Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Dramatic Faith: Like the Actors in This Off-Broadway Play, We're All Participants in the Story of Jesus

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Dramatic Faith: Like the Actors in This Off-Broadway Play, We're All Participants in the Story of Jesus

Article excerpt

James Martin, SJ, unexpectedly became a "theological dramaturge" when playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis and his cast sought help in developing the characters for Guirgis' play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot The play portrays Judas' trial in purgatory for betraying Jesus. For six months, Martin and cast members embarked on late-night conversations about not only the historical and theological contexts surrounding Jesus and Judas, but also such weighty questions as, What is sin? and Why does God allow despair? In A Jesuit Off-Broadway, Martin recounts how the experience enriched his understanding of the dramatic aspects of Jesus' work and story.

When the lights went down on the closing night performance, the audience stood up to cheer and stamp their feet on the risers. The cast assembled for the last time to accept the audience's praise. Stephen was called onstage, took a well-deserved bow, and exited the stage with the cast. In my seat in the front row, I found myself tearful, hoping that no one would see. This was it, I thought. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot would never again exist in this form, with this cast. What everyone had worked for all these months was now finished.

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Now I better understood how the show had influenced my faith. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot began its first readings in January, just a few weeks before Lent began that year. The play opened for previews the day before Ash Wednesday. The run continued throughout the season of Lent, and the play closed shortly after Easter Sunday. This timetable meant that during the run, the stories of the final days of Jesus' ministry--his entry into Jerusalem, his last meal with his friends, his betrayal at the hands of Judas, and his capture, trial, and crucifixion--were being read during daily Masses. At the same time I was thinking about Jesus and Judas onstage, I was thinking about them while I was in church.

The play affected me on another, perhaps deeper, level as well. Each night at the Public Theater, the cast of Judas told, to a new audience, the tale of Jesus of Nazareth and his circle of friends. Watching the actors reminded me of the original tellers of the tale, who were also original participants in the drama: people such as Peter and Mary Magdalene and Matthew and Thomas and Simon the Zealot. After witnessing Jesus' life over a three-year period--seeing his amazing miracles, hearing his parables and stories, and being witnesses to his passion, death, and resurrection--the first disciples would have found it impossible to be silent, to refrain from telling their own versions of the tale. They, like many people in the arts, would have been compelled to express what they had witnessed.

This first generation of storytellers would have passed their stories on to members of the early church, who huddled behind closed doors and gathered in back rooms to tell the stories to one another and to new members of their group. Perhaps these people heard the stories directly from one of the apostles. And perhaps these earliest Christians, now one degree removed from the action, needed to dramatize things, to "get up," as actors say, to communicate their tales more effectively. Who knows if, in those hidden rooms, first in Judea, then in Asia Minor, the early Christians might not have acted out some of these scenes for one another?

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FINALLY, WE COME to the evangelists, the writers of the gospels, who would set down the stories on the page. Like any good playwright, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John needed an eye for narrative structure--an understanding of where to place a miracle story and where to place a saying of Jesus, for example--as well as a good ear for dialogue and clever turns of phrase. If you study the texts carefully, you can see how the later gospels used the earlier ones and subtly altered the structure of the story to meet the needs of their communities. …

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