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Special Report

Between the lines, glimpses of grace

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
New York

When Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the song “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” for their 1927 musical “Show Boat,” they were playing on a sentiment many people felt about show business then, and still do today. Those people, however, are not theater people. For many in the theater and those who know and love it, the transforming power of dramatic literature makes theater-going almost a religious experience.

The ties between theater and the spiritual realm go way back. Aristotle described theater as an “essentially religious ritual” and saw the audience in the role of communicants. He thought the right balance of terror and pity would result in a collective catharsis and send the audience home feeling cleansed.

In quite another way, centuries later St. Ignatius Loyola combined the two worlds in his spiritual exercises. He made scripture come alive for his students by telling them to visualize themselves as characters in the stories, such as a stable boy in Bethlehem. And their imaginations employed every sense to enter into the experience.

It might seem a far leap from Aristotle or Ignatius Loyola to the Great White Way of 2000. But the resonance between theater and spiritual experience remains strong. “People in the theater recognize the possibility of the moment of transformation,” said Msgr. Michael C. Crimmins, pastor of St. Malachy’s/The Actors’ Chapel, the Roman Catholic ministry to the performing arts community. “There’s an appreciation of the Christian doctrine of grace, of glimpses of something more than we see on the surface of things. There are moments in the theater when people are touched and changed, and that is like the experience of worship.”

Echoing that sentiment, one artistic director, not one who practices organized religion, said, “Religion tries to help people understand humanity, which is the role of a good play.” In a theater or house of worship, he said, “You are one, for that time, a group together experiencing something.”

If the religious connection is true for theater in general over the centuries, it is especially apparent in some high profile Broadway offerings. Three contending for this year’s crop of Tony Awards -- the revivals of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Amadeus,” and “A Moon for the Misbegotten” -- along with the long-playing “Les Misérables,” are especially rich in obvious religious content and imagery.

“Jesus Christ Superstar” is a musical that is part show biz and part Good Friday reenactment. I was prepared for the entertainment side -- loud rock music, flashing lights and young dancers in skimpy costumes -- but I was surprised by how effectively Jesus’ passion and death are handled.

The show is based on the last seven days of Jesus’ life. As Christians we know the story is compelling, but songwriters Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have shaped it into an experience that attracts a wide audience. Its original production had a successful run on Broadway in the early 1970s, and an even more successful eight-year stay in London, where it holds the record as the fifth longest-running musical in West End history.

In this production, Judas, played by Tony Vincent, steals the show. Jesus (Glenn Carter) is wimpy by comparison, at least in the first act where he looks more like a spaced-out flower child than charismatic leader. But then, it’s often easier to portray a villain than a hero, especially a hero who is both true God and true man. That one’s hard enough just to contemplate.

Judas, like all of Jesus’ followers, is urban hip, with spiked peroxide hair, leather jacket and tight black jeans. As the show begins, he sings of his fear that Jesus has taken his mission too far: “You have set them all on fire./ They think they’ve found the new Messiah,/ and they’ll hurt you when they find they’re wrong./ I remember when this whole thing began./ No talk of God then, we called you a man.”

He still admires Jesus, but wants him to be quiet: “Listen Jesus do you care for your race?/ Don’t you see we must keep in our place?/ We are occupied,/ have you forgotten how put down we are?/ I am frightened by the crowd,/ for we are getting much too loud,/ and they’ll crush us if we go too far.”

But the crowd continues to surround Jesus until Caiaphas’ fear is aroused, and he sings, “... like John before him,/ this Jesus must die./ For the sake of the nation/ this Jesus must die.” He has Jesus called before him while Jesus’ followers continue to sing his praise outside. “Tell the rabble to be quiet,/ we anticipate a riot,” Caiaphas sings. “This common crowd/ is much too loud./ Tell the mob who sing your song/ that they are fools and they are wrong./ They are a curse,/ they should disperse.”

To make a familiar story short, Pilot, cowed by the crowd now calling for Jesus to be crucified, washes his hands of him. The staging turns more serious as three guards beat Jesus in a dance-like pantomime. His scourging is even more painful to watch and listen to. Pilot calls for each new lash as Jesus’ body becomes more and more bloodied, until Pilot finally stops at 39. The tormenters with their bloody hands then surround Jesus’ limp body and taunt him further.

A punk rock Judas

The tension is broken a bit when Jesus is given his cross. Judas reappears as a punk rock singer with a chorus of dancing girls to sing the title song, “Superstar”: “Every time I look at you I don’t understand,/ why you let the things you did get so out of hand.”

The mood turns serious again as Jesus is nailed to the cross, an event that takes place at the back of the stage as we watch a close-up of Jesus’ face in anguish on an overhead screen. “God forgive them,” he prays. “They don’t know what they’re doing.”

The cross is hoisted into its upright position and the crowd gathers at its foot. The silence now is powerful after all the singing and motion that preceded it. The only sound is when Jesus calls out his familiar entreaties, ending with “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” As his lifeless body is taken down from the cross, the followers leave, and only Mary remains beside her son’s corpse. The still starkness of the ending is more dramatic than anything that has gone before.

I wish Lloyd Webber and Rice had taken the show through to the resurrection, but I am moved by what they have given us. Despite all the high-priced song and dance numbers, which I enjoyed, the image that remains with me is that powerful crucifixion. Theater and religion support each other well in this production.

In “Amadeus,” jealousy also leads to an innocent man’s death. As the play opens, the aged composer Antonio Salieri is calling out to Mozart for forgiveness, a forgiveness that won’t come because Mozart is dead. But an obsessed Salieri wants to tell his story. He draws us in by dispensing with the traditional “fourth wall” that keeps actors on stage from acknowledging the audience. So we are able to journey into the mind and soul of this bitter man.

His story begins when he is 16. Feeling that “music is God’s art,” he kneels in church and makes a bargain with the Almighty. “I prayed with all my soul” for fame. In exchange, he promises to live with virtue and “honor you with much music all the days of my life.” Believing his bargain has been accepted, he tells God: “I am your servant for life.”

His desire seems on its way to fulfillment as he rises to the role of court composer in Vienna. He feels he is living up to the bargain by remaining faithful to his wife and by providing for needy musicians. But Salieri’s servanthood is conditional, and his desire for fame outweighs his love of God.

Mozart arrives at court acting like an outrageous adolescent, but composing music that strikes Salieri to the core. The full impact of the younger man’s gift dawns on Salieri while he is alone reading Mozart’s music. “It seemed I had heard the voice of God,” he says in awe and anguish, because this great gift was being given to the world through “the voice of an obscene child.”

He calls out angrily to God: “You gave me the desire to praise you and then you made me mute.” He demands to know what he has done wrong. “I worked and worked the talent you gave me.” He had asked to hear God’s voice: “Now I hear it and it says one name, Mozart.”

Wrestling with God

Salieri is the angry man wrestling with God, but he is no Job. He is too self-righteousness. “From this time we’re enemies,” he tells God, swearing, “until my last breath I shall block you on earth as far as I am able.” He sets out to destroy Mozart as a way of punishing God.

He takes a former student for a mistress and forsakes the poor. But to his surprise, God shows him no anger. Salieri flourishes; his reputation and stature at court grow while Mozart’s gifts, thanks to Salieri’s machinations, go unnoticed. “I alone was empowered to recognize them for what they were.”

Finally, after Salieri’s “10 years of vengeance,” Mozart is impoverished and dying from kidney failure and exposure to the cold. Salieri goes to him and confesses, but Mozart hides under a blanket babbling nursery rhymes. Salieri leaves unabsolved, but he now understands “the nature of God’s punishment.” He had asked for fame and he got it -- from people incapable of discerning the true gift. But even that is taken away by God’s “master stroke,” as Mozart’s music is celebrated posthumously and Salieri’s is silenced. “I survived to see myself become extinct.” He cuts his throat, but survives to become “the patron saint of mediocrities ... Mediocrities everywhere -- now and to come -- I absolve you all. Amen.”

Absolution also is at work in “A Moon for the Misbegotten.” Cherry Jones moves us beyond pity into empathy for her character, Josie Hogan, in what scholars consider the most Catholic of Eugene O’Neill’s plays because it is the only one in which one of his broken characters, Jim Tyrone, receives the absolution he is seeking. We feel how deeply Josie loves Jim and we long for her to find happiness with him. But he is too dissipated from years of drinking, and all he can hope for now is forgiveness.

He lies in Josie’s arms one night to confess the events that have been haunting him. Josie sits on a rock in front of her farmhouse and together they resemble the Pietá as Jim weeps and she comforts. He is consumed with guilt over his handling of his mother’s death. She had slipped into a coma while they were in California and, distraught at the thought of losing her, he began drinking after two years of sobriety. He believes she regained consciousness long enough to see him drunk, and this thought plunged him into despair. Shewas the one person he loved, but she died before he could be forgiven. “I knew I was lost with all hope gone,” he tells Josie. “All I could do was drink myself to death.”

Escorting her body back east on the train, he stayed drunk, locked in his sleeping car with a prostitute while his mother’s body rested in the baggage car. When the train arrived in New York he was too drunk to attend to the disposition of her body.

The weight of this memory is unbearable until Josie becomes his savior. As he cries on her breast, he receives his absolution. “I’m the one person who loves you enough to forgive you.” She assures him his mother also hears and forgives, and promises, “The sun will rise like God’s peace in the soul’s dark sadness.”

Jim sleeps on Josie’s breast and when he wakes at dawn is at peace, “like all my sins are forgiven.” He leaves, redeemed by Josie’s love, to face his pending death. When he is gone, the sun rises on Josie alone at the farmhouse door. “May you have your wish and die in your sleep soon, Jim darling,” she says to the distance. “May you rest forever in forgiveness and peace.”

In this ending O’Neill used the transforming power of theater to grant his older brother, Jamie, absolution. Jim’s behavior is based on Jamie’s after the O’Neills’ mother died. O’Neill was unable to forgive his brother, who died of alcoholism in a sanitarium, with O’Neill refusing to visit him. The play was a way for O’Neill to forgive Jamie and help ease the playwright’s own guilt over his lack of compassion.

A show that is my favorite combination of good theater and good theology is one that has been packing in audiences for more than 13 years -- “Les Misérables.” This beautiful musical presentation of Victor Hugo’s novel is so anchored in the world of faith that a professor at General Theological Seminary, the oldest Episcopal seminary, required his first-year students to see it.

“As I read the story and see the play, it is about the conflict between the law and grace,” the Rev. William A. Doubleday said. “It is the best archetypal exploration of that conflict I know. It is a perpetual human struggle. Are we bound to the law or do we hope for grace and do the best we can with the law?”

These two sides are represented by Javert, the dogmatic police inspector, and Jean Valjean who, Doubleday says, is “an example of God’s grace and love continuing to break into his life, and his sharing that grace and love with others.”

The play opens in 1815 in France as Valjean, who was found guilty of stealing a loaf of bread for his starving nephew, is released from a chain gang after 19 years. Unable to find acceptance because of his ex-convict status, he finally is taken in by the local bishop. Embittered by his years of hardship, Valjean steals the bishop’s silver goblets. When the police see him with the silver and try to jail him, the bishop intervenes. He says the goblets were a gift, and hands two silver candlesticks to Valjean, telling him in front of the police that in his haste to leave he had forgotten the rest of his gift. When the bishop and Valjean are alone, the bishop tells Valjean he has “bought your soul for God.” Valjean considers this part of a divine plan and changes his life.

New life threatened

Throughout the rest of the play, Valjean saves many lives, and those saved refer to him as “a saint” and “a savior.” He promises to provide for Cosette, the little daughter of a dying woman who tells him, “Good monsieur, you come from God in heaven” and he pledges, “I will raise her to the Light.” At that point, eight years after stealing the silver, in a new location and with a new name, he has risen to the position of mayor and factory owner, but his ability to care for Cosette is threatened by Javert, who wants to return him to the chain gang for breaking parole. For Javert, carrying out the law is a religious calling, and he judges Valjean, “a fugitive running,/ fallen from grace.” He kneels to pray: “Lord let me find him,/ that I may see him,/ safe behind bars.” He won’t give up: “I am the law and the law is not mocked.” But Valjean is the man of grace: “My soul belongs to God I know,/ I made that bargain long ago./ He gave me hope when hope was gone./ He gave me strength to journey on.”

The years roll by and Javert, Valjean and Cosette come together as the streets of Paris are rocked by revolution. Here Valjean sings one of my favorite songs as a prayer for Marius, a student revolutionary in love with Cosette. “God on high,/ hear my prayer./ In my need,/ you have always been there.” When Marius is wounded, the now-elderly Valjean carries him to safety through the sewers of Paris, a bearded savior carrying his cross.

In the final scene, Cosette and Marius leave their wedding reception to attend the dying Valjean who is writing “my last confession.” “Forgive me all my trespasses and take me to your glory,” he sings. The spirits of Cosette’s mother and a young revolutionary appear to escort Valjean. He casts aside his mortal clothes and rises in a snowy white gown as the women sing: “Take my hand,/ and lead me to salvation.” Valjean stands between them as they sing: “... to love another person is to see the face of God.” They are joined by peasants and those who died for their cause as all sing: “They will live again in freedom in the coming of the Lord./ They will walk behind the plowshare;/ they will put away the sword. ... It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes.”

This is the only play on Broadway that ends by evoking Isaiah’s vision of the future. Not all theater incorporates such obvious religious themes as these four plays, but live theater is working its transformative power all along The Great White Way. For actors, the sense of shared community keeps them returning to the stage. F. Murray Abraham, who won an Oscar for his film role as Salieri in “Amadeus,” returns because, he says, no one has to tell him if he is good or not, he knows it from the audience. And he recognizes the transforming power. He has said: “The Quakers believe God resides in each person. Even before I discovered Quakerism, I was always looking for that sense of humanity in the characters I played and trying to draw on that thing in myself that would reach everyone.” He said the faith and fervor he feels as an actor are close to a religion. “It is a calling for me. I’m probably as close to God when I’m performing as when I pray.”

I’ve spent years interviewing stage actors and find most of them are spiritual. Anyone who expects to have a theater career has to have faith -- in a higher power, themselves or something beyond what can be seen because even the best show closes and actors again find themselves out of work, again holding herself/himself out for approval. An actor’s life means regularly facing rejection. As Jesuit Fr. Joseph A. Kelly, Actors’ Chapel parochial vicar, has said: “Many are called, few are called back and only one will get the part.”

Congregations for actors

Because actors don’t find acceptance easily, many turn to the performing arts congregations in the theater district -- The Actors’ Chapel, The Actors’ Temple, St. Luke’s Lutheran or St. Clement’s Episcopal Church. Of these, St. Clement’s really takes the combining of theater and religion seriously. In the 1960s it was gutted and an Off-Broadway theater built to co-exist with the parish; a portable altar, pulpit and celebrant’s chair are put on stage every Sunday and Eucharist is celebrated on the set of whatever play is running as the drama of liturgy takes over for the drama of Off-Broadway. “There’s no enduring drama that does not have a theological message,” the rector, the Rev. Barbara C. Crafton, says.

As for theological messages from the theater, organized religions might want to look to the stage for its example of inclusiveness. Nontraditional, or color-blind, casting has been growing in New York for at least a decade, although until recently mostly Off- and Off-Off Broadway. In this way, a show is cast based on talent, not skin color, so a black actor can star in plays like “Henry VIII,” a role black actors traditionally hadn’t played in interracial casts because we all know Henry wasn’t black. For this reason black actors tell me they find more openness in theater than in films, and much more than in soaps, where black characters are outside the main circle of principal characters. They point with hope to the current Broadway revival of “Kiss Me, Kate,” in which Brian Stokes Mitchell, a black actor, plays the lead opposite Marin Mazzie, a white actress. In the multiracial cast of “Superstar,” a black actor plays Peter.

The wicked stage, then, can provide the path to spiritual experience, if not holiness, with a fair share of spiritual yearning and ritual woven into the writing and performing. Perhaps in some new incarnation, the song might be “Life Upon the Sacred Stage.”

Retta Blaney, an arts and religion writer in New York, is the founder of Broadway Blessing, an interfaith service held every September to bring the theater community together to ask God’s blessing on the new season.

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000