Evoking the religious and the sublime … The Weather Project, an installation by Olafur Eliasson in Tate Modern, 2003.

It is not especially original, but it’s hard not to notice the striking similarities between theatre and organised religion: the communal experience, the gathering together in one place to bear witness; finding a space within a crowd to reflect in silence on one’s thoughts; the civic, social and, to an extent, pastoral needs which both can fulfil.

For the ancient Greeks, theatre clearly played an important part in the intellectual and moral life of the city; it’s probably reasonable to speculate that the day-long performances of tragedies must have accrued some of the heady atmosphere of the religious trance.

But in Shakespeare’s deeply sectarian Christian world, while frowned on by protestantism, theatres seemed to distance themselves from overt expressions of religious faith. And so, the raucous, secular, circular space of the Globe offers an almost precise opposite of the hushed, reverent cruciform of a cathedral.

From the 17th century onwards, an essential secularity seems to have been established in theatre, both in terms of content and architecture. There are superficial similarities between the narrower proscenium arch theatres and more ornate churches, but such similarities tend not to resonate. If the wings of the stage are the choir, then the altar has been excised; in theatre, at least, the cross has been decapitated.


Andrew Haydon