Sunday, January 31, 2010

Aporeia or Dialogue? Guirgis and Thal on "Last Days of Judas Iscariot"

A few days ago, through the comments section of another blog entry, I had an exchange with the playwright, Stephen Adly Guirgis. He took issue with my interpretation of his play, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot which I had written as a letter to the editor some three years ago in response to the Boston's Weekly Dig having picked the Company One production as one of their Best of 2006.

Where we disgreed is that I interpreted the play as hipster revival of the old anti-Semitic canard that places the blame for Jesus' crucifixion on the Jews. Guirgis contends that this was not his intent. I have no reason to doubt his sincerity and at this point choose to look at this as an illustration of the real hazards that Jewish-Christian dialogue can sometimes smash itself upon, even when the interlocutors' intentions are the best. Yet, despite these hazards, this dialogue needs to occur, precisely because of an often horrific shared history.

To begin, a Dig staffer added this bold faced title caption to my letter:

Every point made in a play must be countered by an opposing point consisting of exactly as many words and spoken at a comparable volume. Only that way will theatre come alive again.

Dear Dig,
I wonder by what criteria Jenna Scherer selected to include
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot as part of her roundup of the year's best theatre (12.20.06). While I confess that Stephen Adly Guirgis has a gift for writing dialogue that led to excellent performances by some of Company One's better actors, Guirgis's overall sloppiness placed it close to the bottom of my list for 2006.

Numerous scenes were completely irrelevant to the courtroom drama. Lengthy monologues by characters that appear nowhere else in the story implied that Guirgis either had not finished writing the play before opening night, or that he was simply trying to give some of the actors something to do instead of sitting backstage for over an hour. The ending, to the extent there was one, demonstrated that Guirgis was unable to handle any of the cans of worms that he himself had opened.

Leaving aside the structural problems, the second half of the play repeats again and again the old anti-Semitic canard that the Jews are the ones who murdered Jesus (a central theme of the Passion plays, and Mel Gibson's film version). Pontius Pilate even makes a point that he had washed his hands of the affair, and is a saint in the Ethiopian Church. It is not wrong for a writer to create anti-Semitic characters, but to leave their statements un-countered is highly questionable.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot also has countless moments of misogyny to which there is never any rebuttal. How does a male witness sexually harass a female defense attorney with impunity? Or a male prosecuting attorney sexually harass a female witness? Guirgis seems to like his female characters neatly classified as mothers, whores and nuns, and he appears to take pleasure in humiliating the mothers and the whores.

Guirgis does a great job writing for the mafia characters on HBO's
The Sopranos, but theology is well beyond his abilities, as is anything whose form demands that the plot threads be tied up by the end of the evening. Does Jenna Scherer pay any attention to the writing?

Ian Thal
Somerville, MA

This letter, no longer available on The Dig's website, simply floated on my soon to be neglected pages on authorsden (neglected because I desired the greater flexibility of the blogger platform) and on rare occasions referenced here and there.

Eventually, some three years later, on January 28, 2010, on an unrelated blog post, I received this comment from an anonymous poster, apparently identifying himself as Stephen Adly Guirgis:
Mr. Thal

I have learned that one never wins when contacting those who criticize one's work. And yet is it curious to me that my play has been performed all over the world and to my knowledge you are the only person to ever accuse me of perpetuating ant-semitic stereotypes. I don't know what you saw in Boston four years ago that compels you to keep associating me with Hate, but it saddens me because I happen to take racism/anti-semitism/hate pretty seriously. Maybe you were in the bathroom during the cross examination of Caiaphas by El-Fayoumy? Maybe you were asleep when the play pins 2000 years of hate -- not on "The Jews" -- but on the writers of the Gospels? I don't know... Clearly, you're completely entitled to dislike my play, dislike me, and say whatever you want to say. And you're not alone in criticizing the play -- some like it, some don't. I only hope that when hurling accusations of anti-semitism, that you feel you've done your due diligence to study the subject matter sufficiently so as to to feel confident in your own mind that you're correct in your assertions. You're an artist yourself so you know the deal: you put your stuff out there and people say what they're gonna say. So, I'm not complaining. My play is wildly imperfect, lots and lots of flaws. But, however you received it, I can assure you it was not written in hate. It was written, in all it's imperfection, with love. And with that, in this late night hour, I send love to you. I just wanted to say my piece. So, thanks. And best wishes to you and yours. SG
Taken at face value, I had to consider Guirgis' point of view as sincere, even if that's not what I saw in his play, so after several hours, I posted this response:
(Allow me to assume that Anonymous is exactly whom he claims to be.)

Dear Mr. Guirgis,

Thanks for writing. I much rather have a dialogue where in the end I can say "I stand corrected" than persist in some intractable feud.

Because of this, I have to accept your stated intentions at face value, and explore why I felt that quite the opposite of those intentions were communicated to me.

Keep in mind that the production I saw of
Last Days of Judas Iscariot was some three-and-a-half years ago: July of 2006, to be exact, and the criticism I wrote was from a few months later after the play was picked for a "Best of 2006." I assure you that I did not nod off or leave for the bathroom during the performance.

I definitely did not get the impression that your play pinned the blame on Christian antisemitism on the Gospel writers , as neither they, nor their sectarian agenda (to make the young Jesus movement appealing to gentiles by stripping it of its Jewish context) was placed on trial.

Instead, the appeal on behalf of Judas (whom some scholars now view to be a fictitious personification of "the Jews") was largely based on finding an alternative Jewish culprit such as Caiaphas, as a representive of the Temple priesthood.

Frankly: I don't remember after all this time whether the other usual suspects of the Pharisees (that is, the Rabbis) and the crowd that chose amnesty for Barabbas were brought up.

And of course, as I mentioned, Pilate and his government are absolved simply because he says he's a Saint in the Ethiopian Church. So it turns into a situation of seeking amnesty for one Jew by finding an alternative Jewish scapegoat.

Now, had there been that meta-textual/meta-mythical turn after the intermission that brought Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and their sectarian agendas to task (as many "left-leaning" Catholics like James Carroll do,) then much of my criticism would have been invalid. However that leap was never made, and since the motion to simply grant Judas divine forgiveness was denied, the mechanics of the play demanded that the deicide charge be pinned on someone else: either a different Jew or Jews in general. So I found that it brought everything back to the bad old days before
Nostra Aetate opened up lines of interfaith dialogue.

Again, maybe you feel that you had subtly done just what I suggest, in which case, it was completely lost in Company One's production which seemed more interested in finding "the real culprit."
Now the question is: is this an aporeia or an opening for further dialogue?

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