On blasphemous operas

A column in the Guardian prompted me to think, yet again, about the intriguing phenomenon that is Jerry Springer: The Opera.  This is a show that I feel rather strongly about, and given that I am an evangelical Christian, you might think that you can see where my thoughts are likely to be headed.  You’d probably be wrong.

You see, the title of this post is rather misleading, as I don’t believe JSTO to be either blasphemous or an opera.  The opera bit is a judgement call, and doesn’t really bother me either way, but I think of it more as a musical, or simply a work of musical theatre in the broadest sense.  It’s the blasphemous part that gets me worked up.  The show is rude, yes.  Crude, yes.  Provocative, yes.  Subversive, possibly.  Offensive, possibly.  Blasphemous, no.  Not if you have both a) seen it, and b) have an understanding of how theatre works.

If this ludicrously controversial show has passed you by, then it is, in brief, a musical interpretation of the abomination that is the Jerry Springer Show.  Bizarre guests get interviewed by our titular hero, then he gets shot and has a dying vision of a supernatural version of his show featuring the Devil, God, Mary, Jesus, Adam and Eve.  When staged by the wonderful National Theatre, it was an award-winning, successful, uncontroversial piece of theatre until Auntie BBC decided to screen it, and the Christian extremists got their knickers in a twist.  Particularly a group (well, a man) known as Christian Voice (there is a website, but I refuse to link to it) that organised many people into a campaign of letter-writing and eventually death-threat-making directed at the Beeb.  Started off OK, though rather silly, and ended up well beyond the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, Christian or otherwise.  The show has since gone on tour, pursued by the protesters.  Who, it should be said, have generally not seen the show and are wonderfully misinformed about it.

Anyway, the complaints.  One major area of complaint is the amount of swearing, which is considerable.  Not, however, as high as the detractors claim.  To get their inflated total number of swear words, they clearly counted any time that the whole company sing ‘F***’ in unison as thirty (or whatever) swear words.  And there are both plays and television shows that feature more.  The other area is the blasphemy.  It’s really, really not blasphemous.  The characters of God et al do appear, but only in Jerry Springer’s dying imagination, so are not to be taken as literal representations of the sacred figures, but rather as the mad fever-dream of a desperate man.  That section of the show does make some interesting and amusing points, though the religious satire is less barbed and less effective than the spoofing of Jerry, his show and his audience (who “eat, excrete and watch TV”).  The biggest shock horror moment for the protesters is Jesus appearing in a nappy.  Which doesn’t happen.  The actor who later plays ‘Jesus’ appears in the first act as a nappy-wearing coprophiliac character, but these are two separate characters.  Either the protesters are deliberately fudging the truth, or they have never come across the theatrical concept of doubling, where actors play more than one part (though in this case, there is supposed to be a certain degree of correspondence between the parts, as Jerry imagines the people from Heaven and Hell in the personas of the people he has most recently spoken to, the guests on his show).  Jesus, in the show, wears a loincloth, as Jesus often does in literature, art and film.  Loincloth, not nappy.

It makes me sad that people have used the name of my faith and my God to hold a protest on dodgy grounds, an ill-informed (perhaps deliberately so) attempt to interfere with free speech and artistic expression.  If only these same people could turn their attentions and effort to worthier causes like the Jubilee 2000 debt-cancellation campaign (initially a Christian movement, before it gained wider attention) or an environmental issue or protesting some of the deeply disturbing anti-terror legislation that the government wants to pass.  I do not believe that God is particularly worried by Jerry Springer: The Opera, but he is no doubt deeply concerned about our fame-obsessed insular society.  In a way I admire them for standing up for what they believe, but I wish they would examine the facts and the real world more.

Oh, and what do I think of the show?  Unlike many of the complainers, I saw it when the BBC broadcast it, so I can actually form an opinion (my sister was stopped by protesters at one performance, and had a fascinating conversation with a man who hadn’t seen it).  I thought it wasn’t too bad.  Quite funny in places, mildly amusing in others, dull in others.  It didn’t offend my religious sensibility, and the torrent of expletives suits the subject matter.  I could never perform in the show, and I don’t think I’d pay to see it, but it’s not bad, quite good fun and really nothing to worry about.

    • Bagpuss
    • June 27th, 2006

    Hi David,
    I agree with most of what you say, but I’m not sure “It’s all in Springer’s imagination, so it can’t be blasphemous,” really holds water. True, it is a sort of near-death hallucination, but doesn’t your argument rob it of any meaning whatsoever? I doubt that’s what Stewart Lee would want.

    • Claire
    • June 27th, 2006

    Shades of people not having read the His Dark Materials books and then trying to debate with PP himself about them! The Church did not come off very well, needless to say! I haven’t seen Jerry Springer the Opera, so I can’t coment on it really.

  1. Bagpuss, that’s very true. A lack of meaning is not what Stewart Lee intended, I’m sure, and it doesn’t come across as completely meaningless. I just feel there’s a difference between this – one character’s perception of what God etc. are like – and something like the Ancient of Days in His Dark Materials, which really is supposed to be God in that world. The difference between Jerry actually experiencing Act Two of the show and Jerry imagining/hallucinating the events of Act Two is quite significant to me. What it definitely does do is highlight some of the ways in which God, the Devil and others are viewed by some in modern society.

    Something I didn’t say, and should have said, is that if ‘my’ God couldn’t stand up to satire and questioning, then He really wouldn’t be worth believing in. In my opinion, anyway.

    It’s all so clear inside my head. Why can’t I manage to transfer that into words?

    • Bagpuss
    • June 28th, 2006

    Yeah, okay, the difference is important. I’m undecided on the blasphemousness of some bits – I really didn’t like Mary’s claim to be “raped by an angel”, but mostly I didn’t like it because it was a bit boring.

  2. Yep, that was the one place where I thought it might have gone too far. I can see how one could get that idea, but that did make me uncomfortable. Rape is never funny, and that idea was particularly not funny.

  3. I had someone from h2g2 send a copy to Nog and me so we could see it and judge for ourselves. I personally found it a bit draggy and some of the songs were total crap. And although there were a few laugh out loud moments (the faux disclaimer at the beginning of the second act had me in stitches) it was mostly the sort of satire that makes you smile a bit, not fall over laughing.

    Overall I quite enjoyed it. Can’t say I found it blasphemous – then again I wouldn’t, would I? But even as an ex-catholic I couldn’t see what all the fuss was all about.

    Likewise – from the other extreme perspective (damn Christians ramming their religion down our throats!) Nog and I just finished watching Narnia and after all the hoopla over it being a ‘blatantly Christian film’ we reallly didn’t see anything blatant about it, Christian or otherwise. We just thought it was quite a nice kid’s film – in fact I was a bit grateful to watch battle scenes without geysers of blood and severed heads and limbs all over the place.

    Oops, am I rambling?

    • floatykatja
    • August 27th, 2006

    I saw it when the Beeb screened it and I’m glad I didn’t pay to see it in the theatre. I didn’t object to it on any Christian or moral grounds; it was merely that I wasn’t particularly impressed with it as a show. If it hadn’t been for the proliferation of swear words, I doubt it would have made half the impact that it did. For me, the novelty of hearing a soprano sing ‘f***’ repeatedly lost its pall very quickly, but there were obviously plenty of people who felt differently.

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