In the popular American imagination, theater folk are a godless bunch of sinners, bereft of any morals or sense of religious feeling. If you know enough theater people, you know that this stereotype is ridiculous. Half of the Playbill performer bios go out of their way to praise Jesus, half of the actors’ Facebook pages I know are clogged with inspirational devotions, and it’s hard to navigate backstage in the half-hour before a show without stumbling across a prayer circle. True, back in another century, actors were classified as vagabonds and denied burial in Christian cemeteries – but that was a specifically Catholic policy, and Church doctrine has changed since then. And true, there are plenty of scandalous stories involving actors and other celebrities – with ever more numerous and disturbing accounts coming out each day, it seems. But I would (sadly) submit that you can find these stories among people in all occupations, all throughout the land – celebrities just (by definition) have the spotlight on them. I’d further submit that actors, generally speaking, are about as religious as the overall population. And yet the stereotype persists – if you work in theater, you must hate God and are striving to bring down Christianity with every fiber of your being.
When we talk about this alleged anti-religion bias in the theater, we’re really talking about American theater of the post-Vietnam era. And when we’re talking about that, we’re really talking about the plays of Christopher Durang. And we’re reeeeally talking about his seminal, Obie-winning work, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You. In this pitch-black comedy (for those of you who haven’t read it), Durang presents a catechism lecture given by Sister Mary Ignatius, an unreconstructed conservative nun still angry about the Ecumenical Council of the early 60s, who gives increasingly demented voice to every piece of rigid dogma Durang ever heard growing up. At the height of her lecture, four former students of hers, now grown to adulthood, interrupt the proceedings to confront Sister Mary about the pain her teachings wound up inflicting on their adult lives. Sister Mary pulls out a gun (as nuns are wont to do) and shoots one of the four in self-defense. She then asks another of the group – a gay man – if he still attends confession. When he says he does, and had gone just that morning (and therefore hadn’t committed any acts she considered sinful in the interim), she deduces that he is still in a state of divine Grace and kills him in cold blood, declaring “I’ve sent him to heaven!” (Then she takes a nap while a seven-year-old child recites his catechism while holding the gun on the two survivors. It’s that kind of a play.)
I mention all of this because of the horrific acts in Texas last week, and the subsequent national discussion about them. I hadn’t intended on writing about the church shooting, because it’s too immense of a tragedy for my little actor/playwright promotional blog here. But then I heard a strangely familiar argument – not once, but twice. To counter the criticisms that the usual platitudes about “thoughts and prayers,” instead of meaningful reform of our nation’s gun laws, were meaningless when people were being gunned down in an actual church, at least two people – Hans Fiene at The Federalist and Ainsley Earhardt on Fox and Friends – dared to suggest that the prayers of these churchgoers had been answered, since they had died in a state of divine grace. Seriously. The deliberately outrageous and blasphemous misreading of the Bible which Durang had used thirty-five years ago as the most confrontational ending he could think of? It was now being used for real in the face of an actual tragedy.
And that’s not even the most blasphemous thing these folks said this past week. In the face of the molestation allegations against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, there have been repeated assertions, in the same corners of the right-wing media, that you can’t condemn attraction to teenage girls since it’s portrayed favorably in the Bible. That since Mary was a teenager when she was married to Joseph, you can’t condemn pedophilia because the Baby Jesus wouldn’t have been born without it. Even in his most bitter, vulgar, and outrageous satires, Durang never came up with anything this obscene, this insane.
Seriously. Let that sink in a minute. In order to try and protect their favored politicians and policies, the contemporary American Religious Right is espousing positions that are too outrageous for a Christopher Durang play.
Well, this is America. The Constitution may be under assault these days, but the First Amendment is still in place. These folks can believe whatever they want to believe, worship whatever version of God it is that they’ve come to understand. But these lunatics really don’t get to call theater people godless. Or anybody else.