Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Passion: Film and Drama

Part of the ideas here were (are) supposed to be included in a presentation I was proposing for a conference of Drama and Religion to take place in Chicago next year. Forgive me, I know I have repeated this elsewhere.

It seems we bloggers have a problem merely viewing the pain of the Crucified Lord according to the principles of realism in modern filmmaking. I would agree that a realistic depiction of the Passion of Christ depicted in film is indeed problematic. Gibson's version attempts to include the personal--the idea that he too is guilty for His suffering--by including his own hand pounding the nail into Christ's wrist. A nice touch, but not effective enough. We as audience members are still too distant. We watch, as voyeurs, a scence and time when things seem so different--the language, the custom, the costume, are all too unfamiliar to relate with the action--if indeed the purpose is piety.

The medieval York play of the Crucifixion overcomes this barrier. The barrier I speak of is the modern use of the fourth wall. Medieval drama, relatively speaking, does not employ a fourth wall in which audience members feel safe and distant from the action they are viewing. With Shakespeare and modern drama (eg. the sitcom) we finally have a defined fourth wall, a professional playhouse, the end of an era of beautiful and genius drama. (Although even with Shakespeare there are moments where the fourth wall is not fully dissolved.)

The York play was part of a cycle of plays depicting the sacred history of the world from the fall of Lucifer to the Judgement. This particular play was the responsibility of the Pinners and Painters guild (i.e. carpenters in our modern terms). These plays took place all over Europe and were a communal and civic festival of sorts. What is different and worth noting about the York Passion was its conscious use of relevant material, actors, and dialogue to an end that is ironically realistic.

In this play the soldiers complain about the hard work--of crucifying Christ! They tell Christ, as he is led to the place of death, that he will be judged for his "wikked workes," adding to the comic irony that they are the ones who are wicked. This all comes to task when ready to affix Christ to the cross they see that the holes where His hands are to nailed are bored too far apart. They must then stretch the suffering Christ with ropes (a scene that Mel borrows in his rendition) and even that they can't do well. After Christ has suffered at the hands of shoddy craftsmanship (recall He too is a carpenter), He offers a moment of grace to their fallen condition when He offers forgiveness to the soldiers, for they know not what they do--that is, they are not good at their job.

In a sense the playwright makes the connection that our mundane jobs, when done in a shoddy, non-pious manner, in effect crucify our Lord. By nature we are unable to perform our duties correctly and perfectly, and therefore we are in need of the master Craftsman to accept our "wirke"--imperfect as it is. Consider too, that we are His workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works (deeds) that we should walk in them. For a working class audience and professional carpenters as actors, the Passion of Christ is woven into our very existence as humans who are a masterpeice in the making.

The metaphor of work involves the audience in this sacred event in a way that is personal--not distant and voyeuristic. In fact, the actual suffering of Christ is interenalized--as opposed to an interpretation of teh artist (as with Gibson). When Christ is stretched on the cross, the action takes place on the ground where an audience member must lobby for position. The voyeuristic instinct is indicted here. The crowd then becomes the onlookers at the original crucifixion. (Isn't this exactly what we are doing in watching, neigh purchasing, the Mel Gibson film!?!) What takes the place of realism in the York play is affective piety--a spiritual act of internalizing, personalizing the suffering of Christ (or any biblical scene) by inserting yourself as soldier or yourself as Christ (although that is clearly problematic).

Similarly, those members of the audience who find the soldiers' ineptitude comical are indicted as well. These soldiers are hilarious no doubt. But the setting is a place where this kind of humor is inappropriate (I think Mel attempts this too--his soldiers are quite believable as depraved humans who enjoy torture, but unlike the York play they more fearful than stupid).

Thus, in heaven's eyes, our work here is serious. When we take our eyes off of the suffering of Christ (when we are out of tune with the affective practice) we are in danger of commiting a torturous crime against heaven.


Blogger mattreed said...

1) Alexander Schmemann wrote "the medieval emphasis on the cross, while not a wrong one, is certainly one-sided." But I think it becomes wrong when it is considered in isolation. Even when the Passion Play includes us and breaks the 4th wall, as it does when it is most moving (at least for me), it is meaningless unless it is part of the story that includes the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Epiphany, the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Pentecost and so on, in other words, the church year, and therefore all time.

2) While it is right to keep in mind the suffering of Christ, it might be better look foremost on the Resurrected Christ, because although our work is serious, it should also be joyful. I am reminded of the Easter sermon of St. John Chrysostom:

"O Death, where is your sting?
O Hell, where is your victory?
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown.
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.
Christ is risen, and life reigns.
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen."

5:07 PM  
Blogger mickrect said...

The obsession with the passion of Christ is solidified in the middle ages, although the mystery cycles are comprehensive in their approach--encompassing the whole of sacred history. It seems, however, that playwrights such as the so-called York Realist embraced the opportunity to show the suffering Christ as a powerful and silent man. Ultimately, it is not violence that attracts the crowd around the Passion pageant wagon, but poetics.

Not to belabor the point, but I agree that the suffering is problematic without the conquering of death. To identify oneself with the suffering Christ is ludicrous and vulgar. (Grunewald's altarpeice comes to mind where Christ is a skin-diseased carcus--thus allowing his skin-diseased audience to identify with His wounds.)

Paul is correct when he says that without the resurrection we are to be pitied among men. It seems this momentous episode was originally left out of the gospel accounts, however (I think it only appears in Mark)--which makes one wonder about whether it actually happened. In contrast/addition our present-day obsession may be with the text itself.

Sure, that may be reducing Christianity to verifiable historical evidence (a very modern thing to do--but who can deny the impulse?). But recall, that Christianity was not created by Christ, but by the early church fathers (whether they "made up" the stories is another issue altogether requiring scholarship in the area of how the J/C religion-makers operated--something I know next to nothing about).

6:55 PM  
Blogger mattreed said...

someone once said that explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog: it is only of interest to science, and the subject dies in the process.

the same might be true about Scripture. but the reductionism of the Protestant tradition seems to be more about fear than anything else (my grandmother used to say she wanted to learn ancient Greek, because what if THEY got the Bible wrong). one might wonder if a different reading of Scripture might arise when we start with love rather than fear. If I have to chose between the Early Fathers and the Contemporary Scholars, the decision is easy.

8:28 PM  

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