Apr 30, 2013

Suffering Made Flesh

photo by Paul Kolnik
This is something of a genre by now, the not-quite-believer's Passion play: from The Last Temptation of Christ to Jesus of Montreal to Corpus Christi to The Gospel According to the Other Mary to, now, The Testament of Mary, the new solo-show staging for Broadway by actress Fiona Shaw and her longtime creative partner, director Deborah Warner, of Colm Tóibín's novella about the mother of Jesus (which just minutes ago received a Tony nomination for best play, though not, pointedly, for performance or direction; update: This snub has apparently led to a premature closing announcement of this coming Sunday, May 5).

It's a genre to which I'm instinctively drawn as both an everyday Christian believer myself and as a cultural consumer. I think it's because, except perhaps in the realm of music, I have a mistrust of purportedly pious works of art, of hagiographies, of tidy narratives, of attempts to rationalize or simplify the complexity and mystery of faith. I hate seeing religious material turned into reassuring pabulum with all the edges smoothed off, let alone turned into costume-drama kitsch; and I may flatter myself, but I think I've always been left cold by the kind of religious authority that has simply stood on authority, and seemed to be hiding something from me, Wizard of Oz-like, and asked me please not to mind the man behind the curtain. It has been my great good fortune to find teachers and guides throughout my life who have taken quite the opposite tack, who have shown themselves open to the world, to doubt, to questioning, even to what others might call blasphemy, and have modeled for me an approach that says, in effect, God is bigger than all that; if God exists, what harm could questioning do?

Another way to say this is that one reason I think I'm drawn to these not-quite-believers' Gospels is that I'm a fan of what artists do, and what artists do at their best is not hagiography. What's the point of grappling with this material in a work of art if you're not hitting at it, wrestling with it, doing it the profound honor of taking it seriously as dramatic literature about lived experience rather than as mere received wisdom? This is not to say that artists in this realm can do no wrong, for they themselves are prone to their own rationalizations and blind spots; if the Passion and its meaning are subjects too large and terrible to be approached lightly, neither can they be treated neutrally, and these artists, in their various ways, bring their own aversions and axes-to-grind to the enterprise, the most obvious one being their simple artist's need to change or challenge the offiicial story, which is where they always run into trouble with a certain kind of believer. For myself, I always find it fascinating to watch any serious artist grapple with this material; it may bear many things, even outright hostility, but it does not withstand indifference.

These were the impulses I recognized behind Scorsese's earnest, slightly woolly film of Nicholas Kazantzakis' Last Temptation, and behind Peter Sellars' and John Adams' prickly, sensuous, shattering Gospel According to the Other Mary. I discerned them again in the new Shaw/Warner/Tóibín concoction about Mary, which gives this iconic figure a voice and presence she doesn't have in the canonical Gospels, and which tries to imagine her searing grief after her son's death, and her scathing attitude about his followers, who seem to be propagating crazy, even creepy things about him. I'll have to confess something up front here: As a Protestant, even a partly Jesuit-educated one, Mary is a blind spot for me. I don't have an iota of special devotion or veneration for her; I taught myself the Hail Mary prayer in high school, more out of curiosity than anything (and as a side benefit I finally got the pun behind that underwear brand name), but I have never been taught, let alone believed, that praying to her, or to any saint, was a worthwhile practice. So there's a whole level on which The Testament of Mary, both its deconstructive and its reconstructive project (which Jesse Green's review astutely notes near the end), doesn't resonate with me as it surely would with anyone raised Catholic.

I bring few received ideas about Mary, in other words, except the usual puzzlement about the virgin birth (really, was that necessary?) and her seemingly distant relationship with her prodigy son, who seemed to have a tendency to wander away and/or rebuke her publicly. You could hardly ask for a more visceral portrait of confused, consumptive grief than Shaw's very contemporary, very contrary Mary; and Testament's most moving moments, as has been generally noted, involve her recounting of the Crucifixion and her anguished surrender to it. Less effective overall, for me, were the busy, artsy staging, the actorly business (gutting a fish, pulling on though never lighting hand-rolled cigarettes, nibbling on something from a bag), the schmacting that had Shaw upturning tables and twitching and screaming, like a parody of an Oscar reel. I felt in these gestures not showing-off, as some critics have alleged, so much as the artists' sincere frustration at the inadequacy of language and theater to portray the cosmic grief and suffering at hand; but this was a frustration I shared with them, through which I could not glimpse or feel said grief and suffering. (I would very much like to see this script in a less fussy staging, a la David Hare's of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, another portrait of maternal loss.)

As for Tóibín's interpretive project, and he has one, this ran along two tracks: humanization and critique. I was generally on board with the first agenda, in which he strives to give this iconic mother's grief full human due, and in so doing has her voicing anger, denial, and resignation about her dead son and his hangers-on. Much of this, even her ultimate "blasphemy" (weeping that if Jesus' death was needed to "save the world," it wasn't worth it), is entirely in the realm of imaginative empathy. I'm not sure, in fact, that I'd want to meet a Mary who told me coolly that, you see, well, her son had to die. (And more seriously, the question of why Jesus had to die is one that no believer should find themselves explaining away too easily; it should always be hard.)

Nor was I given much pause by Mary's skepticism about Jesus' followers, whom she calls "misfits"; this, in my experience, represents a fairly orthodox reading of the apostles' lack of education, low social status, and general comic bumbling (apologies to Terry Teachout). Where I started to question the show's take was in its notion that said "misfits" nevertheless had already developed a clear, even crusading sense of the doctrines of immaculate conception, substitutional atonement, etc., that the church would only later reify from the whirlwind of events around Jesus' ministry and death. This Mary recalls hearing her son call himself unambiguously the son of God, and of meeting starry-eyed disciples who sound like Jonestown cultists, who believe in advance of Jesus' death that it will effect some kind of redemption. To me, these sound suspiciously like Tóibín's proxy arguments with the priests and councils who came later, long after Mary; and her characterization of their doctrines, since they're not onstage to defend themselves, have a tin-eared, hectoring sound.

That said, in imagining and inhabiting Mary's grief, and by posing it as an explicit challenge to any palliative dogma that would explain it away, these artists have done a service, in their fitfully effective way, to any thinking, feeling believer, as well as to any who can encounter this intense work on its own odd terms (it's certainly not for everyone, and I have some sympathy for the view, almost self-parodied here, that it's all actorly fol-de-rol). After all, if we can't look suffering in the eye without theologizing it, even the very suffering that is at the center of our theology, what good is our theology, after all? It's here that I think I may be missing out on some of what I understand to be the Catholic experience of the saints and Mary, who serve to personify faith practice in ways no Protestant "relationship with Christ" seems to do. In its insistence on the primacy of personal experience, on feeling the wounds, The Testament of Mary, for all its heterodoxies, feels very close to Mary indeed.

UPDATE: The Catholic weekly America, for whom I occasionally review, has a fascinating review of their own; Angela Alaimo O'Donnell's objection to it surprised (and somewhat chastened) me.

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