- Playing God: The Bible on the Broadway Stage by Henry Bial
The history of religious stories appearing on stage is a lengthy one, from Purim plays and the Oberammergau passion play all the way back to ancient Greek tragedies, and perhaps even earlier. Yet the history of adaptations of the Bible on Broadway is relatively brief, spanning little more than a century. In Playing God: The Bible on the Broadway Stage, Henry Bial delves into this history, exploring the aesthetic and theological challenges addressed by these productions. The book convincingly demonstrates that while adapting these biblical texts has frequently been appealing to artists, doing so successfully requires artists to nimbly negotiate a perceived distance between the sacred space of religion and the secular commercialism of Broadway. Bial's captivating argument is that to succeed, biblical shows on Broadway must balance "four 'performance strategies' that can, under the right conditions, overcome the crisis of representation and help performers and spectators achieve moments of transcendence: spectacle, sincerity, authenticity, and irony" (27). Many of the productions discussed in the book successfully accomplish this, "captur[ing] the imagination and approval of audiences and critics, secular theatergoers and spectators of faith" (174); however, Bial also examines works that failed to achieve critical or financial success. The examples Bial draws upon, including (Pulitzer) prize-winning dramas, popular musicals, as well as lesser-known works, allow him to convincingly pursue his argument while demonstrating his masterful archival research.
As a way of demonstrating how American biblical drama is primarily limited to the last hundred years, Bial opens his book by examining a show that did not even reach Broadway, Salmi Morse's The Passion, which was prevented from opening in New York in the 1880s by religious protests and legal injunctions. In his introductory chapter, "Faith-Based Initiatives," Bial utilizes this example in order to helpfully define the many theoretical terms that guide his book, especially spectacle: "those elements of a performance—lights, bodies, scenic elements—that exceed the written text" (27), authenticity: "an element of the performance that is perceived as real rather than representational" (28), sincerity: or "consistency between one's professed beliefs and one's actual behavior" (29) and irony: a "form of humor or critique" that "prizes contradiction" (29). He also explores the vexed question of what constitutes a "faithful adaptation" when faith itself can be such a central question for artists, audience members, and critics; Bial notes that "the term 'faithful adaptation' is a telling one—it speaks to the quasi-sacred status of the source text" (21) even when that source text is not a holy book.
The remaining chapters are devoted to specific examples of biblical adaptations on Broadway. In chapter two, "Ben-Hur, Biblical Fan Fiction," Bial creatively uses [End Page 172] an anachronistic term that comes from science fiction fandom to argue that the spectacle present in the 1899 theatrical adaptation of Lew Wallace's 1880 novel "cannot be so easily divorced from its religious subject matter" (36). Drawing upon Amy Hughes's Spectacles of Reform to argue for the social power of theatrical spectacle, Bial effectively asserts that the show's spectacle (real horses running onstage on treadmills, real dust during the chariot race) created a feeling of authenticity that "opens the spectator to the possibility of transcendence" (51). The next chapter, "In the Beginning," focuses on adaptations of the Book of Genesis, most notably Mark Connelly's 1930 Pulitzer-prize winning drama The Green Pastures, which featured an all-black cast. The production of Connelly's play was the first to put God the Father on a Broadway stage—and he was embodied by a black man. Bial compellingly argues that the play relied on "sincerity and simplicity" (77) to create a perception of authenticity, and was a major success with critics and audiences, as well as a crucial moment for "theater, religion, and race relations" (65) in the United States. The following two chapters, "These are the Generations of Noah" and "Why...