To celebrate our 75th birthday, we’re presenting exceptional works from Meanjin’s past that have defined and challenged Australian literary culture. To provide a meaningful counterpoint we will also be publishing a series of creative, critical and insightful responses to these works from contemporary writers and artists. Rebecca Sheehan has written a reply to this piece, titled ‘Jesus, Rock and the Resurrection of Man.’
The following article was published in 1972 by Age critic Dennis Pryor, and examined the link between rock music and religion through Christian rock musicals (particularly Godspell, which would have just toured Australia for the first time). This critique was chosen from our archive not only for its wit and insight, but because its themes provide a distinct portrait of the cultural climate of the 1970s.
The Beatles, the four long-haired lads from Liverpool, are offering up as their gift the Negro’s Body, and in so doing establish a rhythmic communication between the listener’s own Mind and Body. Enter the Beatles—soul by proxy, middlemen be-tween the Mind and Body. A long way from Pat Boone’s White Shoes. A way station on a slow route travelled with all deliberate speed.
ELDRIDGE CLEAVER; Convalescence
The last decade, when it is not about Vietnam, is about Rock. No social history of our times can ignore the musical renaissance of which the Beatles were the most memorable (though not the most authentic) voice. What happened was that the white man, as Eldridge Cleaver says, discovered the Negro’s body. This trans-racial empathy was a rediscovery of old gods who pulsated within the blood running in the veins of the devotee’s body. It was a return to what Dionysus had been before the Christian imagery of the shedding of blood. Christ’s blood was shed, he died and the Mass continues as blood-sacrifice outside the body. The basic shift of image from inside to outside the body alienated Christian man from the pulse of the blood inside him.
The Rock revolution, like all revolutions, consumed its finest sons and daughters. Hendrix and Joplin are both dead. Both mainliners. Again the blood within the body, the needle entering the vein, not shedding blood but flashing into it. As in other revolutions the bureaucrats and the apparatchiks end up at the top of the heap. Planted at the top of the post-revolutionary shit-heap is now a banner reading JESUS SAVES.
The Jesus revolution may be regarded as a religious or as a musical phenomenon. The fact that one can separate the ‘religious’ from the ‘musical’ is a sign (in this sign I will conquer the top forty) that any resemblance to the Rock revolution is purely one of marketing convenience.
The Jesus freaks are the 1970s crop of the flower people of the 1960s. The nude bathing at Woodstock was a rehearsal for baptism. They belong in a shaded, romantic billabong off the mainstream of the American dream. One could make tedious literary-historical comparisons extending from Theocritus to Wilhelm Reich to demonstrate regular appearances of a naive minority believing that love conquers all and that if only people would get together they could live happily ever after. It is a kind of etiolated socialism, Marx without class-struggle, Lenin letting it all hang out.
The musical metaphor of this charming naivete is Godspell. Its origin is not Broadway or Denmark Street but a Master’s thesis presented by John-Michael Tebelak at the Carnegie Technical Institute and ghosted by St Matthew. It then went to the Cafe La Mama and finally to the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village. The Christ of Godspell wears clown’s make-up. Thereby he can exploit the sentimental associations of the old on-with-the-motley-laugh-clown-laugh reflex. But he does not play as a clown. There are no pratfalls, no physical knockabout, but rather a series of referential tricks from vaudeville like the soft-shoe.
Godspell is, to judge from the Melbourne production, happy and festive. Christ is anthropomorphized in the way in which Ovid uses wit and humour about the slap and tickle of the Olympians, making Juno lean out of heaven, see Jupiter at it again and complain: ‘Unless I’m wrong I’m being wronged.’ Similarly one of Christ’s followers is an innocent caricature of Mae West going through the motions, but not the grope, of the old-fashioned Hollywood siren. Of course the anthropomorphizing is counter-religious. It can only lead to a baroquely decorated nostalgia for a religion which is no longer generative but sentimentally evocative.1
Musically, Godspell gives the show away in its subtitle—’A sweet rock musical’. To talk of sweet rock is like talking of a flaccid erection. There is hard rock, acid rock and even, at a push, folk rock, but sweet rock denies the engorged vigour of the blacks who generated it. In short, Godspell is a purely musical phenomenon that happens to be about Christ. It is a musical which says yes, yes Jesus in the same way as no, no Nanette. It has neither the rhetoric of a Billy Graham meeting nor the dark old gods which knock for attention in a Beethoven Mass or when Hendrix screws ‘The Star Spangled Banner’.
Jesus Christ Superstar is religious in the same sense as a whore simulating orgasm with an ejaculation of jezusjezusosweetjeeeezusceRRIST. It is essentially a marketable product exploiting phoney Rock music together with some of the kinkier elements of supermarket Christianity.
But the spectacular always has a kind of validity of its own. It commands attention simply because it is big, like the Eiffel Tower, the British Empire or Fatty Arbuckle. And Superstar is big. In Sydney you enter a newly decorated and re-equipped theatre. The usherettes are uniformly dressed in floor-length robes of vestal-virgin brown, a colour repeated on the walls, the cover of the 80 cent programme and the curtain decorated with the head of Tiberius. (Poor bastard, can’t they ever leave him alone? Even his own step-father Augustus didn’t really want him to become emperor).
It becomes apparent that this is a new kind of theatre. We have had actor-manager’s theatre, entrepreneur’s theatre, director’s theatre. Now we have electrician’s theatre. The odd thing about Superstar is its genesis. It is as if God had started on the seventh day and worked backwards. It was born first and conceived later. Its birth was as a record and it was the success of the record that led to the decision to make a stage production of it. All those trendy parsons and enthusiastic nuns who thought the record might teach their sinful sheep through the lingua franca of Rock can have had little idea what sort of a theatrical resurrection they were assisting. The tracks of the record had established such firm memory tracks that the stage production had to do something spectacular to justify itself. So they called in the electricians to create in a theatre the sort of effect you can get by putting on headphones, turning the volume of your hi-fi set as high as it will go and hoping your head stays on: this gives a total all-enveloping experience which is extraordinarily difficult to achieve in a large theatre.
The theatre begins to look like a recording studio. The orchestra (band? group?) is in a glassed-in pit. The conductor cannot see the stage directly. He uses a TV monitor screen. His baton is a two-foot-long version of those little torches doctors use to peer down your throat. And the speaker-boxes pour sound all over the auditorium. During the interval the audience (if that is the word, with this kind of theatre it might be better to say spectators) rush down the aisles of the stalls to peer inside the orchestra-pit recording-studio, fascinated by the electronic gear. They do not want a theatre of illusion or of disillusion, they want to see how it works, where all that sound comes from. And they are willing to accept any theatrical absurdity to get that sound. The stage has dozens of fixed mikes running round the proscenium arch, yet all the actors have to use hand microphones. Jesus and Judas dispute handing the microphone back and forth to one another. Jesus descends through a rostrum like some retreating demon king of pantomime and as He disappears from sight hands His microphone to an attendant.
This doesn’t matter because it is not about acting but about sound. There is only one actor in the company. He plays Pontius Pilate. He can speak and sing so that you can discern the words. He can move across a stage acting with his whole body. Yet it is he who is out of step. The rest are not actors, they are commercial rockers. Acting disturbs the assumptions of the production.
The complications of the sound system are repeated in the sets. There are enormous transparent plastic tubes like giant condoms let down from the flies (so that’s why they’re called flies). People appear in them and disappear up them. Judas, who is the deuteragonist of this particular concert, hangs himself from a forty-foot noose let down in one of the plastic tubes. His head flops sideways, a mechanist presses a button and he ascends, slowly rotating, disappearing through the roof with infinite slowness. It’s quite a switch. Hanging used to be the long drop and I thought hell was downstairs rather than up. But the audience know that they are getting their pound of electronic flesh. The ascension of the hanging Judas elicited the only really spontaneous burst of applause in the whole evening. It was an ole of genuine admiration, but the applause was for the technology of the lift.
Both Godspell and Superstar are lumbered with the Crucifixion which not only contradicts the always-leave-them-laughing principle of musical theatre but has been iconographically done to death by a millennium of painters. Godspell gets over the problem by turning the big Yamaha amplifiers up to full bore. They can get away with this because they have not used much amplification in the rest of the production. Superstar has already consumed all its decibel resources. They have even had the Last Supper on a white plastic table lit from inside so the possibility of a luminous cross is ruled out (even if the idea had not already been pre-empted by the religious requisites shops). They finally opt for a pretty traditional iconography but liven it up by having God the Father appear in the form of a bug-eyed monster watching the proceedings.
Harry M. Miller is the best treasurer the Christians have had since Judas. But the money will be made by, rather than for, Christianity. The decay of Christianity is now proceeding rapidly. There has been a crisis of theology which has meant that the theologians who no longer believe in God have to find new labels (‘ground of being’ and the like) to constitute a professionally more or less respectable concept to substitute for the missing deity. The supreme mistake is the attempt to demythologize. The Protestants began this with their insistence on the book. Once a myth is written down it is already half-way towards becoming little more than a pretty story.
Both Godspell and Superstar make Christ a soprano, epicene figure. So much so that you wonder whether this isn’t a reversion to the gentle Jesus meek and mild of Sunday school days. This soft figure is a commercialized version of the flower child, given divine status to force you to believe that San Francisco really is Saint Francis. The interaction between showbiz and godbiz is much easier in the high pressure atmosphere of American religious marketing. Both the theatre and the church envy Rock its communicative, ecstatic and unifying force among the young. And Rock is tied up with the black-white struggle which terrifies the WASP (the Jesus of the Rock operas is thoroughly WASP) . Already Rock has created its own white mythology. Presley is a cult figure, a reliquary of early (white) rock. And Don McLean’s Miss American Pie had the teeny-boppers shedding tears of regret and nostalgia. It is a threnody over the death of Rock. The imagery is deeply Christian. There are references to the King (Presley) with a crown of thorns, to the Devil (Mick Jagger) and to ‘the three men I love most. Father, Son and Holy Ghost’ (Buddy Holly and a variety of candidates for the other two, the theology of Rock being still undogmatic). The chorus springs from ‘the day the music died’, a kind of Judgment Day ‘when the good old boys were drinking whisky and rye, singing this’ll be the day that I die.’
The Rock revolution is rooted in the American black. White affluent man tries to steal the revolution in order to make money in the theatre or to resurrect the dead Christ through a Jesus freak-out. The attempt fails: you cannot celebrate the Last Supper in Alice’s restaurant. Cleaver, using Pythagorean and Aristotelian language, articulates the white man’s dilemma: ‘It is with his music and dance, the recreation through art of the rhythms suggested by and implicit in the tempo of his life and cultural environment, that man purges his soul of the tensions of daily strife and maintains his harmony in the universe. In the increasingly mechanized, automated, cybernated environment of the modern world … he feels need for a clear definition of where his body ends and the machine begins.’
- Peter Hall, director-designate of the British National Theatre, well observes: ‘The American capacity for taking theatre over-seriously made reverential hits of the folksiness of Green Pastures and the windy rhetoric of Archibald MacLeish’s J.B.—Observer (London), 14 May 1972, p. 29.
Meanjin Volume 31 Issue 3 1972
The full Meanjin archive can be accessed at www.informit.com.au/meanjinbackfiles