Wednesday, 3 September 2008
God on Trial
I suspect this may be the first of a couple of posts on the subject since it is late and I have to go to London tomorrow, but I couldn't help sitting down to watch God on Trial and want to think about it. I had already heard the writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce, a Catholic, talk about it on the radio, twice, and was impressed by him.
The information is there in the link, but, briefly, the play is set in Auschwitz, and the trial probably an apocryphal event, a mere story. What happens is simply that the prisoners in one of the huts decide to put God on trial.
This could have been a very bad play indeed, fraught with the danger, on the one hand, of cheap rhetorical sentimentality, on the other of intellectual aridity and after-the-event smugness. As it was, I found it spell-binding for various reasons, and by that I mean all the obvious reasons: excellent writing, excellent acting and disciplined directing, complete with the rejection of mood-music (or very little). As Raymond Carver used to say: No tricks.
I had actually given up hope that the BBC could produce something as concentrated, as plain and powerful as this. I have sometimes thought back to the great Michael Hordern Lear as an example of what could be done with a box in the corner of the room and a head as big as your own facing you then turning away into itself. That, I thought, was the great secret of television, the secret no one ever understands: the power of confrontation and interiority. But let that pass for another time.
The court-room drama has a very long precedent. From Twelve Angry Men to Judge Judy, from long before to long after, it has been clear we are engaged in any argument on which much depends.
This was a much more fluid affair than standard court-room drama, the witnesses appearing in no box but in their bunks, the judge, the prosecution and the defence all without authority, all themselves condemned.
Cottrell Boyce took no easy route, offered no way out. He rehearsed all the most likely arguments and put them into the mouths of those who lived and died by them, in the very worst circumstances, at the point of death. He did well to focus on the central issue - the only possible legal issue - which was not the existence or non-existence of God, but the notion of a broken contract or covenant. None of the arguments was presented as unworthy or inhuman. Anthony Sher's speech at the end, in which he upbraids the God of the Jews, pointing out that God (to parallel Hitchens's argument) is Not Good, that he has been as savage as any other deity, with his one supposedly saving virtue that he was, at least, our bastard, not somebody else's, was a tour de force, complete with Biblical instances. So the bastard has broken the contract and made one with somebody else, was the line. So what! You could hardly call it a humane record!
Nevertheless, the prisoner who had been made to choose between his sons maintained his faith, and the end of Sher's speech was a prayer. The question as to whom that prayer was addressed to, and what it was for, is something I must take up tomorrow. What remains very clearly is the sense of evil, its presence, its fermentation, its oppressiveness, its logic, its sheer bloody-mindedness, and the desire of some human beings, in some conditions, to deprive others of their humanity.
And of course three of my grandparents were notionally present there, and uncles and aunts. And my mother. The world forgets how near these things still are. To some of us they are still tangible, so tangible one could actually physically touch them. And did touch them.