Religious rebels in Roman times

Third Street looks at period when gay was okay but Christianity was deadly

There was a time in history when being homosexual didn’t raise a proverbial eyebrow but being Christian could get you killed. That’s the time period Third Street Theatre explores in the world première of its Queer Theatre Creation Ensemble’s latest piece The Passion of Sergius and Bacchus .

“This is the story of openly gay Roman lovers” says Paul Welch ensemble facilitator and Third Street co-artistic director. Sergius was head of third-century Emperor Maximian’s personal bodyguard while Bacchus was second in command. However they had a secret: they were Christian — in fact in 300 AD they were even married in a Christian church by a Christian official.

Once their religious orientation was discovered however they were tortured and executed but not before being given the chance to renounce Christianity and return to the religion of the Roman deities. Sergius and Bacchus refused to recant their faith and as a result of their martyrdom the Church made them saints. (The pair were de-canonized in 1969 and while Welch says no concrete evidence exists as to the “why” behind their demotion he says there’s speculation it had to do with their homosexuality.)

The ensemble relied heavily upon a passion piece dating from the fourth or fifth century — The Passion of Saints Sergius and Bacchus — for their story as well as upon the research of Yale professor John Boswell whose controversial work included studies of homosexuality and same-sex unions in the early Christian church. Welch says what makes the story of Sergius and Bacchus particularly interesting is the irony of their situation when viewed in today’s light.

“When we talk about the challenges of the LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual transgender) community with respect to fundamental Christianity we’re fighting for the right to state-sanctioned love and marriage. Back then the reverse was true. Being homosexual wasn’t the issue; being a Christian was the problem. It’s an interesting reversal” Welch says. “We don’t really understand our history fully. We skew our understanding of history to fit our current political agendas.”

While Welch notes the ensemble is “not necessarily a group of devout Christians” he sees The Passion of Sergius and Bacchus as a celebration of faith though he adds the script that does show the human faces behind the saints. In addition he says the play explores a host of themes — from identity shame belonging mercy and passion to intolerance hope sacrifice marriage miracles and a sense of righteousness.

Welch estimates about a third of the script’s dialogue has been lifted from the ancient passion document concerning the two men which he says lends the piece greater authenticity. He is also conscious of the fact that “Christian” and “Christianity” are loaded words. “Everyone has a different experience with faith and Christianity” he says.

As such Welch says the ensemble has “looked at ways to ensure audiences are continuously curious about the story rather than getting hung up on preconceived ways the story should be told.” For example he says the word “Christian” doesn’t even come up until page 13 of the 38-page script. “Instead characters talk about abominations incest people who want to overthrow the government. They sound like rebels and that’s how Romans viewed Christians” explains Welch adding he wants audiences to understand that Christians of the day didn’t have access to the privileges they do now in the primarily Judeo-Christian western world.

The ensemble also relied upon the expertise of Third Street’s other artistic director Jonathan Bower who trained as an Evangelical pastor to ensure they didn’t land in an “offensive place” in their treatment of Christianity.

Welch says Sergius and Bacchus have become something of a “rallying point” for the LGBT Christian community. “They provide some solace and relief for LGBT Christians. They provide that sense of security that you have come from a long legacy and that you’re not alone” he says.