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Visions in the night: drama


The Dramatic Element—

The unique force of drama in biblical apocalypse genre


“After this I saw in the night visions, and
behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong”— Daniel 7:7

WE CLASSIFY literature by genre or categories with each category having its distinct characteristics, though often literary forms blend or overlap. Tragedy, for instance, can have its moments of comedy, but still remain serious and dreadful. In Hamlet, Polonius seeks to make himself sound profound, but ends up making himself sound trivial like a clumsy buffoon—

Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief: your noble son is mad:
Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,
What is’t but to be nothing else but mad? —Act II, Scene ii, lines 100 ff

The Queen remains unimpressed with his empty display and calls for something more tangible and factual— More matter with less art. Polonius talks, but he says nothing, but his words are clever and in some ways, rather entertaining.

Such comic interludes, though common enough in tragedy seek to soften the shock that accompanies a life embroiled in disaster. We can only endure so much bad news. Still, we do not confuse tragedy with comedy. The two are very different.

There is something else, too. Admittedly, a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold, but it is not just the right word; it must be the right word at the right time. Occasion and setting govern what we say and how others understand what we say. Polonius’ words may be comical, but the immediate scene or setting permits such a humorous interlude. Other scenes in the play do not. As literary genre, comedy and tragedy may blend, but comedy and tragedy have their own distinct characteristics, their own separate genres.

The same, of course, is true with any literary genre. None of us, for instance, would read a legal brief in the same way we might read a newspaper. A medical report is not the same as a poem. We understand that. Indeed, the way we read or understand any discourse hinges on our understanding of the genre governing that discourse. Misunderstand the context and we miss the joke.

God has spoken to us through words, and genre governs the interpretation of those words just as genre governs any discourse. If we read a poem as a police report, we have misunderstood the poem. Likewise, if we read Psalms as if it were Exodus, we will misunderstand what we have read. It cannot be otherwise—

So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. —Nehemiah 8:8

Until we know the sense behind a literary reading, we cannot truly understand the reading. We read the words, but then misconstrue or completely misinterpret  the message that was given to us from God. At best, we end up sounding like Polonius. At worst, we end up changing the words of God into our own words—

Some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction. —2 Peter 3:16

This passage seems to depict people who do not merely misunderstand, but rather deliberately force language to say something God never said. We can be mistaken about what God may be saying without being guilty of wresting Scripture. Simply put, a bigger hammer or a louder voice is not what we need in interpreting biblical passages. What is needed is a sense of what is being said to us so that we can understand. We cannot reverence the word of God unless we also respect the genre that accompanies the discourse from God.

And yet, even caution and genre are not always enough. We may classify a book such as Daniel, or Ezekiel as examples of apocalypse, replete with exaggerated images and implausible scenes. We may do this, and then, only to turn around and misidentify, lapsing into interpreting prophetic code rather than interpreting literary genre. One article put it very succinctly—

The imagery of the genre of apocalypse has probably been subjected to more incorrect interpretation than any other aspect of Scripture. —Dict. Biblical Imagery, 36

Perhaps, our suggested approach of reading apocalypse literature as drama may be just as misguided. However, if we can understand the central elements of drama, such an approach might provide promising insight. Briefly put,  if we change our approach to apocalypse literature by looking at apocalypse genre as a subset of a larger literary category— as a subset of dramatic performance — we might arrive at a very different interpretations of apocalyptic imagery such as the 144,000, or the thousand-year reign, or Armageddon.  Before embarking on such an interpretative journey, let’s look more closely at drama, and whether or not apocalypse should be studied as drama.


Dramatic Performance

Essentially, apocalypse genre is performance, and necessarily therefore a subset of drama— not in an absolute sense, of course, such as we might find in Aeschylus or Shakespeare, but apocalypse does evince unmistakable dramati9c elements. What John sees is a performance. What Daniel sees is a performance. What Ezekiel sees is a performance. Even an image such as the moon turning into blood is set as a performance. Action unfolds within an apocalypse scene just as it might on the stage of a theatre and we  approach such images and actions as audience, just as we would in a play.  Twice in the opening chapter of Revelation, John is instructed to write what he sees—

What thou seest, write in a book . . .  Write the things which thou hast seen, —1.11,19

Later in the book, when John encounters a vision of seven thunders, he is told not to write what he has hears, but rather to seal the words in a book (10:4).  Such passages as these clearly depict literary elements of performance, of audience, and of interaction between the performance and the audience.  Certainly, unlike reading either narrative or poetry, drama communicates by appealing to an audience to experience what is before them.   The appeal of drama, then, is much more direct and powerful than in other literary venues.  Indeed, performance before an audience is the core of drama.  The effectiveness of a play, for instance, is dependent on how well the actors actually present their roles in the performance.  The interdependence of lines, actors, plot, and audience all become integral elements in dramatic performance.  For a play to be effective, the performance must be effectively done before an audience.  The force of drama can be seen in private conversation as well as when anger or excitement causes someone to become overly dramatic.  In private conversation, such drama tends to be regarded as excessive and unfitting.  When told we are being theatrical, our anger tends to intensify even if the insult is true.  Drama— even in the heated moments of anger— acknowledges the persuasive force of performance.

All of this is not to say, of course, that biblical apocalypse is mere drama, but drama is the core literary element in the presentation of the images as well as in the interpretation of those images.  Indeed, such images move and are meant to be seen and heard as well as experienced by the audience even when that audience is a single person such as John or Ezekiel.  John even describes the impact of what he has just seen and heard by describing the experience as something very unsettling.

And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last —Revelation 1:17

Ezekiel and other apocalypse writers likewise describe the experience as very disturbing.  Zechariah is so disturbed by what he sees and hears that an angel must comfort him (2:3,4).  The impact of apocalypse drama —on those who actually saw its imagery and scenes— consistently is depicted as a disturbing and perplexing experience, as something unexpected and bewildering.   In apocalypse drama, God causes the recipient (or audience) to experience the force of what is about to unfold.

In order to understand the impact of drama as an apocalypse expression, we need to look at how drama separates itself from the life which it  portends to mimic.  After all, for a play to be believable, the play must mirror life in some sense, and yet life remains life, and a play remains as imitative of life.  The one is real; the other, a mirror of what is real.   Drama, of course, is not real any more than virtual reality is real. The characters in Hamlet utter lines that people would never say in ordinary life.

Drama may imitate what happens in life, but drama is not life any more that a dream is life. The same is true with apocalypse drama and its images. Things happen before our eyes that cannot happen, but the images and action must be imitative enough of life to be understood by us. What we see and hear are dream-like images of life, and this feature— this dream-like quality —imparts to apocalypse its distinctive literary feature.

When Ezekiel sees the throne of God, what he is seeing is unlike anything this world has ever known, and yet the depiction of what cannot be described must be described in such a way that we can understand something of what is happening beyond this world.

Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.  In the fifth day of the month, which was the fifth year of king Jehoiachin’s captivity,  the word of the LORD came expressly unto Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the LORD was there upon him.

And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north. a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself.  Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward.

And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. —Ezekiel 1:1-4, 9, 19

What is especially striking is that Ezekiel is very specific as to the year and place of the vision. He was by the Chebar river or canal; it was his thirtieth year; it was the fifth day of the month. The heavenly scene which unfolds before him, however, is unlike anything he has ever seen. As he tries to depict what is there, his language fails him and when we read what he has written, we know that something fantastic has emerged, but we cannot describe the scene or draw the images that dart through the sky. And yet, even though we have only an impartial glimpse compared to Ezekiel who witnessed the vision firsthand, we know that the grandeur of what we have just read is far beyond mortal imagination. Like Ezekiel (but to a much, much, lesser degree) we have just experienced a world beyond sun, moon, stars, a world beyond time and beyond anything physical.. We have just experienced what words cannot describe. Drama has conveyed for us a glimpse of the greatness and the presence of God—

This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spake. —Ezekiel 1:28

In drama, performance functions as the decisive and key element even when as in apocalypse, the images are other world, replete with dream-like qualities. In  fact, the word drama itself is the Greek word meaning action. This should not surprise us, but explains why the dramtis personae in a play are called  the characters or actors. Performance is central to a play and that performance must be accomplished by actors before an audience. A play must be enacted. “In a play,” says Aristotle, “the personages act the story” (Poetics, 1448).

To go even further,  a performance to be effective, audience, actor and scene must all interact and blend on some level. We may read Shakespeare as literature, but the magic comes only through the performance on a stage before an audience.  Such may be one reason why Shakespearean plays tend to fall flat when rendered as a movie.  The immediacy of a performance before a live audience is no longer there.



Audience & Purpose

The role of audience cannot be overlooked. In an extensive analysis in his Poetics, Aristotle tenders that dramatic tragedy must mimic life convincingly enough to evoke a corresponding response from an audience, a response that matches or excels the power of the emotion and actions being performed on the stage. The audience must be moved by what they hear and see.  Accordingly, the plot of the story must be written as well as presented in such a way to evoke powerful emotional response from that audience—

The plot must be not simple but complex; and further, it must imitate actions arousing fear and pity, since that is the distinctive function of this kind of imitation . . . The tragic fear and pity may be aroused by the spectacle, but they may also be aroused by the very structure and incidents of the play . . . In fact, the plot should be so framed that even without seeing the things take place, he who simply hears them shall be filled with horror and pity at the incidents —1452, 1453

The audience is central, but the spectacle of a performance cannot substitute for a weak plot. Neither the best actors nor special effects can help a story that is poorly written.  Consider, for instance, a movie such as Batman: The Dark Knight.  The performance may be replete with special effects, but unless there is a plot with words that will enhance and accompany both plot and spectacle, the performance simply will not work. There must be more to the movie than a fantastic Batmobile or Batcycle. Even the Joker, an apocalypse-like villain, must have something important to say.  In this movie, the actor who portrays the Joker is what made the movie convincing, speaking his lines in such as way as to mesmerize the audience.

What emerges as especially interesting in the story is how the Joker frequently lapses into a philosophical discussions of evil and good. He not only commits evil, but feels compelled to put forth a rationale in order to explain his deranged behavior and appearance. In one sense, his words portend a sense of guilt which he denies having.  Otherwise, why ever justify the behavior?  Without the plot though, and such attending explanations, the story and the spectacle would fall flat; we would go simply from Batman to Flatman.  Here again, the elements of plot, spectacle, words, and audience must intertwine into a coherent whole. Even in a movie like The Dark Knight, a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold. As Ezra Pound once noted, “Drama is not words, but persons moving about on a stage using words.”  This points suggests further poignant insight into how drama works.

The portrayal of tragedy in Greek theatre had a purpose, far beyond entertainment, or the shallow philosophy promulgated by the Joker. Aristotle speaks at length of the impact of tragedy on an audience by referencing the crucial presence of probability. The audience must not simply be told but rather see what has happened under a larger framework of what could happen to anyone—

There shall be nothing improbable among the actual incidents —1454

Even though the characters in the drama are from a high and noble class, the audience understands that what happens there can also happen here, on the level of ordinary and mundane life. If a good king can fall, so can any man. Disaster is blind.  A person in a higher class can fall further, but even the lowest of men can fall and that fall be just as fatal to the person himself.  Whether we care to admit it or not, in the last analysis, the king is a man and subject to the same frailties as any of us.  In Daniel, Nebuchanezzar is not  above the frailities of life or the corrupting influence of pride, wealth, or accomplishment—

The king spake, and said, Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty?

While the word was in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, saying, O king Nebuchadnezzar, to thee it is spoken; The kingdom is departed from thee.And they shall drive thee from men, and thy dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field: they shall make thee to eat grass as oxen, and seven times shall pass over thee —Daniel 4:30-32

The derangement lasted seven years with Nebuchanezzar being restored to his right mind as well as to a sense of balance as to what is important in life before God.  His acknowledgement of his pride causes us to see him as a heroic and tragic character.  The emergence of a heroic response imparts meaning to the experience of seeing tragedy unfolding in a play, or unfolding in our life.  The heroic character in order to be rightly identified as heroic must go beyond the normal limits of life and be confronted by a disaster larger than life, but in so doing, he somehow emerges victorious having experienced life on a larger scale than those around him. The biblical story of Job is a good example of tragedy.  Indeed, the book of Job has been compared by some critics to Greek drama, and admittedly, there are similarities, but in Job, the characters talk; in Aeschylus, the characters both talk and act. In Greek drama, there must be a harmatia, a tragic flaw; in Job, there is no flaw, rendering the story even more difficult to understand both for Job and for those of us who read his story. His counselor friends accuse Job of wrong in order to make some sense of cause and effect for what has happened, but Job firmly maintains his innocence.  We reason the same way today when some disaster has befallen someone, and think that the person must have caused this, must have brought it on himself with God punishing him for what he has done.  In dramatic tragedy—whether life or on a stage —we need the rationale of cause and effect; in biblical tragedy, however,  we have no cause and effect except of the struggle of evil and good—

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places —Ephesians 6:12

Let us end with a word of caution. We should not conclude that scenes from Daniel, or Ezekiel, or Zechariah should be viewed as some form of ancient Hebrew theatre.  Apocalypse genre is not Hebrew theatre.  Yet, audience, scene, and actors within the spectacle seemingly emerge as common threads and sometimes with rather startling results. In a subsequent article, I would like to look further at some of those startling results and implications for interpreting apocalypse literature.


“Apocalypse, Genre of.”  Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. eds. Leland Ryken, James Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman.  Downers Grove: InverVarsity Press, 1998. Print.

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