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  • Playing God: The Bible on the Broadway Stage by Henry Bial
  • Christopher Swift (bio)
Playing God: The Bible on the Broadway Stage. By Henry Bial. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015; 260 pp.; illustrations. $80.00 cloth, $29.95 paper, e-book available.

Throughout history, stagings of biblical drama have been sites of contestation among artists, audiences, and the faithful, resulting many times in controversies and social change. Scholars in the field of religious performance have analyzed such dynamics, and in Playing God: The Bible on the Broadway Stage, Henry Bial moves the conversation to relatively unexplored territory, asking, "What happens when a culture's most sacred text enters its most commercial performance venue?" (4). The answers to this question are found in the historical relationship between New York commercial theatre and its predominantly Judeo-Christian audience. Bial examines four main strategies used by playwrights, directors, actors, designers, producers, and publicists to achieve box office profits while satisfying the needs of religious audiences. He argues that a balanced, artistic application of sincerity, faith, irony, and spectacle were necessary for commercial and critical Broadway success.

Playing God explores the affective and critical responses of audiences, paying particular attention to the dynamic tensions between sacred texts and secular performance. Bial argues that dramas based on religious narratives are not unlike most theatrical experiences, as direct, wholly authentic emotional or spiritual conduits between actors, texts, and spectators are often unattainable. Playing God uniquely addresses how familiar problems of representation in Christianity (iconoclasm, antitheatricality, bodily corruption, etc.) were inflected and realigned within the commercial world of Broadway. Bial opines that spectators of faith tolerated dramatizations of biblical narratives as long as the tone of productions was respectful to God and religious practice.

From the 121 Broadway productions of biblical plays since 1890, Bial selects 17 case studies, including well-known commercially and critically successful works, like Ben-Hur (1899) and Godspell (1976), as well as "a handful of notable 'flops' that highlight the difficulties in adapting the Bible," (10), e.g., the Danny Kaye vehicle Two by Two (1970). Eschewing chronological organization, [End Page 182] each chapter is devoted to particular episodes from the Bible, enabling Bial to conduct "intersectional and interdisciplinary analysis" (11). What emerges is a critical history of the difficulties of adapting and producing religious stories in secular settings.

Two plays that adeptly managed the often conflicting impulses of reverence and entertainment were Ben-Hur and Green Pastures (1930); these critically acclaimed productions became exemplars of biblical fidelity and creative spectacle. One of the most vexing problems in staging biblical drama is how to depict God, Jesus, and the Mother Mary onstage. Bial cites Andrew Sofer's theory of "dark matter" to explain the phenomenology of sacred presence with the character of God absent from the stage, concluding that actors only rarely play God successfully. Like the use of a spotlight to signify God's presence in Ben-Hur, theatrical problem solving often did more than simply ease the fears of skeptical audiences of faith. It also produced spectacle that enhanced the entertainment value in a number of instances.

There are notable exceptions, however. The success of the all-black production of Green Pastures can be attributed largely to the sense of humility Richard Harrison brought to his portrayal of God. Bial shows how infantilizing stereotypes of African Americans held by predominantly white audiences infused the reception of the play with an aura of innocent reverence. Ironic detachment in Arthur Miller's The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972) obliterated any sense of reverence, and Bial cites a number of critical reviews to support his conclusion that the comical costumes and "Borscht-belt sensibility" (89) undermined the production. Bial is careful to note that comedy itself is not anathema to biblical drama, but that a positive reception requires a measure of deference to the material. On the other hand, theatricality and irony might have boosted audience appreciation of past productions. Clifford Odets's The Flowering Peach (1954) was critically acclaimed precisely because the "incorporation of Jewishness into the narrative creates a space wherein irony can be perceived as authentic" (108).

Bial enlists literary and performance theory...


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pp. 182-184
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