Michelle Martin

Staging the Bible

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Two of the last three plays Caroline has performed in were “Godspell” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

Oddly enough, the performance of “Joseph” took place during the week when Joseph’s story was read during daily Masses, giving me a forcible reminder of the scriptural origins of the story.

What a story it is, told in high camp, with its music drawn from the genres of rock, country, jazz and even a sad faux-French ballad. As narrator, Caroline was on stage for nearly all of the abbreviated hour-and-a-half production, and by the time they were done, she was exhausted — and exhilarated.

At one point over the course of preparing for the production, done over just three weeks, she said the story seemed so exciting and dramatic. She asked, why can’t more of the Bible be like that? Or rather, why can’t the Bible be written to bring out the drama in the stories?

She has a point.

The Bible says, “In fact, all the world came to Joseph to obtain rations of grain, for famine had gripped the whole world” (Gn 41:57). In Joseph, a young man in what passes for biblical garb and a beret playing one of Joseph’s brothers, sings (in an overdone French accent), “Now the fields are dead and bare, no joie de vivre anywhere, et maintenant we drink a bitter wine, brothers.”

The answer I gave her is that some sections of the Bible can be exciting and dramatic, and some sections aren’t. There’s nothing wrong with taking a Bible story and making it fun to read or perform, as long as you keep its essential elements in mind. But entertainment was not the main goal of the translators of the Bible, or probably of the original writers.

It wasn’t written for the YouTube generation that wants its stories to come in two-minute clips accessible anytime, anywhere.

The stories were written down long before there was a printing press to make the written word widely available, let alone movies, television or Broadway musicals. Given that, it’s a wonder that so many stories have proven so adaptable.

For the most part, I think the adaptations are wonderful ways of making the stories come to life, even if everyone now living thinks Moses looked like Charlton Heston. At least they know that God gave the 10 Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai.

And I couldn’t help it in July when the parable of the seeds thrown on the path, on rocky ground, among weeds and on good soil was read. I kept seeing the scene in Caroline’s middle school production of “Godspell” (an adaptation of the Gospel of Matthew, from John the Baptist to Jesus’ death), with students acting out the part of plants sprouting only to wither and die, be choked (literally) or jump up and down with joy as they grow in good ground.

I guess that means the message got through.