No, it is not a misprint. And, yes, I really went to see it. And yes, I really paid “good money” for the privilege. As one professing to have an open mind, I thought it a worthwhile excursion. A local theater known for its edgy, avant garde productions has struck yet again. And as if it weren’t risky enough undertaking such a bizarro extravaganza, the theater happens to be across the street from an evangelical Calvary Chapel church. How “in-your-face” can a theater company get? So, of course, the born again Christians picketed the theater and gave it a huge amount of free publicity.
I had to know, or at least suspect, that this offering would be over the top, pushing the envelope to the very limit in every which way possible. And I was right. The cast of characters included Jerry, of course, plus God, Satan, Jesus, Mary and perverts and misfits of every stripe and proclivity. There was a fetishist in a diaper and a pole dancer. Over 95% of the dialogue was sung or “chanted” in that recitatif manner used in “real opera” or Gregorian chant. The unholy and the sublime were juxtaposed, blended and swirled in a perverse manner worthy of a wicked spoof, and every now and then the production crossed the line into almost blasphemy. One of the highlights was a number by God – “It Ain’t Easy Being Me.” It was alternatingly shocking, offensive and hilarious. There were tap dancing production numbers and choreographed obscenities. Shock theater doesn’t get much more shocking than this.
I had to wonder, as I drove home, what might be next on the small stage/off-Broadway circuit. Some sort of haunting by the likes of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain, come back from the dead in some spoof of Dante’s Inferno, with the playwright Tennessee Williams guided through hell by Walt Whitman or Alan Ginsberg? Or, a rock opera of the Jayce Dugard kidnapping and subsequent discovery of her some 18 years later? Or a pairing of Andrew Weiner and Eliot Spitzer in some naughty on-stage escapades one can only imagine – with perhaps cameo appearances by Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky?
We seem to have arrived at the point where the only way to jolt the public sensibilities is to pair horror with perversion, humor with the ghastly, beyond Rocky Horror to the edges of the cosmos and back. We have become so inured by the likes of Casey Anthony and OJ Simpson that we aren’t shocked by daily atrocities. We watch gore on the nightly news while calmly eating a ham and Swiss sandwich and don’t even get twitchy. So playwrights seemed compelled to think up even more nightmarish fare than one might imagine, then throw it in our face in an outlandish way, just to get our attention. The usual, time-tested plots of the past – political shenanigans, poisonings, stabbings, war, incest, genocide, the holocaust don’t move us like they once did. What has happened to us?
I’m no sociologist, but this strikes me as a bad sign for society and where it is headed. Not because I am a prude, but because I don’t want my society to get to a point where an occasional act of virtue is news, where a random act of kindness is an aberration and peer pressure makes me re-think a stance I might take on a social justice issue. Sure I like “Mad” magazine and cartoons by Jerry Van Amerongen (Ballard Street), and “Saturday Night Live” and late night comedy. But there is a point where I want to draw the line, and at this point I’m just not sure where that is. Something short of censorship to be sure, but it certainly is a “puzzlement.”
I and a friend recently planned a social event, a gathering of “armchair intellectuals” designed to imitate the old French/English in-home salons of the Victorian period. In the Victorian era, salons and discussion groups provided the means for the recreation and preservation of precious forgotten social tools. They provided a reason to gather with others and break the chains of lonely isolation that kept people in their heads, too cerebral; they lead people out into the heart of humanity and polite society. In today’s climate of cable TV, video on demand, Netflix and computer games, this probably seems ridiculous and boring. But, a group of “free thinkers” decided, nevertheless, to try actually conversing for a few hours and my friend and I were thinking over likely topics of discussion we might offer, to help guide the conversation. One of the things we thought of was: Is America headed the way of the Roman Empire? That is, are we on the skids? On the slippery slope to decline? Like the native Americans, Aztecs, the Mayans, the once mighty British Empire, the Austro Hungarians, the Doges of Venice, the Turks, the Chinese Dynasties of old? And, of course, there may be contributing factors – colonization or invasion by foreign powers, war and subsequent domination, visitation by a meteor, lead poisoning. Certainly, I’ve heard others speculate about this very topic recently. So we wondered what our friends might think.
If one looks at history, from a few hundred years pre BCE on up through the 20th century, it is apparent that dynasties and civilizations have life cycles. They ascend, they have a prime of some several hundred years or so, they decline, they die. It would be folly to suggest that America will somehow emerge as the only civilization in recorded history to somehow last forever and ever as an eternally surviving mighty world power. At some point we’ll go the way of the dinosaurs and the Caesars. And is it starting its decline already? That is what some inquiring minds want to know. Will our decline be hastened by nuclear war? Global warming? Bombardment by an asteroid or space junk? Genetic mutation due to pesticides and hormones in our soil and water tables? Incineration due to an inter-galactic smash-up on the first commercial voyage of Jet Blue’s Deepspace Blue flight to Mars (analogous to the Titanic debacle, only in outer space)? Decay of our moral fiber due to? Pick your cause – could be rock and roll, rap music, sex and violence in films and TV programming, brain tumors due to cell phones or other technology.
It is sad enough to contemplate one’s own mortality, but then at the same time contemplate the mortality of your society, your entire civilization? If you think about it too much, you may not want to get out of bed in the morning. But then, you feel you have to for the sake of your kids and grandkids. And if it is true, and inevitable, how do you prepare to live with purpose and meaning in the shadow of decline? What would Kafka say? Too bad he’s not around to comment, nor is Kurt Vonnegut. But Edward Albee still is – I’d love to peer inside his brain and read his thoughts. Whatever the answer is to finding purpose and meaning while sliding down the cliff face of an entire Western culture, I’m pretty sure that watching Jerry Springer provide a forum for fame-seeking cretins is not it. And maybe, in its unholy and darkly demented, satiric way, that is one of the messages the opera spoof was trying to deliver.