In London this semester, I went to as much theatre as I possibly could. I enjoyed all of it—the slapstick comedy of The Play that Goes Wrong, the surprisingly good heart of The Book of Mormon, the gritty politics of Martin Freeman as Richard III, the only slightly varnished realism of John. Two performances were particularly moving to me, one in is disillusioned despair and the other in its inspiring affirmation of community.
The depressing performance was the musical Urinetown (book by Greg Kotis, music by Mark Hollman) and the uplifting experience came from the comedy Neville’s Island (by Tim Firth). (Warning: spoilers ahead for both!)
I went to Urinetown expecting all the lighthearted humor that you might imagine pervading a musical telling the story of a rebellion against a totalitarian government’s regulation of urination. I left depressed about the fate of humanity and with decreased faith in the possibility of peaceful community, of enacting lasting social change, or even of humans’ ability to have any sort of good motive in working toward social justice.
In Urinetown’s first act, the musical plays off of the expectations for musicals and for science fiction satires, presenting a metatheatrical tale of young love and near-future governmental oppression. In the second act, things fall apart following the death of the protagonist (I told you there were spoilers), who had been until then a typical musical hero: a lower-class lavatory maintenance man who had fallen in love with the daughter of the big-business owner of all the toilets in the land, while at the same time fomenting a nascent rebellion among the masses who rise up to claim their innate human rights (to urination). But once this leader dies and the rebellion begins to succeed, Urinetown hammers home the idea that the pat musical-world binaries of good and evil, justice and oppression, aren’t so cut-and-dried.
The rebels prove to be just as bloodthirsty, controlling, and violent as the corporatocracy they overthrow. They also end up being ineffective in improving human life, since their policies on free urination for all ultimately lead to the depletion of water resources and the extinction of the human race.
Aside from the musical’s blunt environmental message, Urinetown’s central idea is that (as the protagonist purportedly sings after having been tossed from the roof of a skyscraper) “nobody is innocent.” The show presents a relentlessly bleak picture of the inevitability of human interactions degenerating into violence and death.
Part of why I felt down after Urinetown was that there is a certain amount of truth to that message. In reading the sections of Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace that argue for a measure of shared human guilt in both the oppressor and the oppressed—for the presence of the potential for violence and hatred in each person—I have felt very uncomfortable. Part of that discomfort comes from how close some of Volf’s arguments seem to come to victim-blaming (or how easily they could be adapted to support victim-blaming), and I certainly want to keep away from that kind of thinking. Part, too, though, comes from my own implication when “nobody is innocent”—that I, like other humans both oppressed and oppressing, have the potential for practicing hatred, violence, and exclusion, rather than practicing an embrace that accepts the full humanity of the Other.
I went to Neville’s Island also expecting lighthearted comedy (an expectation that partly came from the performance featuring Robert Webb of Mitchell and Webb fame). The play, while very funny at times, was also more philosophical and self-aware than I had expected. The story centers on four businessmen stranded on a Derwentwater island after a teambuilding exercise gone wrong. Faced with scanty food supplies and clashing personalities, the four must work together to survive. It’s a consciously clichéd plot whose previous iterations in film and drama are frequently alluded to and mined for laughs.
That metatheatrical element would have been enough to make the play enjoyable to me. But it also ended up being an uplifting emotional experience, largely through the theme of communion that runs through the play.
As Neville’s Island progresses and the characters slowly reveal their frictions, flaws, and secrets to each other, their dysfunctional attitudes toward each other are represented in scenes in which they attempt to eat together. First it’s a lonely sausage saved from their long-distant breakfast, next a soggy slice of pizza salvaged from the shoreline. In each case, the four prepare to split the food and eat it, but before they can, an accident or eruption of anger interrupts and destroys the pitiful meal, and the four splinter apart, even more distant from each other than before. By the second time this happens, enough dialogue has centered on food that you can tell that the play will end when the characters finally do succeed in eating something together.
Over the course of the play, there’s another series of repeated related scenes. Mild-mannered Christian Roy (Robert Webb’s character) birdwatches from a tree, separate from the rest of the group. Roy is in mourning and has been mentally imbalanced due to the death of a loved one. (Like Roy with his mental breakdown, each of the other characters also has a hurt, flaw, or fear that strains their relationships with each other and that comes to light over the course of their unwilling island retreat).
As Roy birdwatches, he remembers and slowly comes to terms with his sorrow, at the same time that he finds joy in the birds he loves. For him, the birds serve as a symbol of the enduring beauty of creation and of the remaining presence of slivers of grace in a world filled with death. He especially appreciates the rare gyrhawk, which he calls “God’s sonnet,” most beautiful and graceful of all the birds that Roy sees as divine lyrics.
By the climax of the play, with tempers boiling and stomachs growling, all the characters’ flaws and secrets have been revealed to each other, and Roy has disappeared to his tree again, taking a rope. When the other characters realize this, they worry that he plans to kill himself. But in the final moments of the play, Roy reenters, a set of angel-like wings slung over his back: he has roped and killed the beloved gyrhawk in order to feed his friends. This is the food that the four finally share, as they accept each other along with all the faults and brokenness that they have revealed. They eat together in a moment in which the walls between them have been torn down, and the play ends as the sudden sound of distant helicopters provides the promise of rescue.
Perhaps the symbolism is heavy-handed—a divine bird, a symbol of grace, provides a Christlike sacrifice whose consumption represents the newly acknowledged bonds between the members of the small community. But blunt or not, I found it moving.
As in Urinetown, nobody is innocent—or at least, nobody is perfect (a “flaw” like a traumatized response to the death of a loved one is hardly an indication of any kind of “guilt”). All the characters are imperfect and broken, and all have problems in relating to each other. But the message is much more hopeful here than in Urinetown. It’s that mutual recognition of human imperfection that brings the characters together. That acceptance of each other as flawed humans seems to me to be a part of the power of Christian communion, as well (a power that the play’s final scene draws on in a not-so-subtle way). Of course, communion is only one way making that sort of acknowledgement (and it’s an acknowledgment that is in no way limited to Christians or Christian rituals), and of course there are many other aspects of the Eucharist that are important. But it’s a reflection that adds to the power of the Eucharist for me.
And to me, that vision of an incarnational, Eucharistic, communal recognition of each person’s full and flawed humanity provides a sliver of hope for the possibility of practicing embrace rather than exclusion, on scales both large and small, political and personal.