Religion remains a surprisingly popular subject for plays. It’s partly because there’s already a core of theatricality there, in the rituals, the dressing-up and the little shibboleths of piety. In one way or another, religion involves performing. And religion plays the role of Hogwarts in Harry Potter — an enclosed world, a game with rules. We know how a priest is meant to behave, so we can more quickly engage with a story about his or her struggles. Also, of course, big issues of moral principle and human frailty are close to the surface.
But does theatre treat this subject with respect? Or does it tend to sneer at religion, to reinforce a largely secular audience’s prejudices? In our culture, mockery is pretty likely to outweigh respect: witness all the second-rate stand-ups who unite the crowd with some religion-knocking. So maybe religion is a victim of its dramaticism: it’s a favoured subject that is likely to receive a bit of a bashing.
My musings were sparked by a play called Hand to God: it was a surprise hit on Broadway and now it’s at London’s Vaudeville Theatre. It’s set in a little Texan church at which there’s a ‘puppet ministry’: in the first scene a woman and some teenagers are making sock puppets, with which to instruct and delight the congregation. Things get out of hand, so to speak, when one of the teens, the woman’s son, begins to express his psychological issues through his puppet. He is goaded by his puppet for being a mummy’s boy. It’s his bad angel, his knitted Nietzsche, telling him to be strong, to defy his mother, to emulate his sexually confident friend. It takes over, possesses him, in scenes that are mainly farcical — and then, with a grating gear-change, suddenly disturbing.
I was probably expecting too much of the play. It does not delve deep into religious psychology. Rather, it milks its setting for some rather cheap laughs, including a clichéd puppet sex scene (sex, even between puppets, is where our culture is most timidly conformist). And it’s no big surprise that the play is a bit sneery about religion: laughing at redneck faith is a safe crowd-tickler in New York.
The playwright, Robert Askins, was involved in a puppet ministry himself as a teenager, in a small town near Houston, Texas (they’re a common feature of Bible- belt churches, apparently). On a Skype call, I ask what he now thinks of his boyhood church, and church in general. ‘Church was a place where we found meaning, and community, and song and theatre. So because it gave so much, even as it took, I’m still very conflicted about it.’ He lost his faith while at a Baptist college, and went through an angry atheist phase. Was he still an angry atheist when he wrote this play? ‘Um, I think the treatment of the pastor is nice.’ (That’s putting it a bit strong: he is a wet prat.) ‘The play is saying maybe someday we won’t need these things any more, we won’t need the old symbols, but at the moment it seems we still do.’
These days, this attitude passes for ‘balanced’: religion is a strange neurotic relic that we can’t easily shake off, much as we’d like to. If a vicar is presented as a non-
paedophile, then the playwright feels he has been pretty generous. For a decade or two, religion-mocking musicals have become part of the cultural landscape. First came Jerry Springer: The Opera, which provoked protests from Christians. Then The Book of Mormon turned that sort of sassy irreverence into slick Broadway success. On the other hand, there are also recent plays that might not exactly be pro-religion, but that do engage with religion with real verve, and show faith to be a serious thing.
I ask Patrick Marmion, theatre reviewer, playwright and a Roman Catholic, what he thinks. There is a general climate of sneering, he says, but also some lively exceptions to the rule. He points to The Christians, a play by Lucas Hnath that showed at the Gate last year. ‘It was about the sort of people we are normally invited to sneer at — ordinary worshippers at a Bible-belt church, and it asked us to take them seriously, it showed them wrestling with big theological issues.’ And yet it’s difficult to generalise, he goes on, because some plays are critical of religion, but actually more nuanced than you’d think. ‘I think some writers who’re technically atheist end up paying homage of a sort to religion when they get stuck in to the material. For example, the comedian Stewart Lee did a one-man show about Jesus and Judas a few years ago: it was poking fun at religion on one level, but on another level it was respectful and thoughtful.’
Lindsay Meader is a chaplain to the West End theatres. She strongly feels that the glass is half full, that even plays that criticise religion tend to be nuanced. ‘I’ve hardly ever seen a play that was simply having a go at religion, saying it’s all rubbish. Instead, most are debunking some aspect of religion that deserves to be debunked. In fact, I didn’t even find The Book of Mormon too sneery, I thought it contained a valid warning against over-literal interpretations of scripture.’ Many plays, she says, bring out the human side of religion. She cites Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s play in which a priest and nun (Meryl Streep in the film version) clash over a child-abuse allegation, and The Testament of Mary (Fiona Shaw’s recent dramatisation of Colm Tóibín’s novella), and Temple, last year’s exploration, by Steve Waters, of the Occupy protest at St Paul’s cathedral, which she found ‘deeply moving’ (Simon Russell Beale was an uncannily convincing Bishop of London, she adds). These plays show religion from a human perspective, she says, and it comes off pretty well. And some plays are about religious hypocrisy —she cites A Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes, Marcus Gardley’s rewrite of Molière’s Tartuffe, at the Tricycle last year. But it’s pretty clear that it’s a venal abuse of religion that’s being attacked here, she says, not religion itself.
I take her point: beneath the surface chatter of mocking and sneering, dramatists often honour religion as a site of earnest human striving. But to my mind it’s a very rare play that actually tries to convey what religious faith is like. That’s a different matter from showing how religious believers tackle moral issues, or how they balance principle and pragmatism. Maybe Shaw’s Saint Joan is a model, for it’s her faith that drives things, that makes her larger than life. And John Osborne’s Luther was an attempt in the same direction. And there are plenty of examples of this in Shakespeare: faithy types like Cordelia, Hamlet, Edgar, Isabella. Part of the reason that Shakespeare feels close to the texture of faith is the soliloquies. For internal dialogue is very basic to Christian faith, in my understanding of it. There is a tension between the part of one that gladly believes it all, and one’s inner Dawkins, which finds it incredible. That’s why I found Hand to God a disappointment: it has the perfect opportunity to explore this idea of faith as an internal argument, but prefers to farce around. Which means that we are still waiting for a serious religious play about a sock puppet.
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Hand to God is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 11 June.
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