Thursday, 25 July 2013

Week Fourteen, The Book of Mormon

25th July 2013, The Book of Mormon at the Kennedy Center

Mark Evans as Elder Price
I had a few complaints about The Book of Mormon, but these were essentially ethical (see below). Of the key components needed for a good musical – captivating songs, delightful dance routines, a story that keeps you hooked, characters you care about – The Book of Mormon is handsomely kitted out. The songs are not quite up there with the best efforts of Rice and Webber, but then what is nowadays? The song ‘Hello’ is incredibly catchy and gets the show off to a flier, and ‘You and Me (but mostly me)’, a duet between the talented, hardworking Elder Price (Mark Evans) and the lazy, laid back lying Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) is also solid. A couple of the better ones were simply comedy copies of other musical hits; for example The Lion King’s ‘Hakuna Matata’ became ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ (‘Does it mean no worries?’ ‘No, it means F#!k You, God’), and Annie’s ‘Tomorrow’ morphed into ‘Orlando’ (one of the Mormon missionaries vision for the afterlife involves becoming the god of a new planet based on Disney World). ‘Joseph Smith American Moses’, the African villagers’ version of Mormonism as explained to them by Elder Cunningham, is a hilariously messed up mélange of Mormonism and sci-fi. And Evans is so perfectly cast as the good but soon to be disillusioned, all-American Mitt Romney lookalike that I was surprised to learn later that he’s a fellow Englishman.

But then we come to the shortcomings. I don’t especially like jokes about raping babies or the number of Africans with AIDs, but I accept that my delicate moral qualms are out of sync with our wider culture. If there were any absolute moral standards to cling to such personal discomfort might begin to engender thoughts about Western spiritual decline. But, of course, moral standards are a repressive pre-modern myth. And I’m sure the creators would be disappointed if there weren’t still a few old fuddy-duddies like me around to offend. ‘Pushing boundaries’ has become the key criterion for judging art. Inevitably this means ‘transgressing’ the rules that art should be beautiful and uplifting, and the only way to get a response is to produce something ugly and offensive. So how do you shock the audience? You get everybody chuckling by drawing attention to the incongruity of our images of Africa from The Lion King and the ‘reality’ portrayed here of prevalent AIDs, men raping babies and the mutilation of girls’ genitals. These issues do demand attention (though not necessarily through the medium of musical theatre); but I was also struck by another distasteful, but this time unintended, incongruity: here was an audience of predominantly liberal, progressive types, many having paid $250 a ticket, guffawing at jokes about disease ridden, mutilated Africans.

The overwhelming popular acceptance of The Book of Mormon does reveal something interesting about the extent of hypocrisy surrounding the values of modern progressive culture (because, of course, relativism is really only applied to debunk traditional moral standards). One doesn’t need much imagination to know that if any known conservative had depicted Africans with anything approaching this level of idiocy and depravity, they would have been mercilessly castigated as a racist reactionary. However, because The Book of Mormon’s more obvious target is religion, a perfectly acceptable progressive object of ridicule, the overt liberalism of anti-religiosity earns them a pass on any potential question of racism. The treatment of Africans here is an echo of the contrived controversy last year in America when a conservative talk-show host called a graduate student a slut. This was clearly not a very nice thing to say and it reflected badly on the man who said it (Rush Limbaugh). The storm of abuse Limbaugh received and the line taken by feminists, that the use of that word reflected Limbaugh’s misogynism and the entire Republican Party’s ‘War on Women’, was unsurprising. But that liberal response to Limbaugh would have been more convincing if an equally strong line had been taken when prominent liberal Bill Maher called Sarah Palin a c&*t. Instead, Maher’s textbook liberalism on other issues allows his sexism to be passed over in silence; just as The Book of Mormon’s more obvious send up of religion lends it the leeway to lampoon Africans as well.

But my main criticism of the musical goes beyond nauseating baby-rape jokes, the hypocrisy of politically correct progressivism and even the obvious conclusion that we’re living in the sort of degenerate era usually followed by a dark age. No, the main weakness of the musical is its lack of controversy in its key selling point. Is a satire on religion really especially daring in 2013? Jesus Christ Superstar took some liberties with the Bible and earned some controversy, but that was back in 1967. Monty Python’s Life of Brian was even more evidently a satire on religion, and was banned in a number of cinemas across the world. That was back in 1976, when church attendance and respect for religion were much higher than today. And the religion under attack was Christianity. A satirical musical on Islam would also be daring… but the Mormons? Only a tiny percentage of Americans are Mormons and they have few defenders outside their sect. Atheists and agnostics see it as a joke religion already and even mainstream Christians find them suspect. And unlike certain religions noted for their angry attitude towards perceived insults, Mormons are nice too. There were no Mormon pickets outside the theatre, and the programme actually contains friendly adverts from the Mormon Church pointing out that ‘you’ve seen the play, now read the book!’ The current head of the Mormon Church, Thomas S. Monson, may have once been voted ‘The MostPowerful Octogenarian in America,’ but he isn't in the fatwa-issuing habit, so the cast and creators probably don’t need to go into hiding just yet.

There was plenty of emphasis in the musical about Mormonism being the American religion, created in America and having a uniquely American character. This makes it fair game for attacks from leftist anti-religionists who would normally avoid attacking non-western religions because their anti-religious sentiment in those cases is cancelled out by their anti-western sentiment. We don’t have to imagine how liberals react when non-western religions are insulted because there is a good recent example to hand. In 2011 the American ambassador to Libya and his security team were attacked and killed in an attack originally (mistakenly) attributed to Muslim anger about an internet video produced in America by an Egyptian Copt named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. This low quality film depicted Mohammed in a very bad light and provoked a good deal of anti-American anger. President Obama was quick to label it a ‘crude and disgusting video’ and he ‘made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video,’ whose ‘message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity.’ It was also ‘an insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well.’ He went on to add that ‘the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.’ He did also point out that America believed in freedom of speech and would not ban the video; however, then Secretary of State Clinton told one of the victims’ parents that the administration would ‘get’ the perpetrators of the video. Despite the video itself breaking no American laws, Nakoula was duly investigated and found to have violated his parole for a former offence and imprisoned for a year. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Nakoula was really locked up to appease Islamic anger. Now, picture an alternate reality where a Republican president had made a similar speech attacking the creators of The Book of Mormon, where the Secretary of State had promised to ‘get’ its creators and where they had been duly ‘got’ and locked away on trumped up charges. There would be a liberal outcry. Islam cannot be attacked, Mormonism can.

There has been no real controversy over The Book of Mormon because they are a weak religion, unpopular with both Christians and atheists, with no defenders. Satire should bring the powerful down to earth. It should be a tool of the weak against the strong, but The Book of Mormon does exactly the opposite. In essence, its creators are bullies, and we, the tittering audience, are their supportive stooges. And this isn’t altered by the fact that Mormonism was such an enticing target because of the apparent wackiness of some of their beliefs (getting your own planet after death, the gold tablet that nobody was allowed to see, the 2,000 year old Jewish civilization in America that has vanished without a trace).

Despite these scruples, I still enjoyed the show. It ends on a happy, and even slightly pro-religious, note. It’s not an endorsement of religion as the truth, but it does portray the Mormons as extremely decent and blissful people (despite the occasional need to repress their un-Mormonic urges), and it does portray religion as something socially useful in backward places (and the Uganda of the musical is definitely a backward place). Essentially, the show shows us that a ‘good’ religion is one which has no regard for the truth but is instead tailored to solve the social problems of the local area. It isn’t exactly an uplifting view of religion but, with the catchy songs, a few great lines, and the joyous finale, it would be difficult for even a curmudgeon like me to leave the theatre without a spring in his step.

Next week,a silent version of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Synetic Theater

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