Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol I, Introduction: Orientations, C: Objections

Rev. Dr. Hans Urs Cardinal von Balthasar.  I chose a photo in which he wasn't smiling so I would remember how serious his work is.

Rev. Dr. Hans Urs Cardinal von Balthasar. I chose a photo in which he wasn’t smiling so I would remember how serious his work is.

[A]fter Hegel, drama is bound to be destroyed, since all ideals will be absorbed into material reality and all tension lost in the “one-dimensional” world.  The few examples we have chosen have already shown that this fear is groundless, however the continuing tension is interpreted – whether as a contradiction that must undermine existence itself or as a mystery that imparts meaning and inner satisfaction to what seems unimportant and even intolerable.  It is enough that the horizon remains open and thus leaves room for a Christian dramatic tension. – Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Volume I, pp.85-86


After presenting a relatively brief apologia for the idea of “theo-drama”, von Balthasar turns almost immediately to what he terms are “objections”, which in this brief presentation come from two principle source: philosophy, particularly Hegel (as mentioned above); radical modernist critics of The Dramatic as such, whether Marxist or Existentialist, which assume a priori the reality of the mid-20th century European crisis of social conscience in the wake of the horrors of the Nazi and Soviet regimes.

I find it interesting that von Balthasar takes the time he does laying out Hegel’s objections to drama as such, then demonstrating through the emergence of the theater of the absurd and other early and mid-20th century innovations that Hegel’s entire critique of drama is false precisely because, despite Hegel’s firm belief that the emergence of the Spirit of the Age has resolved the conflicts that drama presents, history has in fact presented new conflicts, new contradictions, new tensions with which human beings live.  Indeed, Hegel actually taught that the main categories of drama, tragedy and comedy, had dissolved themselves during the classic age of Greece.  When the Romans took over Greek drama in both form and content, it was in much the same way they did so much else: Stealing something alien, attempting to add their own imprint while in fact the real incarnation of the Roman spirit in public art was the circus, with its bloodletting representing the Spirit of Empire.

While the Renaissance and Baroque saw a resurgence of drama, for Hegel these were, despite the brilliance of the authors, decrepit copies at best because, as the saying goes, it had all been done before. For Hegel, drama no longer offered the polis an opportunity to see itself and consider these incarnations either of principles (as in Greek drama) or the embodiment of more modern categories (royalty, priestly, the Fool).  No matter how valiant the attempt, at its best drama after the collapse of the Greek polis was torn from its roots and it could not provide for the increasingly large, decreasingly self-aware successions of Empires, collapses, and resurgence.

So what of our contemporary age?  The 20th century provided, perhaps, the greatest challenge to the human need to present the beautiful.  The sheer enormity of the horrors of the past 100 years has left many a good and thoughtful person to the conclusion that art in all its forms is just no longer possible.  That would include drama as such, although some believed, perhaps opera could capture the scope of it all.  Certainly, however, tragedy, with its need for a protagonist caught in fate’s snare would seem to easily to absolve modern humanity from its desire to escape responsibility.  What good would come from presenting a picture of mass death both as inevitable?  How can there be any dramatic tension when all that seems to await our age, increasingly infatuated with self-destruction, is an end without the denoument or hope for anything to provide meaning?

This is what von Balthasar says is the loss of a framework, or better horizon, against which any drama plays itself.  We moderns, having lost our faith, have replaced it either with the misplaced optimism of Marxism or the dread despair do existentialism, neither of which care or concern themselves with the struggles of human beings qua individual human beings against this horizon.  Von Balthasar does mention one particular Marxist tragedy, Measures Not Taken, in which the Marxist view of the revolution replaces the religious horizon.  Thus a comrade, knowing he should be hard, ruthless, and brutal, continually refuses to do so, aroused as he is with compassion for his fellow human beings.  He submits to execution willingly – the only true end for such a person – yet he must also renounce any sympathy or empathy for his fellow human beings.  This, von Balthasar notes, is precisely the opposite of the actions of Christ on the Cross.

Thus it is that von Balthasar returns to the apologia: In and through the use of categories lifted from theater and the dramatic, we might learn something of the conflicts and contradictions of existence, and how those are taken up and redeemed in and through the life and work of Jesus Christ.