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Keynote Address: "The Blessed Assurance of Perhaps"

From: Theatre Symposium
Volume 21, 2013
pp. 7-25 | 10.1353/tsy.2013.0012

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In the interview that I was fortunate to have with him, Samuel Beckett said, "The key word in my plays is 'perhaps.'" You have to love a playwright who will say things like that.

When my granddaughter was of preschool age, she loved to play with the subjunctive mood. We had a game in which I would make up a sentence including the word "maybe." She would answer, "And maybe not!" The child, like the playwright, enjoyed playing outside, though not too far outside, the boundary of things necessarily so. In other words, they both delighted in the exercise of imagination. Yet they wanted their whatifs to hover not far from what is. And so do I.

Unlike the movies, theatre is not a dream factory but a playground. The fun of a playground is that you are really in it, not dreaming that you are in it. You might really fall off the jungle gym and hurt yourself. You really do chute down through gravity on the sliding board. And yet you are at play. Not in the sense of pretending—not, if you will, playacting—but playing with.

When I was an undergraduate at Duke University, a man named Bill Poteat taught philosophy there. Arriving home one afternoon, he found his small daughter and some friends her age in the living room, all absorbed in a game on the floor. Bill asked what they were playing and was told a name he'd never heard before. Invited to play with them, he sat down and asked, "What are the rules of the game?" His daughter indignantly replied: "The only rule is that you can't cheat!"

So there, in case you were wondering, is my aesthetic: freedom combined with total honesty. "Maybe not" looking back over its shoulder at "maybe." Not just anything that could be, but something that might be. The key word is "perhaps."

Beckett also commented on the religion of his homeland. He said to me, "Ireland is so religious. You expect to wake up one morning and see all the dogs crossing themselves."

We may not be in Ireland, but we are in the Bible Belt, perhaps the most religious part of a quirkily religious nation. Beckett's quip about the dogs of Ireland cuts close to home—except that here the dogs would bark, "Praise the Lord!"

I was born in the Bible Belt, in eastern Tennessee. From the time of my earliest memories I was enamored of both religion and theatre. It did not occur to me that there was any conflict between them until my father told me that when he was a student at Ohio Wesleyan University—just before World War I—a classmate of his had been expelled from the school because he had gone to see something in a theatre. Not to a burlesque house or a vaudeville show, mind you, but to a play by William Shakespeare. By the time my father told me this some twenty-five years after the fact, Ohio Wesleyan was boasting a strong theatre program of its own.

The nineteenth-century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard spent some time as a young man writing theatre criticism for a newspaper in Berlin. He later complained that people went to the theatre looking for what they ought to find in church, and they went to church looking for what they ought to find in the theatre. But the worst of it, he said, was that they actually found it!

That lament seems to come from the same point of view as that of T. S. Eliot when he said that liturgy seems like drama but in truth is not drama. To which I say, "Perhaps."

There cannot be a productive relation between religion and theatre when religion is identified with its dogma. The dogmatist abhors perhapsness. From my perspective, however, dogmatism stifles not only theatre but also true religion, because it stifles the imagination.

In his book The Religious Case against Belief, James Carse suggests that religions, which are the longest-surviving institutions in the world, endure because they generate endless conversation. As Beckett's Didi might say, it is not enough...

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