Practical criticism - when popes go bad

We ran into the pope this summer, as you do. We were aiming for the centre of Cagliari, Sardinia's capital city, but found one street after another was blocked. Traffic accident? Roadworks? Only when someone spotted the 'Il Papa in Sardegna' posters did we realise that his holiness was with us for the day. We began our holiday mooch around, but even on foot, all roads led to the cathedral, and eventually we stopped resisting: Il Papa would be our sightseeing treat.

As a theatrical spectacle, his arrival at the cathedral lacked something. The hours of waiting wilted in the heat, but even so it seemed (on this entirely unscientific survey) that Benedict XVI is not the draw his famously charismatic, tarmac-pecking predecessor was. The crowd was surprisingly scanty, and we had no difficulty edging towards the front of the line alongside the cathedral - alongside some guitar-playing evangelicals, and just behind a woman who demonstrated what to wear for a papal visitation, her bra strap spelling out 'RELAX' in diamante. Nuns of all ages were cheerleaders for the afternoon - a particularly chirpy quartet bagged the balcony opposite, and were stationed with smiles and banners. At last, Il Papa appeared, trundling along in the popemobile. Arm raised, ring blinging, big smile - but, we all agreed, such cold hard eyes.

It was all a bit muted. Not that I collect Italian Catholic ceremonies, you understand - what kind of a nice Jewish boy do you take me for? - but it wasn't a patch on St Gennaro's special day in Naples, when his martyred blood liquefies, and chasbules swing, young bucks wave rattles, old ladies stand on seats, and an entire congregation goes miracle crazy.

What is the relationship between the papacy and theatre? Some thoughts after the click:

But back to the cold eyes. Benedict is a hard man to love, and to be fair it's not a card he's tried to play since taking office in 2005. Even so, his latest actions seem almost wilfully enraging to liberal opinion: rescinding the excommunication laid on Holocaust sceptic Richard Williamson and promoting an Austrian pastor who suggested Hurricane Katrina represented divine displeasure towards New Orleans and its lax attitude to sexuality. After decades in which the Vatican at least flirted with a conciliatory attitude to other denominations, if not to the secular world, Benedict seems intent on a hardline refusal to play nice. Il Papa is not Santa Claus.

Pope John Paul II was in pre-papacy days a dramatist: New York's Storm Theatre revived two of his plays in 2007. In general, however, the Vatican has a poor rap in drama. Jacobean tragedy supplies a convocation of double-dealing cardinals: one imprisons his sister and poisons his mistress (Duchess of Malfi); another manipulates everyone within reach en route to the papacy (The White Devil); a third attempts to rape a young duchess and then poisons her (The Cardinal, by Shirley). In Henry VIII by Shakespeare and Fletcher, Cardinal Wolsey pursues personal ambition beneath his scarlet robes.

The Inquisition has maintained an equally dubious, if eye-catching, stage presence. Schiller's grand inquisitor rasps his way into the action in Don Carlos with an intent to stamp out the flame of free thought (Verdi's operatic version makes the scene even more thrilling, with an inquisitor as aged as time, voice deep with retribution). Another inquisitor is at the centre of a wild exorcism scene in Prokofiev's opera The Fiery Angel, while a character in the same job in Shaw's St Joan has a supple and not unsympathetic mind, but still strikes the martyr's match. All these playwrights use these figures in the Catholic hierarchy to represent the ultimate in inflexible thinking; a dogmatic challenge to Protestant Anglicanism or post-enlightenment Romanticism, backed with remorseless political and judicial might. It may seem that the only good pope in drama is a deposed pope - Caryl Churchill invites a mordant Pope Joan to her banquet of historical pioneers in Top Girls, pushed from her position when her gender was revealed.

An aficionado of kitsch spectacle might have been disappointed by the way the pope pottered into Cagliari, and a student of Jacobean tragedy might have expected him to at least dispense some henbane on his way. But this muted register of theatricality might usefully embody the modern papacy - a suggestion that the target audience for the Church is moving beyond Europe's dwindling levels of devotion, and that the Vatican's distasteful judgements are icily bureaucratic rather than livid with personal hypocrisy. Will modern playwrights find ways of embodying questions about hardline Catholic orthodoxy in drama, ways that don't depend on villainous clerics intent on sin? Will opera composers create a bells-and-whistles exorcism? That might make a spectacle worth waiting for.

February 2, 2009 12:12 AM | | Comments (0) |

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on February 2, 2009 12:12 AM.

Once more - with feeling? was the previous entry in this blog.

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