The Temptation: A Gospel Play for Lent’s First Sunday

Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, Maesta Altarpiece (c. 1307)

Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, Maesta Altarpiece (c. 1307)

There are many ways to tell and experience our sacred stories. Sometimes those ancient texts cry out for the theatrical midrash of dramatized performance. This liturgical play was first performed as the gospel “reading” on the First Sunday of Lent, 1997, in front of the altar at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church on Whidbey Island, Washington.

The allusions to other biblical stories (Exodus, Peter’s rebuke, Gethsemane) in this account reflects the gospel’s own intertextuality: framing Jesus’ wilderness story as a redo of his ancestors’ flawed pilgrimage. This time around, Jesus would get it right, trusting God where his desert predecessors had doubted and rebelled.

Everyone in the congregation was given two stones to strike together as “Satan’s Theme” before each temptation. The choir functioned as the offstage chorus.

 

Fade in environmental AUDIO of desert sounds. JESUS enters, attentive to what is around him in this desert place. At center stage, facing out, he takes a deep breath and assumes a posture of prayer. .

CHORUS (offstage)

You are my beloved child. This day have I begotten you.

The people click stones together as SATAN enters to stand near Jesus.
Satan signals for silence.

SATAN (pointing to a cairn of stones):

If you really are God’s beloved child, command these stones to turn into bread.

Jesus contemplates the stones as a CRUCIFER enters, bearing a cross made out of two crossed sticks. An apple is suspended from each end of the crossarm. ADAM and EVE enter. They approach the fruit curiously but hesitate to pluck it.

SATAN

Go ahead. Eat. It won’t kill you. Just one bite, and you’ll be like God.
You’ll know everything.

They each take an apple and bite into it. The taste is bitter. They look at their apples in disgust, then drop them and look around anxiously, as if suddenly aware of being in a more dangerous world. They back away from the “tree,” then turn and run away. The crucifer exits and THREE ISRAELITES enter.

FIRST ISRAELITE

After God rescued us from slavery in Egypt, we wandered for so many years in the wilderness. The desert was hard and bitter, and despite everything God had done for us, we began to complain.

SECOND ISRAELITE

It was crazy to come out here. No food, no water, nothing but stones and thorns.
What were we thinking?

THIRD ISRAELITE

Milk and honey, man. Freedom. The Promised Land . . .  What a joke.
We should have stayed in Egypt. I can’t stop thinking about those fleshpots.

CHORUS (as Israelites exit)

They tested God in their hearts, demanding food for their craving.
They railed against God and said,
“Can God make a feast even in this wilderness?
“Yes, God struck rock and water gushed out,
but can God provide bread and meat to feed us?”
Hearing this, God’s anger was kindled,
for the people had no faith;
they did not trust God’s power to save.  [Psalm 78:18-22]

SATAN

If you are the Christ, no use pretending to be like everybody else.
Don’t be too proud to use your power. People expect it. They need it.
They don’t want a savior who’s weak like them, believe me.
Come on! Let’s see what you’re made of. Turn these stones into bread.

JESUS

Bread is a gift from God — and the work of many hands.
A person who needs nothing from anyone––ends up all alone.
I accept the lesson that hunger teaches.

SATAN

Well, if you’re going to save the world, you’ve got to keep your strength up.

JESUS

As long as anyone is hungry, I will be hungry.

SATAN (offering Jesus a stone)

Take. Eat.

JESUS (taking the stone)

 Human beings do not live by bread alone…
 (He puts the stone on the altar)
.… but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

The people click stones together. Satan produces a ladder, and gets Jesus to climb it.
Satan then signals for silence.

SATAN

If you are the Christ, throw yourself down from this pinnacle of the Temple.
For it is written, “God will command the angels to protect you;
they will bear you up in their arms, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”

JESUS

I will live without protection.
Where I’m going, angels can’t help.

PETER enters from the back of the congregation, making his way quickly to the ladder.

PETER

Let me through! Let me through!…
(reaching the foot of the ladder)
Rabbi! No! God forbid anything should happen to you.
You’ve got to get out of here. Go somewhere safe.

JESUS (looking down at Peter)

Get behind me, Satan! You’re blocking my way!
You don’t see the way God sees.

Peter continues to look up at Jesus for a few moments, then he drops his head and exits slowly, disconsolate, as Satan addresses Jesus.

SATAN

You know you’re headed for a fall, Jesus.
Aren’t you curious whether God’s going to catch you?
Come on! A little test flight — just to make sure. Jump…

Jesus lets go of the ladder, spreading arms wide as if about to fly — or be crucified.

CONGREGATION (led by Satan)

Jump!…Jump!…Jump!…. (continuing ad lib)

Jesus, as if awakened from a trance, drops his arms suddenly to clutch the ladder before he falls into space. The people stop shouting. Jesus descends carefully to the ground, and stands face to face with Satan.

JESUS

The Scriptures say, “Do not test God. Trust God.”

Jesus turns away from Satan to pray. The people click stones until Satan signals for silence. The ISRAELITES enter, all looking at their smartphones.

 FIRST ISRAELITE

Now when Moses did not come down from the mountain of God, the Israelites began to feel abandoned. So they melted down all their gold, and made themselves a new god, a god who would never leave them, a god who would always take care of them.

 SATAN

Come on, Jesus. I’m not your enemy. I know what people want. I know what you want.
I can give you anything you desire. Look.

Satan directs Jesus’ attention to a large screen displaying a montage of television commercials promising endless happiness and pleasure. The Israelites kneel before the images. Jesus glances at the screen, then turns his back to it. When the montage concludes, the Israelites stand up, pull out smartphones and exit, transfixed by their devices.  

SATAN

Jesus, how long are you going to stick with that two-bit operation of your father’s? Long hours, low pay, miserable working conditions, declining market share, insufficient capital. Am I right or am I right? It’s a dead end, pal. That’s not for you. You’re good, and you know it. You come and work for me, and I’ll guarantee you maximum exposure – worldwide markets, talk show, website, golden parachute… You can write your own ticket. Think of the good you could do with that kind of power. It’ll be fantastic, believe me.

Satan opens a bottle of champagne, fills a flute and offers it to Jesus.

Just say yes, and we’ll drink to your success.

An ANGEL enters holding a communion chalice. Jesus looks at the two different drinks before him, then turns to Satan and pushes aside his extended arm holding the flute.

JESUS

No. I serve God––and no one else!”

SATAN

Satan looks at Jesus a moment, then shrugs and drinks the champagne himself.

 We’ll meet again.

He exits. Jesus approaches the angel.

JESUS

Abba, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by.
Yet not my will, but yours be done.

The angel offers the chalice. Jesus accepts it, drinks deeply, then places it on the altar, kneeling before it. Then the angel gently brings Jesus to his feet and, with a comforting arm around his shoulders, leads him out. Desert sounds slowly fade out.

 

 

Related Posts

Via Negativa: A Lenten Worship Installation

The Desert and the Flood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is the American Dream a Con Game?

L.A. Times TV Guide cover, June 2, 1968, two days before Robert Kennedy's assassination in Los Angeles (Jim Friedrich personal archive)

L.A. Times TV Guide cover, June 2, 1968, two days before Robert Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles (Jim Friedrich personal archive)

Oftener it falls, that this winged man, who will carry me into the heaven, whirls me into the clouds, then leaps and frisks about with me from cloud to cloud, still affirming that he is bound heavenward and I, being myself a novice, am slow in perceiving that he does not know the way into the heavens, and is merely bent that I should admire his skill to rise …

— Herman Melville, The Confidence Man

In Melville’s final novel, a ‘mysterious stranger’ boards a Mississippi riverboat on April Fools Day, initiating a series of scams upon the gullible passengers. Appearing in various guises, the stranger collects money for distant charities, solicits investments in get-rich-quick schemes, and sells miracle cures, all the while encouraging his marks to have confidence in the dream of better lives and a better world. He is the “winged man” who promises to carry them “heavenward.”

However, the marks soon learn that the hopes and dreams on offer are a total fraud. Melville describes the inevitable disillusion: “I tumble down again soon into my old nooks, and lead the life of exaggerations as before, and have lost the faith in the possibility of any guide who can lead me thither where I would be.”[i]

That riverboat still haunts the American imagination. We fall in love with dreams and schemes of better futures, better selves, a “life of exaggerations,” and invest our confidence in those who promise to deliver. This may work out for some, but more often there is the sting of disappointment, a sense of betrayal. As Greil Marcus has written, “America is a trap: its promises and dreams … are too much to live up to and too much to escape.”[ii]

Unattainable promises. Impossible dreams. The lonely crowd grows sullen, resentful, angry, like Nathanael West’s California dreamers in Day of the Locust (1939). Lured by the prospect of a New Eden out West, over the rainbow, they slave and save until they can afford to move to “the land of sunshine and oranges.”

Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges . . . Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time . . . They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment . . . They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.[iii]

W. H. Auden described West’s novel as a parable “about a Kingdom of Hell whose ruler is not so much a Father of Lies as a Father of Wishes.”[iv] Either way, it’s a figure we all recognize: the Confidence Man, duping the suckers with his promise to make America great again. “Believe me. Believe me. It’s going to be terrific.”

And what happens when the dreamers tumble back to earth? Most of us muddle on as best we can, but in Stephen Sondheim’s darkly comic musical, Assassins[v], nine embittered and unbalanced Americans find a single target for their anger: the President of the United States. In a carnival of lost souls, a smirking barker (the Confidence Man in disguise!) doles out handguns like cotton candy to a new crop of eager marks. If you keep your goal in sight,” he sings, “you can climb to any height. Everybody’s got the right to their dreams.”

No job? Cupboard bare?
one room, no one there?
Hey, pal, don’t despair-
You wanna shoot a president?
c’mon and shoot a president…

John Wilkes Booth, Leon Czolgosz, Charles Guiteau, Squeaky Fromme, Sara Jane Moore, John Hinckley and a couple more broken dreamers line up to claim a gun as their means of grace and hope of glory.

And all you have to do
Is move your little finger,
Move your little finger and
You can change the world.

The climax takes us to Dallas, where the gang of murderous misfits pressures Lee Harvey Oswald to join their ranks and assuage their shared malady: “a desperate desire to reconcile intolerable feelings of impotence with an inflamed and malignant sense of entitlement.”[vi]

In the finale, all nine assassins come to the front of the stage, singing out with all the confident uplift we expect from our musicals:

Everybody’s got the right to some sunshine!
Not the sun, but maybe one of its beams.
Rich man, poor man, black or white,
Everybody gets a bite,
Everybody’s got the right
to their dreams……

The smiling cast stretches out the last word, “dreams,” for a full twelve seconds as they raise their guns high. The moment the music ends, they all fire at once, a deafening volley, and the stage goes black.

When Assassins premiered in 1990, it was not well received. It seemed too dark and crazy at the time. But when I saw a rare revival this month at Seattle’s ACT Theater, it somehow made perfect sense, so dark and crazy has America become in these latter days.

We all clapped and cheered, of course. It was a fabulous production. The cast was great. It wasn’t all grim. There was plenty of humor. And Sondheim’s songs! But I had tears in my eyes as well. As Jefferson said, “I tremble for my country…”

As the applause went on, I thought of Kierkegaard’s story of a theater which had caught fire backstage as the show was about to begin. The manager grabbed the first actor he found to step through the curtain and warn the audience to evacuate. That actor, alas, was dressed as a clown. “The theater is burning!” he cried. “You must leave immediately!” The audience roared with laughter at the clown’s performance. Such pathos! Such irony! The more he shouted and pleaded, the more they laughed, until they were all consumed by the flames.

 

 

 

[i] Herman Melville, The Confidence Man: His Masquerade in Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Uncollected Prose, Billy Budd, Sailor (New York: Library of America, 1984), 452

[ii] Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘N’ Roll Music (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975), 22

[iii] Nathanael West, Day of the Locust (from my personal transcription in a 1968 commonplace journal, original page unknown)

[iv] Wikipedia reference: Barnard, Rita. “‘When You Wish Upon a Star’: Fantasy, Experience, and Mass Culture in Nathanael West” American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 2 (June 1994), pgs. 325-51

[v] 1990, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman

[vi] John Weidman interview, quoted in Misha Berson’s Seattle Times review, March 9, 2016

The holy grail of cinema: Jacques Rivette’s “Out 1”

Emilie/Pauline (Bulle Ogier) in Jacques Rivette's Out 1 (1971)

Emilie/Pauline (Bulle Ogier) in Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971)

We are all rehearsing parts of which we are as yet unaware (our roles). We slip into characters which we do not master (our attitudes and postures). We serve a conspiracy of which we are completely oblivious (our masks).

— Gilles Deleuze[i]

 

Last weekend I watched a nearly 13-hour film on the big screen at the Seattle Film Center. Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971) has been called the “holy grail of cinema” — made infinitely precious by the rarity of its appearance. Only in recent months have art-house screenings and a home video release[ii] made it accessible to wider veneration.

Critic B. Kite has written about this fabled film as an object of longing: “Out 1 grew in darkness, secret and seemingly made of secrets, and due to this unavailability … it joined that pantheon of broken and vanished objects [e.g., von Stroheim’s Greed or Brian Wilson’s Smile] … in which, even against our better judgment, we place some unspecified hope of a definitive experience, maybe a bit too good for the world, as indicated by the fact that they live in a half-light, next door to oblivion.”[iii]

As soon as I heard about the Seattle screening, I bought my ticket. A thirteen-hour movie? Can’t miss that! I have a penchant for immersive experiences, long-form retreats from everyday reality into alternative worlds. Among the most memorable were a 72-hour science-fiction film marathon, an all-night Epiphany liturgy in a circus tent, Peter Brook’s 11-hour staging of the Mahabharata, Masaki Koybayashi’s 10-hour film epic, The Human Condition, the 500-mile Camino de Santiago, and Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video, The Clock.

But unlike any of these, Out 1 is not so clearly shaped by a sense of plot or structure. It does not set out from a premise or question toward a place of arrival or resolution. Instead, it begins and ends in media res, adrift in a sea of occurrences and characters whose connections or meanings remain perpetually elusive.

There was no original script. Rivette, one of the most experimental of the French New Wave filmmakers, sought the same freedom as the Abstract Expressionist painters, whose process was largely free from the constraints of predetermined outcomes. His actors, provided with various situations, simply improvised their lines throughout the six weeks of shooting. Since much of the action takes place in the streets and cafes of Paris, the actors at times enlisted unsuspecting Parisians in their scenes.

The first hours feel like a documentary as two separate experimental theater companies engage in warm-up exercises, acting games and psychodrama designed to break down barriers, loosen inhibitions, and spark creativity. One exercise, bordering on hysteria, is shown in a single 45-minute shot as the hand-held camera moves restlessly among writhing, clamorous bodies. In a 13-hour film, you can do this sort of thing, and still have plenty of time left over to attend to the story.

However, if this film does have a story, it consists only of hints and speculations whose reality is always in doubt. Documentary and fiction, imagination and reality, the written and the improvised, are intertwined, inseparable, often indistinguishable.

Halfway through the film, a troubled loner named Colin, played by New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud, begins to piece together fragments of Balzac and Lewis Carroll as if they are clues to a great conspiracy involving a secret society called The Thirteen, formed to subvert the social order with a radical utopian vision. But it may be that The Thirteen is no more than a long-dormant idea some of the other characters once dreamed but never enacted. When told that the object of his obsessive quest may be a hoax, Colin replies, “But that would mean that the magical, mysterious world I’ve been living in is nothing but illusion. And that,” he insists, “is impossible!”

To live in a world without underlying connections or purposeful ends is a bleak, even terrifying prospect, as Thomas Pynchon notes in Gravity’s Rainbow:

If there is something comforting-religious, if you want — about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.[iv]

Is there a middle way between the fictions of paranoia and the despair of anti-paranoia? Colin’s quest proves a dead end: there is nothing to find. He stops searching for answers and resumes his original persona as a (pretended) deaf-mute passing out envelopes at sidewalk cafes. Inside the envelopes are “messages of destiny” — pages ripped at random from paperback novels.

The two theater groups, meanwhile, are pursuing their own path toward meaning as they each grapple with a tragedy from Aeschylus. One of these, Prometheus Bound, provides a text perfectly descriptive of the obstacles to coherence in our personal and social narratives:

…they had eyes, but sight was meaningless;
Heard sounds but could not listen; all their length of life
They passed like shapes in dreams, confused and purposeless.

 In stealing fire from Zeus, Prometheus became humanity’s great benefactor, the bringer of light, technology and civilization. He would also be credited with securing us meaning, purpose, and future. But he paid the highest price for this gift. Chained to a rock in a ritual of perpetual sacrifice, he would be devoured and regenerated daily. His sacrificial suffering on behalf of humanity has drawn comparisons with Christ. And while Noli me tangere (“Touch me not”), may have been no more than Rivette’s joke about his film being something that few would ever see, its direct quote of the risen Savior (John 20:17) may be an intended link between Prometheus and Christ.

At the end of the film, Thomas (Michael Lonsdale), who assumes the role of Prometheus in his troupe’s improvisations on Aeschylus, lies forsaken on a beach, arms outspread in a crucifixion pose. After a time, he gets up and walks along the shore toward the rising sun. But this seems only a parody of resurrection. We sense no renewal, no passage to a place of transformation and new life. All the heaven-storming, psyche-delving exertions of the Aeschylus project have led precisely nowhere. Thomas has not been transposed into a higher key. He remains as “confused and purposeless” as ever.

But as we take our leave of him, after twelve hours and forty-one minutes, Thomas is still moving, not yet done, like the protagonist in Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

As the intrepid audience of eighteen men and four women exited the theater sometime after midnight, we were awarded with a button for our labors. I wore it proudly on the 2 a.m. ferry home.

New Wave button

The film ended as it began: in media res. It had not delivered us to a resting place of resolution or catharsis, but it would continue to haunt me in the days that followed. As the many online essays about the film attest, recovering from the experience may take some time. It’s not just that cinema’s magic carpet whisked me off to the Paris of 1970 for thirteen hours, or that the actors were infinitely watchable, or that Rivette’s audacious play with form was deeply fascinating.

What moved me most about Out 1 was its immense sympathy for the human condition as something more to be lived than solved. Comedy and tragedy, laughter and tears, are equally at home in Rivette’s film, as the actors rehearse “the parts of which we are as yet unaware” and “slip into characters which we do not master.”

 

Related post: Jacques Rivette’s “Around a Small Mountain”

 

 

 

 

[i] Gilles Deleuze, Cahiers du Cinema, no. 416, February 1989. Reprinted in Two Regimes of Madness (MIT Press, 2006): p. 355-8, and available online at http://www.jacques-rivette.com

[ii] Available from Carlotta Films

[iii] B. Kite, “Jacques Rivette and the Other Place,” Cinema Scope, no. 30 (Spring 2007), p. 12. The article, along with many other essays about the film, may be found at http://www.jacques-rivette.com

[iv] Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 434

We are the singers of life, not of death

A Choir of Angels (detail), Simon Marmion, 1459

A Choir of Angels (detail), Simon Marmion, 1459

“The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.”

– Marilynne Robinson[i]

Gonna rise up, burning black holes in dark memories,
Gonna rise up, turning mistakes into gold.

– Eddie Vedder[ii]

One of my favorite stories by the naturalist Loren Eiseley recalls a moment of awakening. He was napping in a forest glade when a sudden commotion of birds roused him from sleep. They were circling a raven which clutched their small nestling in its beak. It was not only the nestling’s parents crying in protest. Birds of half a dozen other species also began to join in. “No one dared attack the raven. But they cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the unbereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries.” The raven sat unperturbed on its perch, a perfect symbol of pitiless mortality – “the bird of death,” Eiseley called it.

It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death … For in the midst of protest, [the birds] forgot the violence. There, in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.[iii]

On Sunday night I experienced a similar miracle of transcendent exultation in a new musical at the Seattle Repertory Theater, Come From Away. A musical about 9/11 might sound like a dubious idea, but it succeeds brilliantly in turning the darkness into a song of unconquerable life and resilient spirit.

Like the birds in the glade, Come From Away shifts its focus away from the familiar 9/11 narrative of horror and death to tell a powerful counter-story in which the bonds of community and kindness prove stronger than the forces that divide and destroy. Like the utopian “no-places” of Renaissance romance – say the forest of Arden or Prospero’s island – the small town of Gander in New-Found-Land is on “the edge of the world,” a liminal space where both individuals and social groups, free from conventional and habitual constraints, can explore alternative ways of being and being-together.

An island town of 9000 people, Gander had once been a key refueling station for transatlantic flights, and its remote airport is still relied on for emergency situations. When all North American airspace was closed on 9/11, 38 planes were rerouted there, bringing nearly 7000 people who needed to be housed and fed for six days. The logistical challenges were enormous, but the emotional ones were even greater – so many people from different cultures, stranded far from home in those surreal days of uncertainty, shock and anxiety. Their planes had found a place to land, but what about their hearts?

Over those six days, remarkable bonds formed among both Newfoundlanders and passengers. It was an experience of love and goodness which none of them would ever forget. Ten years later, many of the “plane people” returned to Gander for an anniversary reunion to re-collect that extraordinary experiment in community. Two Canadian playwrights, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, went there as well, spending a month listening to thousands of stories. In four-hour interviews with hundreds of people, Sankoff and Hein compiled a remarkable record of the human spirit.

The play’s title is a Newfoundland colloquialism for “immigrant.” In a time when many are bashing immigrants as “them,” such a powerful reminder that we have all “come from away” feels like a well-timed gift of grace. As the Bible puts it, we are all strangers and pilgrims on this earth[iv], and the essential human project is the overcoming of fear and division to make connections and create community.

Sankoff and Hein were fascinated to learn that Newfoundland is where all the continents crashed together eons ago. “So, geologically,” they said, “there are pieces of Africa, Europe and America all right there. It’s this wonderful metaphor for the world coming together.”[v] The theologians say that we are made in the image of a God whose essence is relationality, and that human nature is most fully realized in communion. What happened in Gander was a test of that thesis.

The stories collected in 2011 were gradually consolidated into a coherent musical drama, with 12 actors representing nearly a hundred characters. There are no flawless heroes, exempt from the fears, frailties and foolishness common to all of us. There are no villains either. They are just people making their way through an unknown land without a map, exhibiting an innate desire to do good to one another. Both recognizable and sympathetic, these characters stood in for all of us, and what we might become.

And how brilliant to make it a musical. The driving Celtic rock score by a nine-piece onstage band was irresistible, and the songs made you want to shout and dance, even as tears streamed down your face. Beautifully crafted by Sankoff and Hein, the infectious music made us all believe in our common vocation as the singers of life against all odds.

In her book on the musical genre, Jane Feuer observes that “musicals are unparalleled in presenting a vision of human liberation … Part of the reason some of us love musicals so passionately is that they give us a glimpse of what it would be like to be free.” But she cautions that the genre can also fall into the trap of being about nothing more than its own energy. “In its endless reflexivity the musical can offer only itself, only entertainment, as its picture of utopia.” In such a case, the musical remains self-enclosed fantasy, untranslatable into daily reality.[vi]

But Come From Away, grounded in remembered stories of real goodness, offers something more than a temporary escape into fantasy. It proposes the richness of human community as an authentic prospect, however imperfectly realized in actual practice. The merging of Christian, Jewish and Muslim prayers into a single song was but one of many scenes in which the characters discovered that their best selves were grounded in the interrelatedness of mutual belonging.

And to the extent that this play manifested an ideal by which our failures to love one another might be measured and found wanting, it was not unlike liturgy. Neither theater nor liturgy are “real” life, but they can still exert a transformative power. Through symbol and metaphor, song and story, they can suggest a hypothetical alternative to our tired old stories of decline and fall, luring us toward a higher vision of human becoming. When we rose to our feet at play’s end for a prolonged ovation, we were not just thanking the company for a good time. We were, at least for the moment, subscribing to its vision. Whatever it was they showed us, we wanted to be part of it. As Marilynne Robinson puts it, human community is “a work of the imagination”[vii] – a life-giving story we tell as we strive to make it real, in ourselves and in our world.

When the house lights come up, we all go our separate ways, and the vision weakens in the glare of ordinary time. The same thing happens after a liturgy. Yet something of the dream remains. The intuition of a better way of being lodges deep within us, and over time, if properly nourished, it may produce real outcomes.

 

 

Related posts

 

Remember

No Place like Home

After Paris and Beirut, what kind of story shall we tell?

 

 

[i] Marilynne Robinson, “Imagination and Community,” in When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 33

[ii] Eddie Vedder, “Rise”, from the film, Into the Wild (2007)

[iii] Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey (New York: Random House, 1957), 174-5

[iv] I Peter 2:11

[v] Interview with Shirley Fishman, Come From Away program notes (Seattle: Encore Arts Programs, Seattle Repertory Theater, Nov. 2015), 15

[vi] Jane Feuer, The Hollywood Musical (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982), 84

[vii] Robinson, 29

Simple gifts

Shakers dance

Who will bow and bend like a willow
Who will turn and twist and reel
In the gale of simple freedom …

– Shaker spiritual

John Ciardi said that the poet is known by the valor of his refusals. So too the saint. But the austerity of self-limitation is not what we might have expected from the Wooster Group, the edgy New York City troupe long known for its Dionysian blends of experimental theater and multimedia technologies. Their latest production, however, not only reincarnates the music of the Shakers, it does so with a minimalist restraint worthy of that nearly extinct American sect.

Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation presents all 20 songs from side A of a 1976 LP recorded at the dwindling Shaker community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. After the liner notes for each song are read aloud, four women in plain 19th century dress sing along with the actual spinning record as it is transmitted to them through wireless receivers. The voice of Suzzy Roche is especially haunting, lean and lonesome and saturated with pastness like a faded tintype. While we listen to these contemporary reproductions of long departed voices, we sometimes hear the faint traces of the original recorded sound leaking into the room from the women’s earpieces. As the New York Times has written: “The aural effect is subtle and eerie, suggesting a kind of phantasmal possession of the present by the past or, if you prefer, the eternal.”[i]

Sitting quietly, passive and still, replicating out loud what they are hearing in their ear, the singers seem to be channeling something not of their own making, a transcendent voice entering the present world by first passing through their own souls and bodies. It feels like the spiritual ventriloquism of biblical prophecy. What shall I sing? Sing this. How fitting for a repertoire which the Shakers often attributed to the gifts of unseen spirits or divine inspiration.

The contrast of the singers’ personal inexpressiveness with such passionate, ecstatic and sometimes eschatological song texts (“with leaping and with dancing / we’ll hail the jubilee”) only strengthens the sense of otherness. What they sing does not come from them, but through them. It is not a spontaneous construct whipped up by emotional display. Such unassertive transparency achieves a strange oracular force. We hear a message from beyond.

Even when the singers rise from their chairs to approximate the original Shaker dances, it is not an exaltation of the self, but a yielding to the higher rhythms of divine choreography. As they reel, turn and twist to “shake out all the starch and stiffening,” they do not express. They surrender.

When I saw this compelling performance the other night in Los Angeles’ Redcat Theater, I was transported – whether to the past, or to the eternal, who can say? But I came away touched by a larger world than my ordinary domain. Voices distant in time had spoken to me. And is this not analogous to the eucharistic liturgy? We listen to ancient voices as if they were here and now, and speak their words from our own lips. Transparent presiders at the altar reproduce actions first performed in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. If we manage to keep our ego out of the way in the liturgy, the eternal Word, like that 1976 Shaker recording, may be heard and received in the fresh particularity of the now.

Some of the Wooster Group might take issue with my theological interpretation. Frances McDormand, the ensemble’s best-known actress, has resisted the religious dimensions of the Shaker tradition, preferring to stress the communal qualities of their musical environment. “It’s not religiously based,” she said in an interview. “It’s more poetic. There are parables to it, but it’s not about Jesus so it’s a little bit easier to take.”[ii]

Such indifference to Christian theology and practice is the common currency of secular modernity, the default position posing a perpetual challenge to those who would speak of faith. Many people think of Jesus and Christianity as something over and done, at least for them.

And yet, here is a cutting edge theater troupe performing religious songs without irony or ridicule, in a creative simulacrum of the otherness of the music’s reputedly transcendent source. While I won’t presume to baptize the Wooster Group, or attribute overt belief where it is explicitly denied, I still wonder whether there might yet be something larger at work in the world than any of us are able either to understand or admit. Whatever the Wooster Group actually thinks about what they are doing, and whatever ideas I might have about it, the “simple gifts” of love and delight go on being given and being received. Whether the mechanism of that exchange can be adequately described or named is perhaps the least important part of the whole thing. Experience trumps the language we put to it. In the end, you don’t need to possess the perfect map before you can dwell in “the valley of love and delight.” You’re already there. Its song is already whispering in your ear.

[i] Ben Brantley, The New York Times, May 29, 2014

[ii] James Kim interview with Frances McDormand, KPPC radio, Jan. 21, 2015