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January 05, 2006

Raising the right questions, but not offering adequate answers: Paul - Howard Brenton

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Howard Brenton's Paul
directed by Howard Davies
National Theatre, London
Cottesloe Theatre
in repertory 30th September 2005 - 4th February 2006

Kenneth Minogue - Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics - finds that Howard Brenton's new play Paul raises the right questions about the founding of Christianity. It just does not offer adequate answer to them.

The last play of Howard Brenton's that I saw was The Romans in Britain. It had a famous scene of buggery that set the dovecots fluttering. I can't remember much about the play except that the Romans seemed to illustrate the evils of empire. In Paul, Brenton has taken on another large theme the creation of Christianity.

His thesis is that Jesus was a great but human teacher, a reforming rabbi to be understood in an essentially Judaic context until Paul in a sense "created" Christianity by turning Jesus into a message for all mankind. There is in historical terms a lot to be said for this view, and Brenton has, up to a point, dramatised it effectively. But in judging the play, a good deal of directorial "flim flam" (to use a term Brenton also employs) has first to be discounted, most importantly perhaps the kind of "realism" that turns these ancient Jews into a collection of twenty first century sensibilities.

The occasional four letter word turns up lest Brenton might be thought excessively pious in finding things to admire in Paul, and Mary Magdalene (presented as the wife of Jesus) in effect complains that Jesus has got the work/life balance wrong. You must also discount the National's boring addiction to relevance, so that Saul on the road to Damascus bent on picking up Christians to go before Jewish courts, turns out to be leading a band of soldiers equipped with pistols and automatic weapons. Ah, it's plus ca change time in Palestine, all over again!

For Brenton, the experience of Paul raises the questions of (or is "about" as we say these days) faith, belief and truth. Paul's famous conversion on the Damascus Road equips him with the absolute certainty that Christ has risen from the dead, is the Saviour of mankind, and will soon return in glory. It is this absolute certainty that allows him to broaden and transform the Christian message so that it becomes, in a moving account of the Epistle to the Corinthians, a hymn to love and forgiveness and (as Brenton remarks in a programme note) can be taken as "profoundly wrong but also mysteriously right".

The Corinthian scene is well done, but in the context of the idiocies of the direction, Paul's invocation of love cannot quite liberate itself from suggesting an appeal for solving the Palestinian problem by an outbreak of goodwill. There's a whiff of "all you need is love" about it.

At a more profound level, the problem at the heart of the play results from Brenton's dichotomy between the supernatural and the naturalistic. As Brenton dramatises Paul's conversion, the options presented are that Jesus, as divine, actually spoke to Paul on the Damascus Road, or alternatively that Paul had some kind of seizure and saw visions. Either the event was supernatural, which Brenton discounts, or it was a bit of pathology that happened to have astonishing consequences. Christianity indeed became a world religion, but it was based, essentially, upon a mistake about the relevant facts.

Brenton's reductionism determines how his theme will be developed. Paul's certainties collide with the doubts of Peter, James and Mary Magdalene who report, to Paul's shock as he faces martyrdom, that Jesus was not dead when taken down from the Cross, and that his later appearances were fleshly rather than epiphanic. In other words the whole edifice of faith has been constructed on a mistake, or as the forthright Mary puts it, a lie. Her particular complaint is that their lives will disappear into this grand story. Brenton's theme seems to be that faith, even against the facts, can create great and noble identities. As the John Ford Western long ago put it, when fact and legend collide, print the legend.

What dooms the play to mediocrity, apart from the banal realism of its account of the life of those times, is this binary distinction between the supernatural and the naturalistic.

The question to ask is: do we need to accept Brenton's dilemma: that if St. Paul were not divinely inspired he must have been sick? Are we locked into the alternation between the supernatural and the naturalistic? Let us posit a third realm of spiritual insight to which the founders of the great religions (and many others) claimed access, a realm through which they generated rituals and practices within which most of the world has lived, and still lives. The founders of great religions might well be taken as "exploring" this realm and as generating from their experiences the convictions that human beings bring to their understanding of what they take to be the meaning of life. The Western sense of time, for example, is quite different from that of other civilisations, and it emerges from the history of how Paul and his successors up to at least the time of Augustine sought to make sense of the career of Jesus.

In other words, such a spiritual realm creates the categories by which we live. The question of what the character and validity of such a spiritual dimension might be is sometimes explored by philosophers, often exploited by mountebanks and denied by our contemporary village atheists. But such a realm is so central to the experience of our civilisation that the popular secularism of our time leaves us rather aridly imprisoned in a world we cannot really grasp. Brenton may not have gone very deeply into these questions, but at least he leads us to confronting them.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.


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Don't be distracted by any modernisms or vulgar theatricals: here we have yet another attempt by the devil to discredit the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at January 6, 2006 10:49 AM
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