Conscientious readers of CHRISTIANITY TODAY (and is there any other kind?) may recall my articles of several years back on the Paris theater (issues of July 17, 1970, and January 15, 1971). These essays were predicated on the conviction that it is a mark not of spirituality but of unspirituality to “throw all secular theatrical activities into outer darkness.” Now—encouraged negatively by the memory of the delightfully unprintable letters I received after those articles, and positively by C. T.’s new arts feature, “The Refiner’s Fire”—I am ready to go at it again.
But what is an inveterate francophile doing in London? Admittedly, I share the strongest characteristic common to my Scots ancestors and my adopted French countrymen: suspicion of the English. I generally use Heathrow Airport as a necessary evil in the flight from Paris to Edinburgh. However, my tune has had to change in light of the ethereal quality of the current London theater season. Is there anywhere else in the world where one could see on stage in a single week Alec Guinness, Paul Scofield, Kenneth More, Anthony Newley, Lauren Bacall—and, to counter the racial imbalance, the greatest of contemporary Scottish folksingers, Kenneth McKellar?
As in all great theater (think of the drama of the Greek golden age and the medieval Everyman plays), theology abounded. Sometimes it was indirect, sometimes almost painfully direct; always it was there. The theater by its very nature tries to say something about the universal man, and you can’t touch life’s mainsprings without touching its relationship to heaven.
The most explicitly theological production was an often irreverent but thought-provoking musical, The Good Old Bad Old Days!, written by and starring the irrepressible Anthony Newley. (Americans will recall him as Rex Harrison’s sidekick in the movie version of Dr. Doolittle.) The story line is really cribbed from Genesis 18 and the Book of Job: God (“Gramps”) and Beelzebub (“Bubba”—Newley) observe the human drama, and the Lord asks himself if the time has not come to destroy the race for its repeated acts of selfishness.
The succession of tableaux offers a Cook’s tour through history from ancient times to our century, which begins in a lavatory, features such events as the World Wars (“a cast of millions—all dying”), and terminates with signs proclaiming KIDNAP, RAPE, FAMINE, DRUGS, POLLUTION. During all the scene changes, the stable element is the leaning tower of Pisa—representing man’s bent world and perhaps also suggesting Babel. In spite of the cop-out ending (Gramps and Bubba go off together for a holiday!), the production has some deeply moving and significant moments; the historical high point is the Puritans’ endeavor to find a new Eden, and few will forget their song: “Aren’t you glad you’re alive this glorious Thanksgiving Day?… Thanks for a world that’s always new.”
Kenneth More assured the success of Signs of the Times, whose theme is astrology. This light-hearted comedy centers on a cynical newspaper man who has the misfortune to be chosen as the London Times’ first astrological columnist. As it turns out, he really does have a prophetic gift, though it depends not upon the stars but upon a latent psychic power in him. The play underscores the reality of the super-sensible, while warning against simplistic interpretations of it. There are some classic lines, such as: “Religion is what you believe in but don’t act on; superstition you don’t believe in but do act on.”
Far and away the most important of current London plays is Christopher Hampton’s Savages, starring Paul Scofield (who brought Thomas More to life in A Man For All Seasons). The plot is deceptively simple: a slightly pompous, jaded English diplomat is captured and finally killed by Brazilian revolutionaries. His experiences—woven from actual events of current Brazilian history—show how little difference there is between Western capitalist exploitation of the natives and Marxist, revolutionary exploitation. In neither case do the “civilized” protagonists really care for the native: their interest is his absorption into their world-view and value system, even if it destroys him. French structural anthropologist Lévi-Strauss, to whom the playwright is indebted, explicates the lesson in his classic L’Origine des manières de table, when he notes that Sartre’s adage, “hell is other people,” is but a modern heresy (we love to attribute the problems of human nature to “the others”—the Communists, the capitalists, etc.), whereas the myths of certain primitive peoples remind us that “hell is ourselves.”
A particularly effective scene in Savages is the diplomat’s visit to a missionary compound, where the sincere, activistic American missionary (not at all stereotyped as in Michener) nonetheless hopelessly confuses the task of preaching the Gospel with the need to give the natives “a sense of private ownership.” How terrible when this confusion occurs, for then the natives’ true needs—to which their myths point—are lost in the imposition of a non-revelational lifestyle. Cried the Brazilian aborigine: “There is no joy in the field of the dead”; may our missionary church present only Christ, not the American way of life, as resurrection!
Habeas Corpus, by Alan Bennett, though it stars Alec Guinness, does not plumb such archetypal depths. Guinness plays an aging physician who, like all those around him, is preoccupied by sexual fantasies, and who imagines that somehow his problems would evaporate and life take on meaning if he could only have new and different physical experiences. “He is a doctor; what more does he want?” “Not more; different.” But this is a foolish illusion: “Having you I didn’t want you.” The playgoer is reminded that “if you get your heart’s desire, death will claim it all” anyway; and the Anglican clergyman in the play, instead of offering the corpus Christi as the true solution, is himself embroiled in a life of fantasy: “We could be at the forefront of Anglican sexuality: married and free!”
Bennett’s play, of the several current London productions, most reminded me of the one Broadway import I saw: Applause, with Lauren Bacall. Again the theme was aging and again the error was the confusion of fantasy with reality (this time, fantasy = show business itself). How common it is for us to sacrifice ourselves or our nation on the altar of a false god. “What are you living for? Applause!”
A good counteractive was Kenneth McKellar at the Palladium. I’m not ashamed to admit that he brought tears to my eyes when he sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic: “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea / With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.” That transfiguration is the only corrective to illusion, the only way to pass from life’s stage to eternal habitations when the curtain comes down.
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