Lamentations: Musings on staging

Lamentations springs to life when its poetic form is appreciated and respected. Poetry is performance. And this can include, perhaps especially so, staged readings or even theatrical production.

"Look!" and "notice!" comprise a thread running through each chapter of Lamentations and across all of them: see the translation notes. And it is all about bringing vivid pictures into the mind. Visual staging seems to be not only an option, but encouraged.

In preparing this version of the text over the course of a few years various thoughts and ideas have come to mind — "I wonder how a producer/director would do that?" — bidden and unbidden, considered and random, about such aspects. Some are given here simply to spark further imagination by the potential producer/director.

Perhaps the foundational consideration is that Lamentations is both aural and visual, hence the impetus towards theatrical staging. That "visual" is not only "the mind's eye" extrapolating from the text and staging, but real, not least in seeing the alphabetic acrostic at work.


The alphabetic acrostic of the first four chapters, and its absence in the last, is an essential foundation. This works visually: seeing the passing alphabet is vital. Perhaps an obvious method is projecting the letters onto a screen. I was re-assured to discover that this is also what a forerunner did: see below. In his case (which was a univeristy biblical studies course) he was able to use the Hebrew alphabet. In our case, where our English alphabet is used, that wouldn't work; simply use our alphabet.[1] Of course, we have the added twist of having to omit four letters. This probably requires a programme note, perhaps supplemented by a reminder by something like using our full alphabet but greying out the omitted letters.

Some aspects of the text lend themselves to visual demonstration. For example, chapter 2 initially looks like an audio monologue (with Daughter Zion speaking only at the end). But v.13 sets up a chain of "who" questions: "to what can I liken you? / how advocate? / who could heal you?" which leads to a sweeping panorama of three iniital candidates on display: prophets (14), passers-by (15) and even human enemies (16). Finally there is a fourth candidate, God himself. But he, already identified as "enemy" (5), "has done what he planned, / fulfilled his threat (17)."[2]

Also in chapter 2 the action in the first half zooms in from the land of Judah, vv.2–5, to the city of Zion, vv.6–10, to the people there, vv.11–12.[3]

Similarly, if the staging of chapter 3 involves some sort of scenery and props then its 'L'-acrostic lines, 28–30, lend themselves to re-visiting complaint scenes from earlier verses:[4]

Inclusion of a wall at or towards one side of the stage could be beneficial. Walling is explicitly mentioned in 3:7 and 3:9 where it acts as a barrier to prayer.[5] At 3:44 God metaphorically walls himself off from prayer by a cloud. At the opening of chapter 5 ("Recall, look, notice") the wall can act as a link, now communal.[6] To a present-day audience, visual resonance with the well-known Western Wall of the Temple Mount complex then springs to mind (although more literally that might be considered anachronistic as it dates from after the time of Lamentations).

The transition from chapter 2 into and through chapter 3 has visual potential. Chapters 1 and 2 have been portraying Daughter Zion in great distress. The audience is longing for her rescue. Now chapter 3 opens with the arrival of the "strong man", announcing "I am the man": the classic set-up for the arrival of the "rescuing hero", the mighty soldier building expectations of protection.[7] Leaving Daughter Zion on stage can heighten this. But the reality will be far different. Instead of rescue he is utterly self-absorbed; he doesn't even acknowledge her (as "Daughter People", 48, and "daughters of my city", 51) until well past the two-thirds point of the scene. And then? He immediately reverts to self-absorption, "my enemies ensared me", and continues to ignore her. He has recited that central passage about hope…yet abandons her, hopeless.

The opening of chapter 3 contrasts against Psalm 23; see the chapter introduction. Perhaps the psalm text could be projected, then step-by-step erased as those verses progress.


Characterisation and voicing

In this translation of Lamentations we resist the temptation to delve too far into what interpretation any individual stage production might bring. Nevertheless it seems worth mentioning that throughout the Dobbs-Allsopp (2012) commentary there are some very useful thoughts about not only characters and possible motivations and thoughts, but also groups. For example:

Chapters 1, 2 and 4 strongly feature a narrator. The character in chapter 1 may be seen as largely objective, reporting about what they witness. Alternatively they may be viewed as more involved: Berman (2023) uses the term "pastoral mentor". The character in chapter 4 may be seen as much more involved with the community and speaking with them.[11] So might they be envisaged as two different people? Between them, in chapter 2, the narrator seems to undergo a change within the chapter itself. By contrast, then, might this indicate one single overall narrator, themselves changed and transformed across the three chapters?[12]

Chiastic structures

On a variety of scales, an awareness of chiastic structure, resembling A B C B' A', is useful. Its consideration could provide a bearing on set design or other aspects of staging and production.

Across the book

There is some resonance, both thematic and lingistic, between the outermost chapters 1 and 5 and, working inwards, their neighouring chapters 2 and 4.

From Assis (2009), which is admittedly rather technical, cherry-picking these approachable aspects is thoroughly recommended for exploration. For example there are some themes that appear in one chapter pair (e.g. 2 and 4) but are absent from the other pair (e.g. 1 and 5).

Chapters 2 and 4 are also linked by a common verb "pour", absent from other chapters. As discussed in the translation notes it seemed preferable to represent this as "disgorge" in chapter 4.

Within chapters

Topping and tailing chapter 1 as a contrast:

Chapter 2:

Chapter 3:

Topping and tailing chapter 5 as contrasting verbs "recall" and "ignore":

Some random details

A forerunner

Back in 1999, long before I approached any work whatsoever on Lamentations, Brian Toews of Cairn University (at the time called Philadelphia College of Bible) had already staged it with and for his students in their coursework. He used the traditional Authorised (King James) text. So, of course, no acrostics; no qinah. For the theatrically minded, his script with stage directions and his subsequent report to a conference through Asbury Seminary are worth reading:

[1] But naturally, if the environment has a strong Hebrew or Jewish aspect, then the Hebrew alphabet could additionally be displayed, on the understanding that this is not formal transliteration.

[2] See Dobbs-Allsopp (2012), pp.97–98; O'Connor (2002), pp.40–41.

[3] Berman (2023), p.58.

[4] Hens-Piazza (2017), pp.49–50.

[5] The acrostic constraint in this English version has required rendering this with the verb "confine". Nevertheless "wall" is explicitly retained in the overall rendering of the 3:7–9 verse-set.

[6] Hens-Piazza (2017), p.77.

[7] Hens-Piazza (2017), p.40.

[8] Dobbs-Allsopp (2012), pp.102–103.

[9] Dobbs-Allsopp (2012), pp.134–137: "Excursus: The Choral Lyric".

[10] Berman (2023), pp.131, 138.

[11] Hens-Piazza (2017), p.xlvii

[12] For further discussion see Berman (2023), pp.10–11.

[13] Section headings adapted from Dobbs-Allsopp (2012), pp.109ff.

[14] In full: The movement from the sequence's opening primordial scream of "Eikhaaah!" (which is as much a token of glossolalia or pure sound—the kind of preferential ejaculation to which language is so often reduced by extreme suffering—as a semantically weighted word [NRSV's "How"]) to the articulate speech of the rest of the poetry…similarly well symbolizes these poems' reclamation of language from the wordless garble of anguished speech. Dobbs-Allsopp (2012), p.33.

[15] Dobbs-Allsopp (2012), pp.75–77

[16] Provan (2016), p.68.