A Call to Face Evil in the Christian Theatre

Sam Rockwell (Judas) and John Ortiz (Jesus) in Stephen Adly Guirgis' The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Public Theater, NYC, 2005 - (c) Carol Rosegg

During a recent talk, I was asked how we can create powerful Christian art in the theatre. I was reminded of a recent conversation I had with Barbara Nicolosi, a Catholic screenwriter who founded the Act One training program. She mentioned the importance of telling parables – of telling stories that, like those of Flannery O’Connor, reveal grace in the deepest depths of human sinfulness and suffering.

I agree that these are the types of stories that we most need today. Both C.S. Lewis’ and J.R.R. Tolkien’s work takes evil seriously, from the Scouring of the Shire in The Lord of the Rings to Orual’s jealousy in Till We Have Faces. But they both also reveal the redeeming triumph of grace. The Hobbits come into their own as fighters of evil, and Orual’s selfish love for Psyche ends up becoming the means for her penance, reconciling her to her sister and the gods. O’Connor’s work, in a very different way but just as truly, shows how evil can be the vehicle for the good, and that grace can transform a seemingly hideous monstrosity into a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Christian artists are too often told that their work should be squeaky clean, untouched by the dirt of the real world. Therefore, prostitutes and people who swear like sailors are denied access to a place in Christian stories. However, prostitutes and sailors are Jesus’ preferred companions in the Gospels. And Jesus’ story was not squeaky clean. In return for being a good person, he was not blessed with a perfect family, a nice house and a yacht. In return for being a good person, he was beaten to a pulp, tied to a stick, and left to die naked in the desert – much like Matthew Shepard in The Laramie Project, a member of another untouchable caste that is often invisible in Christian literature. Yet Jesus’ decision to face that extreme evil was his victory.

Our work as Christian artists must similarly face evil head-on, so that we can find the grace at the bottom of it. Only then, I think, will non-Christians begin to take our art seriously.

As a matter of fact, non-Christians fascinated by Christianity are doing some of the most interesting theological work in the theatre. An example is Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Guirgis, an agnostic raised Catholic, wrote the play to wrestle with the question, ‘Could Judas be forgiven?’. In the play, the denizens of Purgatory demand that Judas receive a new trial. Witnesses include Pontius Pilate, Simon the Zealot, Mother Teresa, and Saint Monica, whose opening monologue is laced with profanity. Most of the characters curse. The play is written in the Harlem street-talk familiar to the playwright and the actors who premiered the play. Yet the play is an extraordinarily rich exploration of the question of evil and its redemption, and it burns with the intensity of its search for grace.

If we, as Christians, are not willing to accompany this playwright in his search for grace because his characters’ language isn’t ‘clean’ – if we insist on making others conform to middle-class decorum before we will receive them as brothers and sisters – then our evangelism is dead before it takes a step out of the church door. Similarly, if we insist on ignoring evil – or act as if suffering is merely a symptom of a lack of faith – then we have nothing to say to a world whose best argument against Christianity is the problem of evil.

Through our stories, we must not fear to wade into the world’s evil, and say, ‘Even here – especially here – the grace of Christ is present, and victorious’.

Cole Matson is a third-year PhD student in the Institute for Theology, Imagination & the Arts. He is exploring the possibility of a truly Eucharistic theatre by putting the work of Jerzy Grotowski in dialogue with John Paul II.

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Image credit: Carol Rosegg Photography. Image used by permission of photographer.

3 Comments

  • jfutral says:

    “Through our stories, we must not fear to wade into the world’s evil, and say, ‘Even here – especially here – the grace of Christ is present, and victorious’.”

    I would say not just through our stories, but also through our lives. We are so caught up in trying to live our own best lives now, we turn our backs on our brothers and sisters who do not or cannot. Is it any question that our art reflects this?

    This is a parallel conversation with the notion of beauty. We spend so much time and energy looking for (because we expect to) find “beauty” in the pretty and the clean. But when we look at scripture, God regularly finds beauty in the broken, the disregarded. and the rejected. If only we were as brave.

    Joe

    • Cole Matson says:

      Joe, love this comment. Yes, we have to live in our lives the priorities we want to express in our art.

  • Luann Jennings says:

    Thanks for this, Cole. Last night I saw Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan” on Broadway, and it reminded me of my frequent refrain that self-described “lapsed Catholics” like Guirgis and McDonagh write the most profoundly Christian plays. They know the theology, but aren’t afraid of showing sin and its consequences – and, sometimes, the grace available. The production makes a difference too. I also saw the original Labyrinth production of “Judas” and was floored by it. A few years later I saw a production that didn’t begin to get what the play was really about, and was exactly what a devout audience member would be repelled by. I’m seeing a 5-hour production of the York mystery cycle in a couple of weeks [http://nyti.ms/1jW2Iyx], and my friend I’m seeing it with said “This will either be amazing or scandalous – maybe both.” The words matter, and so does the intention of the people bringing it to life onstage (says the director….).

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