Drama Alone is Credible: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Interpretive Work of Theatre and Performance in Twentieth-Century Christian Thought

Gillespie, Charles, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Hart, Kevin, AS-Religious Studies, University of Virginia

This dissertation investigates the theatrical approach to Christian thought in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theo-Drama (1973 – 1983) as a response to twentieth-century questions about credibility. What frames a good interpretation of God’s revelation that is accessible for a public audience? Drama discloses how credibility emerges in action between material given circumstances and co-creative possibility. Theatrical interpretation generates a surplus meaning that does not exhaust its source material. I argue that von Balthasar’s own theatrical preferences direct his theological conclusions. Chapters take interest in von Balthasar’s readings of plays and dramatic theorists, theologies of stewardship and creation, Christology and human freedom, and his controversial interpretation of the Trinity and Holy Saturday. A credible interpretation will never be far from lived experience. I historicize, evaluate, and develop von Balthasar’s dramatic theory using contemporary theatrical practices—dramaturgy, scenic design, writing, acting, direction—and alongside close readings of many plays from Hamlet to the Iranian experimental playwright Nassim Soleimanpour. Each chapter follows the theatrical imperative to perform its interpretations and address issues of credibility raised by dilemmas in theological genre and performance anxiety, modernity and doubt, science and materialism, ecology and climate crisis, death and authority.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theatre, Credibility
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