116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

"Performing Conversion"

Derek Brown, The United States Military Academy at West Point

In this paper, I explore the crossroads between spiritual conversion and theatrical performance.  From a performative perspective, an actor leaving the stage and a recent convert leaving a church have much in common.  Conversion requires performance, and performance demands conversion.  Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and other spiritual allegories affirm this connection.


From 1877 to 1889, famous author George MacDonald, his wife Louisa, and family produced and performed a traveling version of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress: Part II. Produced by Louisa MacDonald, the performance moved actors and audiences in especially powerful ways.   As Christian actors, the MacDonald family combined the real performance of their religious faith with the theatrical performance of allegory.  They aligned their spiritual and artistic pursuits so that the play became “part of [their] mission in the world.”   The MacDonald performance magnifies what I seek to explore in this paper - the crossroads between spiritual and theatrical conversion.  From a performative perspective, an actor leaving the stage and a recent convert leaving a church have much in common.

First, the conversion process can be viewed as a performance that requires specific and repeated action.  Before conversion, curious individuals intimately interact with doctrine or scriptures in a spiritual discovery process.  During conversion, individuals may perform the act of repentance (contrition, confession, satisfaction) and commit to faith; sometimes initiated through baptism.  Afterwards, converts struggle with doubt and face both involuntary (imprisonment) and voluntary opportunities to affirm or deny their faith.  Spiritual pilgrims perform acts in an effort to internalize and formalize an intimate change.

In the theatre, actors must commit to a theatrical conversion in order to develop dynamic and believable characters.  Like in a spiritual conversion, the actor sheds his or her old self to take on a new role.  In order to do so effectively, an actor must examine what Gregory Ulmer refers to as “wants” related to “a series or sequence of specific aims, goals, and problems in each scene.”  

Lastly, I argue that allegory serves as the strongest connective tissue between these two types of conversion.  The MacDonald family performance of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress illuminates this intersection as well as the dramatic nature of allegorical literature.  Allegorical prose employs symbolism to make very complex philosophical moves seem more relatable.  Additionally, authors paint personal experiences with more broad, fictional experiences in an attempt to magnify positions.  Bunyan’s story is inspired by his own spiritual journey, yet purposefully distant from the real facts.  In essence, the wider, more allegorical appeal of the work encourages actors and readers alike to mimic Christian’s spiritual pilgrimage. 

Bunyan is not the first or last writer to harness the dramatic power of allegory.  Therefore, I place The Pilgrim’s Progress within the context of a continuing tradition of spiritual performance: from fourteenth-century morality and cycle plays to Ralph Vaughan Williams and Yoshi Oida’s recent opera adaptations of The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Additionally, I compare Bunyan’s work with C.S. Lewis’s modern adaptation The Pilgrim’s Regress.  In each instance, I will demonstrate the intersection of spiritual conversion and theatrical performance.   Finally, I encourage you to apply this concept, or intersection more broadly to all drama - both spiritual and secular.   Conversion requires performance, and performance demands conversion.