Godspell, a musical based on the life and teachings of Jesus, is playing to sold-out houses at the Old Globe. The production is terrific; the play itself is abominable.
Christianity has been having a hard time since about 1400. Nevertheless, it is a hardy religion, with tremendous emotional appeal, and every time it seems to be totally knocked out, it springs up from the mat with renewed pugnacity. It has survived the paganism of the Renaissance; it has survived the rationalist skepticism of the Enlightenment; it has survived nineteenth century materialism, scientism, Marxism, Darwinism and the higher criticism; it has survived the Russian Revolution, Jean-Paul Sartre, and molecular biology. The question is whether it can survive Godspell. Godspell is more than embarrassing; it is degrading. If the Devil is still operating in our world, it is hard to believe that he did not collaborate with John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz in the creation of this monstrosity.
The play begins with a brazen assertion of anti-intellectualism. Characters representing Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Nietzsche and other philosophers and theologians (including, oddly enough, Buckminster Fuller) appear on stage and spout meaningless fragments from their works, all the while twitching and jerking like mechanical dolls. Thus do Tebelak and Schwartz confute reason. Enough of all these futile attempts to use the human brain — here comes the real truth, in the person of John the Baptist, proclaiming the way of the Lord. He is surrounded by a bunch of actors and actresses playing little kids and dressed up as clowns and tramps; Jesus himself comes on the scene, a zany in a Superman outfit; and the preaching of the Gospel message is under way.
That the message is preached to children (or are they retarded grown-ups?) reveals the basic approach of Godspell. Luther and St. Thomas at least addressed themselves to adults, those capable of using their wits to understand lofty spiritual meanings. Godspell reduces Christianity to a series of infantile admonitions and superstitions, taught to a bunch of kindergarten inmates, who play-act, romp, make faces, and lisp like Baby Snooks, as they learn their Christian ABCs. When the play strains to make its own philosophical statements, on a quasi-adult level, things are even worse. Jesus and one of his clownish pals do a soft-shoe number called “All For the Best,” which conveys the idea that it does not matter how much we or anybody else may suffer; however awful things in this world may be, they are part of God’s wise plan, and all is for the best. There is admittedly a strong element of this stoical panglossery in certain kinds of Christian thought — but has it ever been expressed quite as callously as this? “Somebody’s got to be oppressed! It’s all for the best!”
It was at that moment that I began to suspect the authors’ intentions. Were they really trying to make Christian doctrine accessible to the poor in spirit who constitute their audiences? Or is the entire enterprise designed to throw Christianity into disrepute? What, for example, are we to make of the unutterable bathos of Godspell’s crucifixion scene? The Jesus-clown, tied to the playground fence, singing in a weak Mickey Mouse voice, “O God! I’m bleeding!” The chorus intoning “Long live God!” Brethren and sistren, seek no more to discover who the Whore of Babylon is, that foul enemy of the Christian faith in the Book of Revelation! She is Godspell, and the seven-headed beast she rides upon is the money the authors of this exploitative fraud are stuffing their pockets with!
On the other hand, it is a characteristic of the theater that it can triumph over the nastiest and silliest material through sheer art. The art of Godspell is consummately theatrical, and the present production mines it for every last ounce of dramatic effectiveness. I do not mean high drama, with its deep emotions; the representation of the crucifixion, as I have said, is unworthy even to kiss the shoes of its subject, and the resurrection — which is the whole point of Christianity, and the greatest dramatic experience one can imagine — is left out entirely. On the level of pure theatrical fun, however, Godspell is an undeniable charmer. The parable of the prodigal son, for example, is narrated by one set of actors, in French and Chinese accents, and simultaneously acted out in the broadest farcical style by another set. The look on the father’s face, when he discovers that the narrator has suddenly and unaccountably converted him into Charlie Chan, makes up (artistically if not morally) for half of Godspell’s failings. The use of mime is superlatively inventive throughout, and the youthful players carry it through with marvelous skill and verve. Director Jack Tygett has made as delightful silk purse out of a disgusting sow’s ear — a theatrical miracle equivalent to the raising of Lazarus. Even the music is listenable, and there is one really lovely song, “Day By Day.” Whether the artistry of Godspell is enough to make you overlook its antisemitic overtones, its slurs on Roman Catholicism, its anti-intellectualism, and its infantile degradation of Gospel Christianity, depends on how adept you are at divorcing art from morality.