Once again, we go to “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” by Stephen Adly Guirgis, now enjoying its run at the Forum Theatre in DC to an array of rave reviews (most recently, i.e. today, in the Washington City Paper). Father James Martin acted as a “theological consultant” to Guirgis, to director Philip Seymour Hoffman, and to the full cast of the show in its New York Public Theater debut in 2004. A Jesuit Off-Broadway tells the story of how that came to be, how integral to the play and its staging Martin became, how involved he became in the theatrical world and how theater relates to his own religious vocation, how the various cast members reacted to his participation, how their own religious or spiritual views were affected by the play, etc. It is a very engaging book, eminently readable, and fascinating.
Last Days is clearly a Christian play. Judas, who turned Jesus over to the authorities for 30 shekels, fell into deep despair, and committed suicide. He is in purgatory and being tried. But what is his crime? Is it the selling out of Jesus? Or is it his personal and overwhelming despair which led him to sin by taking his own life? And with regard generally to one’s life, which is worse, committing an act that may be regarded as morally, ethically or legally wrong, or giving in to the regret or despair that may follow, and may end any attempt at personal redemption? The question itself, of course is not a Christian question; it is much broader than that, but the context of the response in the play is clearly a Christian response.
As a non-Christian, how do I react to the play, and how do I react to the book? Clearly, I don’t react in a religious sense. I liked the play because its structure and its script are extraordinary, because the characters are all fascinating, and because of the human emotions involved. I don’t have a history of thinking that Judas (assuming for a minute that the gospels tell a story with a degree of accuracy) was good or bad. Obviously, he has been played throughout Christian history as a villain; that does not influence me one way or another. He is currently undergoing his own form of resurrection as someone who, rather than selling out Jesus, may have been doing Jesus’ bidding to bring about exactly what transpired, which is so essential in Christian theology. That, to me, is a very interesting theory; again, I have no emotional involvement. Jesus’ final act (in the play) of attempting to break through to the semi-catatonic Judas to show him his love and forgiveness, for me, again is meaningless. I take this play as great theater, but not with any religious meaning.
How different it is from the approach taken by Father Martin and by most of the cast members, both in NYC and here in DC, who are either religious Christians or former Christians who, in New York, include a number of pseudo-Buddhists, but whose religious framework remains Christian. This, to me is a completely foreign religious framework. (A Christian friend once told me that she understands how one be Jewish, except for one thing: “If you don’t have the intervention of Jesus, how can you be saved? What is the substitute?” My answer was a simple, “Huh”?)
The fact that Martin and I are, to this extent, on different planets, did not detract from my enjoyment of, and appreciation of, the book. Intellectually, I am interested in Christianity for all sort of obvious (at least I think they are obvious) reasons, so his many references to religious writers and writings and theological history, were very informative. Also the fact that the actors could in so many instances relate to what he was giving them to read, or suggesting that they think about, was interesting (assuming that Martin was not engaged in the all too human activity of projecting his own thinking on to the cast members). But, as my friend had this one little problem with Judaism, that only a Christian could have, I have problems with Christianity that only a non-Christian would have. “Why”, I say to myself, “does anyone need a Jesus as part of a religious system?” It is beyond me. And, as I said “Huh?” to my Christian friend, I assume many of my Christian friends would say “Huh?” to me on this one.
At any rate, read the book. Learn about Jesuits and Judas and Jesus and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Stephen Adly Guirgis, and Sam Rockwell and Eric Bogosian and the other members of this extraordinary cast.
And, Hannah, it seems to me that Father Martin acted as an exemplary dramaturg. Have you ever thought about the priesthood?