I am involved with several theatrical productions at my school, and it's made me think about something a lot lately.
In order for a free society to function well, there has to be a robust understanding of the underlying principles and virtues that the society holds dear, or, as Russell Kirk would say, the "unwritten constitution." You see this in the poems of Homer and Virgil, where these great poets exemplify societal virtues in their stories.
What are the best virtues, then, for a free society? In addition to the traditional cardinal and theological virtues, there are several that are necessary for a free society to be well-ordered. The first is an active engagement with works of the past, in order to cultivate and maintain a society’s cultural heritage. The second is to take those works and build off of their discoveries in order to move the society forward. The third is participation that brings people together, emphasizing common interests. Finally, every individual must be able to synthesize these concepts to form a holistic view of reality.
Good, so, how do we best apply this to a free society? Live theatrical performances offer several unique aspects to man’s natural storytelling inclinations, and I would like to present several observations that I think show that theater is the form of art that best fits a free society:
- The theater encourages both imitative and original art. Actors begin their experience with the theater by imitating the art of the masters who have crafted great works, like Shakespeare, Wilder, and others. Additionally, actors have the opportunity to perform in original roles, taking the lessons they learn from the masters and applying them to other areas of their craft.
- The theater encourages group participation in art. Unlike prose and poetry, which are typically a singular effort on the part of the writer, and film, which, while participatory, still has an element of isolation among the various parties, theater brings a team together of people each having a vested interest in the production’s success.
- The theater encourages a synthesis of excellence and ownership. While the imitation, originality, and participation are all separate components, participants in the theatrical arts unify all of them to form a coherent view of reality. In their case, this view is the success of the production and an effective telling of the story.
If we are to place the responsibility of governing ourselves on the citizenry, the citizens should be able to learn from the past while still growing toward the future, they should each participate in the well-being of the society, and they should synthesize excellence and personal ownership. Our art should reflect these traits we wish to exemplify. This is why theater, while not the only form of art that can encourage these values, can be argued to be the best form of art for a free and democratic society.