. In theatre or movie and television drama, we observe embellishment without even being aware of the fact. If you have ever seen video footage of real people in day-to-day situations, you will realize that acted and scripted drama is either embellished, or just as boring as a trip to the Laundromat. In drama, consequences follow actions with the speed of a lightning bolt, music and laugh tracks are used to set the mood, and any action or sound acknowledged by an actor is either significant, or has had an ad-libbed acknowledgement to cover a mistake. The emotions of an actor are also given a physical presence for the audience to “read”, called projection.

There is, however, an interesting phrase in theatre to describe an overindulgence of embellishment, “gilding the lily”. You might be more familiar with the term “hamming it up”, which refers to an actor’s overblown performance. Gilding the lily includes that concept, but can also mean something like; that extra close-up on the keys, left dangling in the lock on the front door in a horror movie. Most of the moviegoers saw the keys, slapping against the door after it was slammed, but the director felt the need to underline the point. The gilded lily is an apt phrase, because when one sees it, it takes one out of the story by sticking out like something just not possibly found in nature. So good theatre treads an almost intuitive line between embellishment and over-embellishment. Or doesn’t, and that gives us bad theatre.

Another place where one can observe all the trappings of theatre is in the performance of religious ceremonies. Modest or ostentatious, you are presented with a story, often complete with mood lighting, and mood music, and props and costumes. It is ritualized, or orchestrated. The participants have rehearsed. Everything from a simple daily or weekly ritual to a wedding or funeral is both scripted and led by an official. In secular terms, the head holy man in a religious ceremony is a combination of lead actor, director, conductor, and even perhaps ringmaster. All of these traditions can trace their roots back to the tribal fires.

Here then, is the point to ponder: What constitutes “gilding the lily” in a religious ceremony? To my way of thinking, it is all gilding the lily. Since I was raised a Christian, I will use the Christian church to illustrate my point. IF the Christian concept of god is a true representation of reality (all powerful, all knowing, loving, etc.), and IF the evangelical purpose of the Christian faith is to bring one into a personal and emotional relationship to this god, THEN why are the following attributes necessary to the process?

Sets: Imposing and lavish buildings, some with spires and gargoyles, vaulted ceilings, and ornate artwork. Even the plain meeting halls of the Quakers have a certain ambiance and a focal point.

Costumes: From simple robes to set the clergy and choir apart, to the absurdly ornate trappings of the pope, there is a mode of dress calculated to draw the eye.

Plays: Ritualized performances (“services”).

Special effects and props: Music, lighting, incense, relics, candles, altars, wall hangings, statues, stained glass windows, great big books, wafers, wine, goblets, baptismal fonts, etc, etc.

Script adaptations: Co-opting non-Christian ceremonies into Christian culture (for example, Voodoo and some South American ceremonies with non-Christian roots, among others).

If the god of Abraham is out there, why is it necessary to play with my emotions in this fashion in order to make me believe that I feel something?


At 11:14 AM, Blogger Skull_Duggery said...

This kind of makes me think of a woman I know. Every time I talk with her, she tells me about her latest hardship, how her doctor won't give her the meds she needs because she might become "dependent" on them, how her landlord doesn't understand her plight, yadda yadda yadda...

Her life ought to have a soundtrack. If it did, I can tell you it would have a lot of weeping violins.

As far as the thing of the scripted and overplayed religious ceremonies, I think that goes back to the whole concept of smoke and mirrors that draws the followers in. Someone probably decided that they had to play to the lowest common denominator, the ADD equivalents in the flock that need constant stimulation in order to stay awake and focused. Either that, or maybe the priests and whoever are all thwarted thespians who just want to have some fun...


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