Theatre Censorship – 26: The blasphemy of Edward Bond and David Mercer

Edward Bond

Edward Bond

Edward Bond’s Black Mass was written for the Anti-Apartheid movement in 1970, and contains that unforgivable sin of two years earlier, the representation of the deity on stage. In this play, which was written to commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre, the South African Prime Minister is receiving communion from a priest in a church in Vereeniging. During the service, you hear the rifle fire of the police shooting seventy “Kaffirs”; the Prime Minister interrupts the communion so that he, the priest and a Police Inspector can go and congratulate the police on their fine work. Christ is so infuriated at the bigotry of the Prime Minister and the Inspector, and the weakness of the Priest, that, unseen, He leaps down from the cross and poisons the Communion wine. On their return, the Prime Minster drinks the wine and dies. In this act of basic revenge, Christ shows Himself also to be capable of committing a crime, to be capable of evil; indeed, as the wine represents His own blood in the Communion service, He poisons part of Himself and therefore you can consider it an act of self-mutilation or suicide. Justice must then be seen to be done, so Christ is questioned, and, as in the Bible, He offers no defence. With delicious irony, the Inspector asks Christ to account for His presence on the premises.

Christ’s treachery reflects very badly on the Priest, who turns on Him and dismisses Him from His post with the hilarious (or disgusting, depending on your point of view) words: “I can’t risk your contaminating the young people we have here”. Christ’s place on the cross is then taken by a stupid fascist policeman who is suited to the task because it is “a nice easy job”; thus, the symbol of Christian love has been replaced by a symbol of corruption and torture. Even today it’s quite shocking to hear the phrase “wank in your own time” used about the Christ figure, especially in a church. By the end, Christ has been subjugated and finally eliminated by the evil of the bigoted South African authoritarians. It is a simple, emblematic play, designed to show the hypocrisy of those who undertake persecutions in the name of religion. However, the treatment of Christ in the play might well be offensive to many people, including those who were vehemently opposed to Apartheid. Bond’s strong imagery might have alienated them, but it certainly shows up the topsy-turvy morals of the Apartheid regime.

David Mercer

David Mercer

Persecution and hypocrisy also feature in David Mercer’s Flint (1970). The eponymous character’s first words are “Do not go into the Church, Ossian, my grandmother said to me – because God is not fun”. Fun is the Reverend Flint’s main occupation and therefore he always leaves a string of lovers and ex-lovers in his wake, like Miss Biggin, the organist. Swash, the curate, pours scorn on Flint’s enjoyment of the bowling alley because he feels it’s demeaning for a vicar to behave like this. However, there is nothing morally wrong with bowling alleys, and his enjoyment of them is one way in which Flint bridges the gap between the church and the people.

Michael Hordern as Flint

Michael Hordern as Flint

The dual aspect of Flint’s character is instantly shown in this first appearance. First, having heard reports of his behaviour, you’re immediately struck by the fact that he’s not a young man. Secondly, his motorbike apparel, which (certainly in those days) was associated with the rowdiness of youth and a fast life, contrast with his being a member of the clergy, which you might think should be a life of quiet contemplation. He cannot be both young and old, quiet and racey; one must be false. The crux of his difficulties is expressed plainly in the line: “I’ve been an agnostic for forty years”. We already sympathise with him because he is tied to a job for which he is scarcely suited, although it is revealing that he is able to give Dixie, his current lover, the comfort she needs and which the “standard Christianity” of Swash’s service totally failed to give her. His only outlet is to disrupt the meaningless ritual of Christian hypocrisy which surrounds him, choking his every move. Therefore, he takes on mistresses, sets fire to buses and to the church, and other such irreverent actions.

At one point he talks about how he has hosed down some little boys; his Ortonesque explanation for their nudity: “It would have been aggressive to hose down four little boys with their clothes on!” has that outrageous yet undeniable logic you’d attribute to the best of Orton’s works. For example, when Mrs Prentice in Orton’s What the Butler Saw announces that she will take an Indian lover in New Delhi, her husband is shocked, but for the wrong reason: “You can’t take lovers in Asia! The air fare would be crippling” is his response. Again, it’s logic, but it’s the wrong kind of logic. And both Flint and Mrs Prentice believe their explanations are perfectly reasonable.

Flint’s life is full of tragedies and crimes, not because he is wilful or malicious, but simply because he is careless and getting old. One can imagine that any intrigues set up in Bishop Auckland (we never know quite what happened there) came as a result of his mistaking the name of the town for that of a senior colleague. He is, nevertheless, kind to Dixie, which creates a direct contrast to his wife, Esme: “You are a monster, Ossian”, she says. “The best thing that could happen to you would be a sudden coronary.” Despite this malice she assumes a godly superiority and even takes the virginity of Mary to extremes in her refusal to consummate her marriage. When Esme dies, Swash tries to comfort Flint with his belief that “she is with God”; Flint replies, “they certainly deserve each other.” Esme’s religion is kept firmly in its respectable place and never allows her to become a good person. “Earl’s Court is an underground station and not a place where one finds Jesus”, she grumpily explains, conveniently forgetting that He is, apparently, everywhere.

However, in Flint’s keenness to cross lines and not to draw them, he is most definitely open to the charge of blasphemy. When he feels the need for a quick drink, he suggests taking some of the Communion wine: “I believe we have a few untransmogrified bottles; mere wine until somebody does the abracadabra bit on it”. Dixie, a devout but easily misled Catholic, cannot take Anglicanism seriously as a religion, and Flint is not the right person to help her out. His religious idol is usually “the incumbent Biggin”, in this case Dixie herself: “The flesh tints of Rubens. The ribald calligraphy of Rowlandson. The sensuality of Renoir. All combined for the terrible sacrament of my disintegration”.

The play ends with Flint, flustered by the responsibility of having to find some midwifely assistance for Dixie, rapidly plummeting over a hill on his motorbike “into an army truck full of something explosive”. Perhaps Flint’s death comes as a salvation for the “sentiment of religious reverence”; alternatively, his death comes at a moment of selfless risk; this could be Mercer’s way of ensuring that Flint is not eternally damned. Whichever interpretation one places on Flint’s death, it feels like a highly moral end to the play.

In my next blog, there’ll be more blasphemy from Edward Bond, and from Mary O’Malley.

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