“Struggle for the role”

Garcia-Rivera identifies another horizon found implicitly in von Balthasar’s Theo-drama: the struggle for the role. The playwright, in writing a script, also creates the characters of the play. As mentioned, the script is written to be performed. This sets the space and conditions for players to play their roles in a play. Ultimately dependent on the playwright’s authorial creativity, the characters come alive and develop in the play thanks to the players’ dramatic creativity. It is the dramatic person’s task to make present the author’s work in the dramatic performance. It is the actor’s creative act which includes the task of playing a role and the higher task of entering into the horizon of meaning that encompasses the role. “Playing a role” calls forth the creative player to give life to a particular character. “Entering into the role’s horizon of meaning” makes this character an open one.[1] For this, the creative author must leave room in his work for the actor to conceive and execute the character envisaged by him. While he is given the space to discover and develop his character, the actor must struggle to enter into and experience the author’s vision.

Indeed, the actor stands at the center of the encounter between the two spheres of existence (reality) and truth (ideality).[2] The first refers to that reality embodied in the audience; the second, to that ideality – the author’s vision or truth – which is not directly accessible to the audience yet represented by the performance.[3] This meeting of two spheres, like the double task of the actor, implies two loyalties from the actor. On one hand, the actor must be loyal to the author whose vision the actor embodies. One the other, the actor must be loyal to the audience of whom the actor is part and for whom the actor plays the character. Put differently, in the actor’s task of embodying the author’s vision, the dramatic person is a mediator who acts for the audience.

Drama, as a representation of life, must not only imitate life with its unsolved problems. It must also portray how life ought to be. In this regard, drama offers the audience enjoyment in self-projection, i.e., delight in the possibility of transformation. In addition, it also offers enjoyment in insight, i.e., delight of being presented with a solution (higher inspiration). Through the pattern of life presented on the stage, the audience is invited to fashion their individual lives according to the solution proposed by the play. The actors, as mediators, are presented as models of self-production within an interaction of persons. Through the dramatic play, the audience can look at the different characters as in a mirror, and then learn to mirror themselves in life. As Garcia-Rivera puts it:

It is the actor’s task to infuse the reality of ordinary life of the audience with the aesthetic wholeness that is the dramatic play as a whole. When an actor plays his part well, the audience delights not only in the projection of what we already know of human living itself but also the exciting anticipation of something further to be discovered, the promise of a possible solution of life’s tragic sense.”[4]

In the task of playing the role and mediating between the author and the audience, the actor’s whole human system – physical, emotional, and spiritual self – is made available so that the actor may convincingly embody the reality of the character. It is not enough simply to feel the role; the actor must struggle to become the character. This struggle is further explained by the actor’s ambiguity which ultimately points to the incompleteness of human existence. In humility, the actor can serve the role and mediate a higher truth of existence. But in vanity, the actor too can obstruct it through intrusive self-affirmation. Yet, it is this struggle to play the role that gives life to the character in the play. This struggle of the actor to give life to the truth of the character as envisaged by the author relates with every person’s own search for authentic meaning. In the actor’s struggle for the role, we too are seized and our truth questioned. Realizing the dichotomy between the reality of who we are and the truth of who we ought to be for the whole, we open up to the possibility of transformation.[5]


[1] Ibid., 279-80.

[2] The English translation of von Balthasar’s Theo-drama uses the word “ideality,” see Ibid., 261. Nichols in his commentary on the theo-drama uses “identity,” Nichols, No Bloodless Myth, 30. The German original speaks of the “Sphäre der Realität” and the “Sphäre der Idealität,” Theodramatik I, 241.

[3] TD I, 261. Nichols describes this task of the actor as the task of synthesizing the reality of life with aesthetic reality. Nichols, No Bloodless Myth, 30.

[4] Garcia-Rivera, “Do this in Memory of Me,” 168.

[5] On the topic of the “struggle to play the role” as dramatic horizon, see Garcia-Rivera, “Do this in Memory of Me,” 168-69; TD I, 259-97; Nichols, No Bloodless Myth, 29-32.