On Theater and Religion; or, Disappointing Mother
The Summer Play Festival of 2005 was a watershed career moment for me. I landed my first agent, my first professional production, and got to share my production week with such remarkably talented and accomplished playwrights it makes me blush to recall their names and think I was included among them for one hot spell in July.
But none of that is what I remember most clearly about the experience. What is etched is my mind, in spite of the opportunities gained, was the critical response to the play. No, not from the Ish or Big Ben. After the lights went down and the applause ended, I turned towards my opening night date: her face was stone cold and disapproving. I didn’t need to ask my mother what she thought about the play.1
I remember walking down Ninth Avenue in the rain to one of those thoroughly mediocre Italian restaurants on Ninth Avenue, crying, not because Mom had said anything harsh or cruel, but because the rain had not erased the stamp of disapproval above her brow. After the soggy linguine and semi-stale bread, I summoned the courage to ask her what bothered her about the play, neither of us pretending otherwise. “I didn’t like how it portrayed Christianity,” she said.
Part of me can chalk it up to the cost of being a writer. If that’s the extent to which I offend my mother, well then, at least I still get invited home for Christmas (something which would certainly be rescinded if I attempted to dramatize her, God help me). But here’s the thing: Christianity is not just the religion of my mother; it’s also the religion I currently practice and hold dear. I belong to a circle of Christian friends and family members who hold an array of theological positions—from gay Episcopal priests to natural family-planning Catholics—and I have to tell you that they are all, whatever their theology, supremely thoughtful and caring people trying to figure out how to know God and to love their neighbors as themselves. The Christians in my plays, on the other hand, are all, without fail, hypocrites, homophobes, drunks, liars, ignoramuses, adulterers, and worse.
My brother-in-law, who is, like me, a Christian and who, unlike me, has a PhD from Harvard put it this way: “Catherine, I think you’re a fine writer but why do the Christians in your plays always have to be such yokels?” It’s a good question. Whether religious or not, we all belong to tribes of one sort or the other—Christian, Jew, Muslim, Gay, Feminist, African American, Asian American, Latino, New Englander, Midwesterner, Southerner, Southern Latino Gay Feminist—and by definition belonging to a tribe means being held accountable by that tribe, whether we like it or not. When Lisa Cholodenko’s latest film, The Kids are Alright, was brought to task by her community for portraying a gay woman having an affair with a man, I remember fiercely debating the issue with my friends, arguing that the task of the artist is not to create role models but to explore the full range of human experience—in that case, human sexuality. I’m sure I called it “the artistic imperative,” or something similarly pretentious.
When I take a deep breath, however, and think about my mom, I get the other point of view, I do. It would be great to see gay women portrayed as, you know, gay, rather than harboring secret heterosexual fantasies. I’d also like to see an African American film that isn’t about incest and abuse win major awards. And yes, it’d be nice to see more often a representative of Christendom portrayed as an agent of love and justice, rather than a hypocritical homophobe. Just please don’t ask me to write it. I don’t entirely know why I’m more attracted to the sinners than the saints. For a while I thought it was about dramatic meat; sinners have a lot more internal and external conflict. But upon further reflection, I think that might be a lie I tell myself. Take the story of our recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, who brought civil war and tyranny in Liberia to its knees by organizing a peace movement of Christian and Muslim women focused on prayer, non-violent protest, and a boycott inspired by Lysistrata. Her story has a hell of a lot more drama than my little plays with ambiguous endings, and yet, the idea of writing a play based on her story, or any story of justice clearly triumphing over oppression, doesn’t do much to inspire me creatively. Indeed, the prospect of dramatizing goodness generally holds little appeal.
The problem is: as my mother’s daughter, as a progressive Christian, as a strong believer in social justice, global consciousness, not to mention basic human decency, I really think it should. For one thing, the whole idea fills me with acres of insecurity. The dangers of making such a story too sentimental, too predictable, or God forbid, too pat, are legion. In this post-modern age, how can one get away with dramatizing brazen bravery or selfless valor without setting the whole thing in a fantastical world full of boy wizards or hobbits? The American theater seems particularly inhospitable to such ventures. I can’t remember the last time I saw a new play, outside of docudramas, in which a basically good protagonist chose a good fight to fight and won it, although it certainly happens in the movies and television with varying degrees of success. The television show Friday Night Lights comes to mind, a series that managed a weekly dose of poignancy and triumph remarkably saccharine-free (Clear Eyes, Full Heart, anyone?).
..the idea of writing a play based on her story, or any story of justice clearly triumphing over oppression, doesn’t do much to inspire me creatively. Indeed, the prospect of dramatizing goodness generally holds little appeal.
Perhaps the challenge of the endeavor alone should tempt me to give the thing a whirl, but there’s something else holding me back, and it’s the issue of aesthetic taste. It’s no small thing, I’m afraid. As much as I enjoyed Friday Night Lights, the first time I saw Jerusalem, I left the theater shaking. I went back the next day to figure out what it was that had sent me shaking. (The third time, I went purely for Mark Rylance—can you blame me?) Jerusalem may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for me, the play encapsulated a nearly perfect aesthetic experience. It has a clear literary lineage reaching back to the great English poets and Shakespeare, yet the characters are coarse and contemporary. The act of storytelling itself, the power and shiftiness of myth, constitutes much of the play’s action. A clear line of mysticism shoots through the play, which ends on a note of Dionysian ritual that would make Euripides proud. But mainly, it is the extraordinary marriage of character and actor, Johnny “Rooster” Byron embodied by Mark Rylance, teller of tall tales, drug dealer, dare devil, prince of misrule, and mystic, that brings me to my knees. Johnny Byron is about as far away from a Nobel Peace prize winner as one can get, yet I can’t get enough of him. In real life, I’m pretty sure I would be one of the members of the estate signing the petition to get rid of the drug dealing squatter in the woods, but in art, I want nothing more than to be one of the kids in the woods following Mark Rylance’s mad piper.
The experience of watching Jerusalem confirmed something in me I’ve suspected for some time. In life, I may be a progressive Christian, but when it comes to the theater, I’m a complete pagan. In life, I want to align myself with the peacemakers. I want to educate myself about the injustices in the world and address them in whatever ways I can. But when I go to the theater, I want something more than an ennobling education. I want to be knocked on the side of my head with the mysteries of the universe; I want to explore the wild and the wooly terrains of myself that I keep a lid on in polite society; I want to fuck strangers and fear God and poke my eyes out with a needle. This is a really hard concept to explain to my mother.