The Use and Abuse of Performative Arts for Religion and Society


  • Tiina- Erika Friedenthal
  • Meelis Friedenthal



Theatre, Enlightenment, Germany, Theology, Toleration, Criticism, Pietism


The objective of the article is to examine some of the discussions regarding performative arts (i.e. theatre) in Germany and the Baltic provinces in the 18th century and to add theological-philosophical marginalia to those discussions. In the light of selected texts answers are sought for two main questions: 1) what place does sanctioned artistic activity have in the theological and intellectual atmosphaere in Germany? Does it largely coincide with social or religious goals like in the Middle Ages, or does it have some different purpose that is not overlapping with those of society or religion? 2) What benefit does society derive from artistic activity? In 18th-century Germany, such issues were discussed in all the circles of society (ecclesiastic, artistic, educational, economic, etc.) thereby establishing a basis for aesthetics as a discipline related to art theory. If, in the early 18th century, the German philosophers dealt with art historically or as subjected to other disciplines then by the end of the century, the arts had become independent. Current article traces through some discussions the arguments which were used in the conflicts regading the place of theatre in the society, and what expectations and assumptions
accompanied these arguments. The authors have also sought a clearer understanding of the placement of theatre on the scale of beneficial- useless- harmful, based on the aims (related to society or religion) that have been stated by the proponents or assumed by default. The question’s broader background includes an interest in how the reputation of theatre is connected to the goals assigned to it and how the corresponding trends compare with the reputation of religion in society.
In the examples included in the article, the assessment of any artistic
activity is closely related to what the goal of art was thought to be and to what extent this goal was thought to conform to religious and/ or social goals. The article notices that those authors who took art most seriously, were the ones who saw it as a part of a whole. It is possible to distinguish between two groups of such authors: one for whom the goal of art was identical or similar with the goals aspired by religion or society and the other who saw theatrical performances as generally harmful or wasteful activity for society and thus dangerous. There emerges also a third group of authors what tends to regard theatre as (relatively) harmless, but at the same time accepts the limited usefulness of theatre for society and religion and accordingly theatre is often perceived as (mere) entertainment.


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Author Biographies

Tiina- Erika Friedenthal

Tiina-Erika Friedenthal defended her MA thesis in 2012 in the theological faculty of the University of Tartu on the topic of “Parousia, fundamental experience of spiritual presence”. The meaning and usage of the word ‘parousia’ in Antiquity, in Western Christianity, and in Martin Heidegger’s philosophy was discussed in association with dramatic literature. Her PhD thesis in the Tartu University concerns the attitude and arguments against theatre during the long 18th century (1660–1830) in the German speaking cultural areas. Presently her research in the
Georg-August-Universität Göttingen is supported by European Social Fund’s Doctoral Studies and  Internationalisation Programme DoRa, which is carried out by Foundation Archimedes.

Meelis Friedenthal

Meelis Friedenthal defended his doctoral thesis about “The Tractatus moralis de oculo of the Tallinn City Archives” in the theological faculty of the Tartu University in 2008. In 2008 he joined Tartu University
Library project dealing with intellectual history of the Baltic Sea region in the Early Modern period. From 2010 to 2013 he led a project dealing with the Early Modern Estonian book history. Meelis Friedenthal is currently Research Fellow in Lichtenberg-Kolleg - The Göttingen Institute of Advanced Study with the topic of religious toleration in the Early Modern period.