Thursday, December 31, 2009

The play's the thing

Carol Newsom's interpretation of the Book of Job as a "contest of moral imaginations" is a revelation, and shows a way of taking the book as a whole seriously without ignoring what historical-critical work tells us about its different tonalities. Where many other contemporary interpreters see the book as a composite of disparate parts of different and uneven authorship (which gives them permission to ignore those they think disruptive or banal), Newsom shows that the various parts work together "polyphonically" in a way an author might well have intended. By the time she has analyzed each of the book's several parts - the prose story, the wisdom dialogue, the hymn to wisdom, Job's final speeches, Elihu's intervention, and God's speeches from the whirlwind - on its own, and then shown how they work together, it's like moving from having heard the Book of Job by the hearing of the ear to finally seeing it. Indeed, she caps it all off with a brilliant visualizable dramatization:

Onto a semidarkened stage the actors walk. They are dressed in abstract costumes that evoke a vaguely medieval quality, as though they had arrived to play the drama of Everyman. The narrator takes his place to stage left, while Job occupies the center. As the narrator begins the story of Job—“A man there was in the land of Uz . . .”—Job and his children begin to mime the parts they are given. As they move into their tableaux, the scene of the council in heaven unfolds its role to stage right. Thus, the players enact the prose tale of Job. As they complete the drama of the prose tale’s chapters 1-2, Job’s three friends gather about him, sitting in silence.

Suddenly a light picks up an echoing group of four actors, situated toward the front left of the stage. They are clearly in the same postures of Job and his three friends, but they are costumed very differently, in the rich robes one might associate with a nineteenth-century Shakespearean performance. Job begins to speak, in accents and diction sharply different from the Job character of the morality play: “Damn the day I was born. . . .” Over the course of two hours, the friends and Job debate the issues of the wisdom dialogue: the experience of turmoil, the plausibility of the moral order of the world, the nature of God, and the possibility of justice. As their passionate and vigorous debate begins to falter, the audience is aware that all the time they have been speaking, the characters of the morality play have been continuing their drama. And yet, though the audience can see that the actors in the background are engaging one another, the microphones do not pick up what they have been saying.

At this same moment, at the end of the speeches of the wisdom dialogue, the characters enacting it freeze in their stance, with Job hostilely confronting his fellows. After several seconds of silence, a disembodied voice comes over the sound system: “There is a mine for silver. . . . But where can wisdom be found?” As this voice finishes its haunting poetic speech, the character of Job from the group of actors playing the wisdom dialogue gets up from that tableau vivant and moves across to the center of the stage. No longer talking to the actors who play the friends, he speaks directly to the audience with passionate sincerity: “O that I were as in months gone by. . . .”

As Job concludes his extraordinary oath to an audience that reacts with profound but not entirely unembarrassed silence, that silence is broken by a member of the audience who stands up and announces himself: Elihu Barachel. To the astonishment of the rest of the audience, this person refuses to sit down until he has finished a long and passionate, if not entirely comprehensible, response. The audience wonders—Was he scripted? Or was this a genuine bit of audience reaction? In either case, his evocation of a divine theophany provides the transition to the play’s climactic moment—God’s speech from the whirlwind.

Depending on the theater’s technical capacity, this is either an extraordinary tour de force or a bit of cheesy theatrics. But soon the audience is caught up in the verbal extravagance of the words themselves. The incredible, powerful speech seems to fill the entire theater, pausing only once, when Job speaks softly to refuse a reply. The divine voice resumes again with a crescendo of extraordinary poetry, concluding with the words describing Leviathan as “king over all proud beasts.” Job’s words of response come quietly, echoing the divine speech, weaving those words into his own. But just as Job says his final words, his voice becomes so quiet that the audience, leaning in to catch every word, realizes that it cannot quite hear what he has said.

Their intensity of focus is disrupted as the microphones, which have muted the dialogue of the actors in the morality play, now increase the volume so that everyone hears the narrator again. “After the Lord had spoken these words to Job . . .” And so, with the end of the narrator’s final description of Job’s restoration, old age, and death, the play of Job comes to an end. The lights come up and the audience departs, moving off to restaurants and wine bars, where they will debate what they have experienced.

In its
ironic way, this description captures the experience of the Book of Job with amazing insight.

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