The Atheist in Dramatic Texts

The negative perception of the atheist, as mentioned earlier, has been perpetuated since Ancient times, of which theatre has played its part. Perhaps much has to do with the origins of the art form itself in which the performance of the Tragedy, and later plays, were intrinsically linked to religious ritual and the upholding of such systems of belief. The Bacchae by Euripides for example depicts the androgynous and libidinous god Dionysus as callous and sinister, exacting horrific revenge on Pentheus and his parents for being very vocal non-believers, or in other words, atheos. Hitchens explains, “it is the case that some humans have always noticed the improbability of god, the evil done in his name, the likelihood that he is man-made, and the availability of less harmful alternative beliefs and explanations” (254). In religious texts it is either through instruction or by example (by god or other characters as role models) that morality lessons or rules are passed on. Analysing the Old Testament Dawkins observes, “The tragi-farce of God’s maniacal jealousy” is on display throughout (246). This idea (or template) of the intimidating and vengeful god is reiterated ad nauseam in just about all major religions. Nevertheless, just as there are many plays that question god’s existence, the stereotype atheist is present in several. While a full investigation into the history of the atheist in dramatic history is not possible within the confines of this thesis, there are some notable examples worth mentioning.

Cyril Tourneur’s Jacobean drama,
The Atheist’s Tragedy or the Honest Man’s Revenge - probably written in 1607 but not published until 1611 – was an attempt to illustrate the dangers of pursuing the path of atheism. The atheist of the title, D’Amville, is by definition void of any redeeming qualities. He is, because of his professed atheism, a one-dimensional villain with a huge appetite for sexual perversion, disloyalty, brutality and cruelty. He is emotionally barren and void of conscience as well. His behaviour rather than being ingeniously cunning, (of the Iago ilk in Shakespeare’s Othello) is really just delusional; “His ‘reason’ is really self-deception, not true reason at all” (Ribner:xli). In this sense Franz appears to be similar. But Tourneur’s atheist, at the moment of his demise, renounces his atheism despite the knowledge his eternal damnation is inescapable; “But nature is a fool. There is a power above her that hath overthrown the pride of all my projects and posterity” (Act IV, Sc III). It is interesting to note that Tourneur undoubtedly reaches his poetic peak in the scenes where D’amville and the other ignoble characters are in the throes of their immoral, namely sexual, activities. On the other hand, his devoutly pious characters, the star-crossed lovers, Charlamont and Castabella are such cardboard cut- outs they border on the absurd at times.

The Atheist Tragedy was in the repertory of the Kings Men at court for 29 years between 1612 and 1641 (Ribner: xx) perhaps, in part, to combat atheistic ideas, circulating in the community at the time, from taking hold. Afterall it was only about 20 years earlier that Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta was performed with the protagonist and non-believer Barabas declaring “I can see no fruits in all their faiths” (Act 1: Sc 1). Four years after the performance of The Jew of Malta - and several controversially-themed plays later - while “under investigation” for his religious (or rather atheistic) views, Marlowe was violently murdered in suspicious circumstances (Romany & Lindsay:xii). The so-called ‘Baines Note’ handed to the Privy Court close to the time of Marlowe’s death is blatant in its assessment of Marlowe, “almost every company he cometh he persuades men to atheism” and urges “all men in Christianity ought to endeavour that the mouth of so dangerous a member may be stopped” (xxxv). Was Marlowe murdered because of his atheistic views? We may never know but in the meantime, “speculation continues… that this is exactly what happened” (xxxii).

Thomas Otway’s atheist character, Daredevil, in his final play
The Atheist (1683), is also prone to (rather pathetically) renouncing his atheism at the slightest hint of danger; “Hah! Faith and Troth, I fancy, not so bad as I thought it was” (Act 5: Sc 4). This casual conversion to piety when he is convinced of his immanent death “is not convincing” (Warner:135). Though not unlike many Restoration plays, it was the ruling classes (in this case supporters of the corrupt British Whig Party) that were being parodied and it is they whom Otway portrays to be of dubious moral character. Most notable is the nouveau riche character of Beaugard who seeks what he calls “reasonable iniquity” (Act 4 : Sc 2) where he is able to maintain a libertine and fiercely independently wealthy existence while adhering – in appearance only – to religious and social obligations. Schiller’s antipathetic atheist Franz, by contrast, does not renounce his atheism. In the moment just prior to his death, he mockingly prays to god then takes his own life in defiance, though he is never totally sure if god (or the devil) really exists. The fire building around him is a perhaps a hint of things to come, “do I hear you hissing, serpents of the pit?”(Act 5: Sc 1), which sends him into a maniacal frenzy before finally committing suicide.

If Franz is the stereotypical amoral atheist, then Karl (minus the lawlessness) arguably has some characteristics of a contemporary atheist. He is very aware of the socio-political quagmire his country is in and seeks a solution (misguided as his is). He is a man who has the knowledge and intelligence to see through the fa├žade created by the church and state. The key to his insight is Knowledge. As knowledge accumulates, answers are found and more questions are raised in the process. The fear of knowledge is arguably a mainstay of religion. Is knowledge the enemy of religion? This idea has also been explored in many dramatic texts since ancient times as well.

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