The opening section of Genesis is read in a lot of different ways. Some people interpret it as a description of the scientific process via which the universe originated, some as a religious meditation upon the order and beauty of the natural world, others as an aetiological myth about the social custom of working six days and resting on the seventh, and others as a hymn used in worship to thank God for the world. Though not mutually exclusive, each of these frameworks stresses different parts of the narratives, and tends towards different emphases about what is significant in the text, and what conclusions could be drawn from it.
Whatever its original genre (or genres), the narratives have proved an irresistible temptation to performance. Though less secure in the Anglophone year than the Nativity play or the Nine Lessons and Carols, the Genesis creation story has appeared in numerous guises, of which the medieval Mystery Cycles and Haydn’s Creation are only the most famous. In this piece, I’d like to offer another performance-based interpretation, and treat the first chapter of Genesis as a script. In doing this I’m not making any assertion about the role the text played in ancient religious practice, or suggesting that this is the genre which we should use to frame it within historical criticism. I am simply experimenting with the potential of reading the opening of Genesis as a text relating to performance, and curious to see what meanings may emerge.
Doing this isn’t as simple as parcelling out lines, before deciding where the narrator should stand and what accent the actor playing God should put on. Performance studies scrutinises the texts of plays from the distant past with two main lenses, which often overlap. Firstly, they can be seen as the potential for a performance, like a blueprint for their own future realization. They are the instructions from which a performer or director can put together the show. But they can also be read as post-performance texts, the traces or residue left after a play has been and gone. An extreme example might be the notorious “memorial reconstruction” texts of Shakespeare, which appear to be based partly on people’s memories of hearing the play in performance, later written down. Any play text from another era has this double aspect: it can give us suggestions about what happened in the performances of the past, whilst providing the possibility for more to take place in the future. So I will be approaching Genesis as both the trace and the potential of performance.
The justification for doing so isn’t entirely idle curiosity and the desire to try a new critical framework (though there is quite a lot of that involved.) In my work on the Bible I have been coming across more and more accounts of the nature of Scripture which speak to the possibilities of performance theory. James Barr, Karl Barth and Rowan Williams (to pick three out of a longish list) all make comments on the Bible which suggest a fruitful dialogue with theorists like J.L. Styan, Peggy Phelan, Elin Diamond, Philip Auslander, Marvin Carlson and Richard Schechner. In particular they stress the perlocutionary and illocutionary aspects of Scripture: its potential to both call out responses from those whom it addresses and to manifest its meaning via performative moments. Indeed there is a repeated stress on the notion that it is only in performance, in the realization of this perlocutionary and illocutionary potential, that the text becomes Scripture. I’m going to be doing a lot more work in this area, but it occurred to me to see how a dramaturgical reading would suit the creation narrative.
This reading reframes the events as a series of perceptions, rather than a series of actions, so I’m looking at the narrative from the audience’s perspective, so to speak. Thus the order of events ceases to be a temporal order in which things were created, a hierarchy of importance in the world or a linear causality, and instead reflects the shifting attention of the audience. Directors, actors and designers are used to imagining a performance from the other side, trying to imagine where the audience’s attention will move and at what point. The narrative becomes not so much a story of God’s making things in the past, but a performance in which human perceptions move through creation guided by the events and moments of the drama.
Genesis, Chapter One
[Textual note: the edition used here is the Anglicized NRSV. Textual footnotes have been omitted, as the focus of this commentary is the text’s dramaturgical aspects.]
Scene and time: Not specified. The lighting effects mentioned in the text suggest it would be extremely effective if performed at dawn. Setting could be rural or urban. Potential for radical resetting, as often employed on Shakespeare or Classical Greek drama. Two out of many might include: a woman stands at the kitchen window, waiting for the kettle to boil to make her wife breakfast in bed, or a man sits on a hilltop after a party.
1.1-2: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Blackout, clearly. Wind might be sound or physical. Audience has a sense of anticipation, of a presence in the darkness.
1.3-4 Then God said, ‘Let there be light’: and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.
Light begins to impinge on the audience’s awareness. Diffuse as yet – no light sources mentioned. Effective if this did happen at dawn, as would place the audience at the site of the action, watching night being separated from day. Also effective since this is often how it feels at dawn, with a diffuse light only enabling the audience to sense space via the different quality of darkness in different directions.
1.6 And God said ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.
The world does seem to “emerge” by pushing towards the viewer, an effect caused by the light. The focus of the audience’s attention is the horizon, the division which gradually becomes perceptible between the darkness below and the darkness above, and which (on a clear dawn) becomes obvious as the source of the shift of perception.
1.11 Then God said ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth’
Trees not a plot device, necessarily, and not as a minor character to herald more important one later, but as the first perceptible form of life in the dawn. Again, depending upon where you are at the time, this is often how it feels – trees (or buildings in a built-up area) are the first discernible part of the world because they are on the horizon (which remains the focus of the audience’s attention, the space in which the action is happening at the moment). In the urban setting, a similar effect can happen with TV aerials and telephone wires.
1.14 And God said “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and for years.
The light ceases to be diffuse here, and we get a sense of focus. This shifts the audience’s perception a little, and they become slightly more aware of their own relationship to the space of action. (In performance language the locus and platea start to solidify.) From experiencing the light and space in a rather detached way, they start to have a sense of themselves within the performance situation.
1.20 And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’
Birds are visible slightly after the skyline pushes itself out of the gloom, first as movement then as actual creatures with their own separate existence. Audience’s attention still clearly fixed on the horizon, though now with more definition, and a sense of depth within the set.
1.24 And God said ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind; cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’
The light is now strong enough that movement and creatures are visible down at the bottom of the trees as well as those which are moving along or interrupting the skyline. Audience’s view moves with the greater visibility to meet a new effect, tracking down from the horizon to the floor of the stage. Depth of stage now more strongly established, and audience’s awareness is moving progressively further towards their own position.
1.27 So God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
The lights have now reached the audience themselves. The awareness of their own position in the performance space which was broached with the focus of the lights at 1.14 has reached its logical conclusion, and they are now aware not only of themselves in the same platea as the performance so far, but are aware of each other. The audience have shifted from watching to realizing that they are a potential object of perception themselves. Not that they first become aware of their own body exactly, but they become aware of it as detached from the perceptions of light and movement and the focalisation of their attention. The perceiving self thinks about other perceivers. The use of the plural “humankind” signals an unusual form of dramatic irony, based not on the audience’s greater knowledge than a character’s, but based on the enjoyment of the gap between what they perceive now and what they perceived in earlier parts of the performance (more usual in detective dramas.)
Alternative text of this section:
Just as King Lear exists in multiple texts, which cannot be completely reconciled or explained away as one a variation of the other, there is a variant text surviving of this portion, which offers a variant dramaturgy. It is given here, with commentary.
2.21-22 So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.
The site of the drama here shifts into the actual body of the audience. As their perception has shifted from a general diffuse awareness of light, to the line of the horizon, to the lit performance space, up to themselves, this sequence moves the focus of their attention within themselves. In becoming aware of another, and aware that they are both object and subject of perception, the locus of action becomes the chest. Not on a symbolic level – this is not a reference to culturally-bound notions of “gut feeling” or “heartache” – but on an affective level.
As Callard and Papoulias have discussed, human perceptions pass through a physical, affective level before they are processed as emotions or fitted into narratives. Skin prickles, biorhythms shift, etc. Encountering another human in various exciting ways dumps adrenaline into the bloodstream, boosting the heartbeat and altering the breathing. The other human need not be of a different gender, the fact that they are another person is sufficient for the body to stage a drama of human difference within the lungs and heart. A stronger, but variant, form of the dramatic irony mentioned above is suggested here: for a single moment of extraordinary drama the audience seems to feel that the other human presence has burst out of their chest.