Everything Is Theater

Everything is theater. Our society has a knack for turning everything into a drama. Think about subjects of your attention: politics, sports, business — they’re all drama. Today I read this paragraph in Jedediah Purdy’s remarkable book For Common Things

When politics is regarded as a self-serving variety of theater, it should come as no surprise that it assumes the cast of entertainment. The most prevalent attitude toward politics … treats it as a hybrid of spectator sport and People magazine’s celebrity culture. The Sunday-morning talk shows are fodder for the sports-fan stance, providing competing accounts of who’s up, who’s down, and what the smart money is on during the coming week. 

Purdy wrote those words in 1999, but 17 years later we are confirming his prophecy. Politics has so deeply embraced its identity as theater that it has almost ceased to be anything else.  

And politics isn’t alone. Business is now dramaturgy. Last week, Apple announced its newest products, where? In a theater. Mergers and market reports come at us like a soap opera, always “to be continued.”  

Sport has given way as well. Games are consistently referred to as “presentations" with “storylines” that demand great “performances” from various “role players.” Watch a World Series game this week and count the number of nail-biting close-ups and mentions of “story.”  

And most disappointingly, even our faith has gotten sidetracked by show biz. Last month, the worship band Hillsong released a feature-length documentary billed as a “theatrical worship experience.” Churches have become one of the best markets for purveyors of stage-show machinery; the Spirit giving way to smoke machines; the sacred head, now wounded, with glitz and glam weighed down.  

This trend isn’t all bad. Drama, as I have said before, is a divinely human element. Jesus taught in stories. And “happily ever after” is written on the hearts of men. It is not an evil temptation that draws us to drama. But let’s not be blind to the dramatic impact in our culture. When the greatest threat to meaning is boredom, then what is true is easily confused with what is exciting. From prayers to People magazine, we don’t know how to create culture without celebrity. Our beauty always comes with a “like” button.