Monday, May 03, 2010

When hell's no fable

I'm not sure if I ever told you the story of how "Religion & Theater" happened. In April 2005 my friend C, a passionate advocate of community theater as well as documentary theater, directed a performance of "The Exonerated" (a play about men DNA tests had saved from unjust death sentences). It was the same semester I was planning my course "Cultures of the Religious Right," amazed, disturbed and in no small measure impressed by the evangelical sub- or countercultures I'd discovered. C and I got to talking about how powerful it is, as a form of community building and consciousness raising, to perform a play together, especially one which takes you to places you don't know, and I started to imagine how powerful it would be if our students performed some religious right play - perhaps a one-act, together with a secular one-act with the same cast? C thought the idea exciting, but first we had to find a good conservative Christian play. Neither of us could think of one, so we started asking around. I looked at the websites of Christian colleges to see what plays they were putting on - nothing of note. C asked her colleagues at NYU (where she had long taught), who concluded: "they have religion, we have theater." This seemed a bit too simple - hence our course. But we're still looking for our religious play.
A few candidates have come to New York recently. Paul Claudel's "The Satin Slipper" was on in January. The brief run of The Actors Company's production of T. S. Eliot's "The Cocktail Party" has been extended several times; I saw it a few weeks ago. And I just got back from Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean's adaptation of C. S. Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters," recently returned after successful runs in Chicago and DC. I'm not sure I've found my play yet, but these have been interesting. (As have a few secular plays which tried to take on religion, Geoffrey Naufft's "Next Fall" and of course Sarah Ruhl's "Passion Play.")

Taking the most recent first, "Screwtape Letters" is a romp... but it has little dramatic tension (we're sure the devils won't win, and the soul for which they are vying isn't very interesting), and the pleasures it affords are ultimately not very interesting either: a mix of Schadenfreude and, I hate to say it, one of the sins it discusses, "spiritual pride":

an unobtrusive little vice which ... consists in a quite untroubled assumption that the outsiders who do not share this belief are really too stupid and ridiculous. ... He must be made to feel (he'd better not put it into words) "how different we Christians are"; and by "we Christians" he must really, but unknowingly, mean "my set"; and by "my set" he must mean not "The people who, in their charity and humility, have accepted me", but "The people with whom I associate by right". (This is text from the book, not all included in the play.)

Not every play has to be a tragedy, filling the viewer with terror and pity, but this play was too easy. No suspense, no moral complexity - even as Screwtape seems urbane and winsome, we know he isn't really. But then, he's not human anyway. One could imagine a play where the object of the tempters' efforts appears - even just in the distance, a pantomime - and seems to us by turns not worth saving and worth saving, saved and lost, but as long as the only figures on stage are a devil and his helper... (Screwtape Letters, to be fair, wasn't written as a play.) I kept seeing Rick Warren's beatific smirk: "We know how the story ends: We win." Can one make good drama, indeed any drama out of this?

Eliot's drawing room farce is about people (at least they seem to be people), and has its share of twists and surprises. Some characters seem by turns worth saving and not worth saving, saved and lost. Grand questions about human destiny are raised. But by the end, all the merely human characters are saved through the machinations of the rest, a shadowy bunch of guardians who might be angels. I found the story oppressive and infantilizing: I don't want to be led around by paternalistic guardians, and don't think wanting that (recognizing you need that) a desirable trait. (Spiritual pride of another kind, I suppose!) In any case, it saps the energy from the drama once you know what's going on. You don't know how people will end up saved, and there's some interest in the very surprising ways in which they are saved, but by the end you know they will be. Perhaps Eliot hoped we'd be interesting in the particularities that make one person's salvation martyrdom and another's bourgeois marriage... at least in this production, though, the surprising saving of the bourgeois was merely surprising, and Celia's transcendence of the ordinary merely odd. A different production might have made Celia's story more compelling and disturbing, I suppose...

Somewhat to my surprise, I think Claudel's insane Spanish golden age epic - shortened in the adaptation we saw from a nine-hour original - is the most dramatically compelling of the lot. There are guiding figures aplenty, from the moon to St. James (and a whole stable of other saints left out of the adaptation) but the human characters seize our attention. Their lives are full of drama - lots of passion, suffering and separation, the central lovers never able to consummate their love - and the plot full of outrageous twists. We find ourselves conflicted about the characters - saved or not saved, worth saving or not worth saving or, more broadly, hero or villain? - and so engaged in a different way than in "Cocktail Party" or "Screwtape." The individual characters and their passions are part of a magnificent(ly hokey and imperialist) providence, but they don't lose the groundedness in individual fates which seizes the viewer's attention and care. The situations, passions and questions which drive great drama are here, not relativized by the know-it-all perspective of God or his friends. Providence peeks through from time to time, but it's not offered to the viewer to survey. Indeed the strangeness of the plot corresponds to a God more uncanny than reassuring... and we're with the human characters, working out their fate, achieving extraordinary things, nature completed by grace. (It might be interesting to compare "The Tidings brought to Mary" with "The Cocktail Party.") Perhaps this is why Claudel alone succeeds in doing religion and theater?

So, if we get to do "Religion & Theater" again, include Claudel? Or this whole problematic?


Anonymous said...

Just a note - The Cocktail Party is a modernization of Aeschylus' Oreisteia, and the guardians are the Furies...charged to mediate between the human and the divine.

mark said...

Isn't it Euripides' Alcestis?