God Only Knows. Vaudeville Theatre, London.
A number of critics have taken against Hugh Whitemore’s new play, a thriller set in Italy which questions the basis of Christian belief. They argue that Whitemore doesn’t handle the thriller elements well, and that he has loaded the dice in favour of the atheist.
I found myself, not for the first time, very much in the minority. I thought the play compelling and intelligent, and if the narrative line depends upon the telephone failing mysteriously, then I think it fair to say that such mishaps are at the heart of many/most thrillers. Indeed judged by, for example, the naïve standards of The Mousetrap-Agatha Christie’s murder mystery which is still packing them in after 50 years-Whitemore’s text is Olympian in its sophistication. And crucially, I just don’t accept that the debate about belief and Christianity is managed in a one-sided fashion. Rather I would argue that if audiences have occasion to wonder about their own beliefs as they leave the theatre, this is because, unusually, the sceptic’s position has been examined scrupulously, fairly and reasonably comprehensibly.
The plot is simple. Four British holiday-makers playing an Italian version of monopoly in their rural retreat in deepest Tuscany, are surprised when after the sounds of a nearby car crash they are confronted by a bleeding Englishmen, played by Derek Jacobi, wearing pyjamas and bedroom slippers., Jacobi says he is an academic who is being employed by the Vatican to scrutinise an obscure archive and that, following a cocktail party, he was handed a 2000-year-old document which shows that the resurrection of Christ never happened. When his employers discovered this, Jacobi claims that he was drugged and forcibly detained in hospital. He escapes by stealing the keys of the car belonging to a central heating engineer, and is being pursued across Italy by agents of the church and state, who are fearful that he might reveal that Christianity is a gigantic fiction.
Perhaps the story seem comically implausible. But when Jacobi tells us about the evidence found in the document and uses this to demolish the substance of Christianity, his actions, and those of his pursuers, become increasingly credible. And the four holiday-makers wonder, “Has he escaped from a lunatic asylum or might he be telling the truth?” The dramatic events at the end of the play point to the latter rather than the former conclusion.
Socialists will find the play interesting as the following examples might confirm.
Amongst the “evidence” supposedly offer in the document is mention of the realisation, by the roman state, that there might be mileage in supporting one of their critics whose particular message is that people should “love their enemies”. A perceptive politician suggests to Pilate that they should encourage the Jews forming around Jesus, and then arrange to fabricate his resurrection after he is crucified. (Normally the custom was to leave crucified corpses hanging until they were eaten by birds, but on this occasion permission was given for the body to be placed in a tomb.) The resurrected Jesus-a Galiliean who looked like the dead man and was bribed to impersonate Jesus-wasn’t recognised at first. People thought he was an angel or a gardener. The resurrection is crucial to Christian belief. At St Paul has it, “If Christ is not risen, then our faith in vain.”
Explaining why Christianity became such a popular cult the Jacobi character offers:
“In the early days, the Jesus cult had a great sense of urgency. When the first Christians spoke of a Kingdom to Come, they weren’t talking about some event in the far distant future, but something that was going to happen in the next few weeks-months at most. They believed that the end of the world was sell and truly Nigh. People became Christians because they were scared. Also-wonderful simplicity. There were so many cults, so many different gods-Christianity swept all that away. One God-one road to salvation and life everlasting.”
But the moment I enjoyed most was when the nature of “faith” was analysed and evaluated. The Jacobi character questions its utility:
“Would you give cash in advance to a man who promised to meet you on the street corner with a brand new Rolls-Royce? Do you have faith or . . . do you tell him to bugger off and find some other sucker?”
“It says in the dictionary that faith is unquestioning confidence. Is that something to be admired? Is it? Not in my book it isn’t. It sounds like plain stupidity . . . The door opens and in walks Jesus. ‘I’ve died but here I am again.’ It seems a perfectly reasonable response to day ‘prove it’ . . . What’s so blessed about unquestioning evidence? . . . People still go in believing in astrology, in statues that weep, alien abduction, Our Lady of Lourdes, scientology, mystical stigmata and the whole wretched farrago of fairy tales and wishful thinking . . .”
Wonderful stuff, full of insight and humour.