- Playing God: The Bible on the Broadway Stage by Henry Bial
Henry Bial's impressive scholarship has contributed extensively to the broader historiography of theatre and performance, not to mention his research on two topics: (1) Bertolt Brecht and (2) Jewish history in American film and drama. Bial's most recent work falls under the latter category, an inquiry into adaptations of the Bible on Broadway. Like the rest of Bial's oeuvre, Playing God is remarkable for both the breadth and the depth of its analyses. As the introduction points out, from Broadway's unofficial modern beginnings (around the 1890s) [End Page 333] to the present, the Great White Way has staged no fewer than 121 biblical adaptations. Beginning with Wilson Barrett's The Sign of the Cross (1896) in chapter 1 and concluding with an epilogue on Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Book of Mormon (2011), Playing God considers more than a century of Broadway productions, from the spectacularly successful (e.g., Lew Wallace's 1899 Ben-Hur, Archibald MacLeish's 1958 J.B.) to the dismally disappointing (e.g., Salmi Morse's 1879 The Passion, Neil Simon's 1974 God's Favorite).
Looking at eleven works that received commercial and/or critical recognition, as well as "a handful of flops" (10), the text considers the tenuous relationship between the (potentially sinful) theatre and the (holy) Bible. Bial maintains that among the "most urgent question[s]" productions face is "whether the biblical drama is understood to be primarily a religious exercise or a theatrical one" (11), and further, how a production might stage the latter without offending the former. He articulates four "performance strategies" (27) that Broadway has employed to respond to those questions. As each of the book's seven chapters explains, affiliation between the Bible and theatrical performance can portend anything from violation of the second commandment to blasphemous profligates taking too many liberties with a sacred text. These unique and often complex problems, arising when the sacred and the theatrical meet, are best addressed, Bial writes, with the right combination of said "performance strategies"—Playing God's fundamental critical paradigm consisting of spectacle, irony, authenticity, and sincerity.
This paradigm of four mutually influential forces enables a productive unpacking of the tensions that exist between religion and performance, or as Bial writes, the conflicts that emerge from the "encounter between good and evil, or between the Word and the Infidel" (14). To be sure, staging the sacred presents what might seem like unwinnable difficulties: if the playwright comes too close to the original (yet unstable) text, the production potentially engages blasphemy ("giving offense to God"), while moving too far from the Bible comes with its own potential for offense, not the least of which includes heresy ("contradicting" religious dogma and text) (24). Chief in the arsenal of such artists and practitioners is what Bial describes as "reverence," a not completely definable, but you-know-it-when-you-see-it quality that can save a production from box-office or review-poisoning censure, whether it be from religiously or aesthetically based objections. With chapters on what Bial describes as the spectacle-infused "fan fiction" approach in juggernauts like Ben-Hur or the authenticity generated by the "infantilizing," "romanticized," and "imaginary" construct of black life and black religion for white audiences in The Green Pastures (75), each of the four [End Page 334] performance strategies have been used in some combination to produce a "reverence" that prevents audience and/or religious sanction.
Among Bial's more provocative deliberations is his discussion of the performance strategy of irony. For example, chapter 3's consideration of Arthur Miller's commercially and critically disappointing Genesis adaption, The Creation of the World and Other Business, alludes first to the discrepancy in tone that marked neither a wry nor a comic retelling of creation. And while the production arguably relied on "dark irony" (82) rather than spectacle, sincerity, or authenticity to distance itself from claims of textual inaccuracy or disrespect, the inconsistent tone...