Audience Participation

 

After the Creation of the Heavens and the Earth God went for a drink in the saloon bar of the Lamb and Flag.

He hung his beard on a peg in the corner, next to St Michael’s wings and ordered a pint of Abbot for himself and a Bacardi and Coke for the lady.

‘Oh well,’ said Mary Magdelene ‘I suppose it could have been worse.’

‘Damn him,’ said God, with a suitable aura of divine authority. ‘Damn that annoying little bastard. Didn’t he read the posters? Traditional religious street theatre it said. Not bloody pantomime.’

‘Oh come on,’ said Mary, ‘It adds to the authenticity. I’m sure all those medieval peasants wouldn’t have watched in silence.’

‘A little enthusiastic booing of the common enemy of God and Man may perhaps be in the spirit of the thing. But when I expel Adam and Eve from the garden, in, if I may say so, a particularly powerful and well realised scene, I do not expect to hear some brat in the front row yelling ‘Let ‘em off you miserable sod.’ He was doing it all the way through. Yelling at Mrs Noah to get on the boat. Yelling at Adam not to take the apple. I wrote this play. I directed it. I’ve sweat blood over it. I don’t want it ruined. I’m having him thrown out.’

‘We can’t do that,’ said Mary ‘It’s street theatre. Admission free like in the Olden Days. You can’t exactly ban him from the high street.’

‘I can do any thing I like,’ he said. ‘I’m God.’

 

After lunch, the various angels, saints and prostitutes made their way back to the make-shift stage they’d put up on the high street, in between Woolworths and Mcdonalds.

God was horrified to see that at least one member of the audience was already there. He’d reserved his spot, and was sitting cross-legged on the pavement. He had an exercise pad and some crayons and was amusing himself making some kind of illiterate scribbles. He was only about nine.

It made God think of his own son, only he would have been better brought up. Didn’t this brat have any parents? He damn well oughtn’t to be on the streets by himself.

As the actors walked passed, the boy called out ‘I thought your play was crap.’

The devil cringed. Jesus passed by on the other side. Don’t make a scene, said Mary to herself, please god don’t make a scene.

God stopped and looked straight at the kid. ‘I’d thank you, young man, to keep your impertinent remarks to yourself. Especially during the performance. If you don’t like the play, then go home and don’t spoil it for the people who can appreciate.’

‘Oh no. I want to see how it ends. I hope you’ll get punished for being such a rotten sod to Adam and Eve. It wasn’t their fault. It was the man in the red tights with the wings. You treated him like shit as well. I want to find out what happens next. Definitely.’

‘What…happens…next? Aren’t you passingly familiar with this story? Don’t they teach you R.E at whatever bloody oik school you go to?’

‘What’s a school?’ said the boy and went back to his drawing.

 

The New Testament was less well attended than the Old.  A number of people left after the Nativity to go and watch the England-Germany match in the Lamb and Flag.

God looked at the play from his position in the prompt box and saw that it was good. He didn’t have anything to do until the Last Judgement and was wondering if it was too late to make some minor theological adjustments to the script. ‘When I was hungry, you did not feed me; when I was acting, you heckled me.’ But his friend in the front row was quiet. Perhaps his little talk had admonished him, or perhaps the power of their performance had won him over. This was, after all, the Greatest Story Ever Told.

Just before the Crucifixion disaster struck.

And it had all been going so well. Pontius Pilate, slouching on the armchair throne in his Roman Legionnaire’s costume; Jesus, pious and impassive, like a lamb to slaughter, the whole thing looking like a pre-Raphelite painting, if you ignored the McDonald’s ‘M’ in the background.

Pilate speaking in ringing, rhetorical tones: ‘Is it then your will that I release unto you, Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews, or Barabas the murderer.

God suddenly realised what was going to happen.

Small shrill voice from front row: ‘Jesus!’

Pilate, sticking to his lines: ‘And what would you have me do with Jesus?’

Boy, backed up now by several other voices from audience: ‘Set him free!’

Pilate, in masterpiece of improvisational damage limitation: ‘You want me to free Barabbas, very well then, I shall!’

Small boy, audience, and a fair proportion of the customers at McDonalds: ‘No crucify him!’

Pilate, increasingly desperate: ‘Crucify who?’

Audience, thoroughly involved in the scene now, shaking their fists and getting angry ‘Barabas!’

‘What about Jesus?’

‘Let him go! Let him go!’

‘You don’t really want me to release that long-haired hippy?’

‘Oh yes we do!’

‘Oh no you don’t!’

 ‘Oh yes we do!’

‘Oh….all right, have it your own way. On your heads be it. I’m going off to wash my hands now. Really.’

If he hadn’t been so full of righteous anger at the blasphemous ruination of his play, God would have been impressed by the conviction which their improvisation carried. He wished some of his actors played their roles half so well.

‘What do we do now?’ whispered Mary.

God’s voice seemed deeper and more resonant than it ever had on the stage. ‘The show,’ he said, ‘Must go on.’

So it did.

 

The cast pulled together wonderfully. The Roman soldiers stumbled uncertainly onto the stage, not knowing what to expect, afraid of being heckled. But now, the crowd was behind them, and the scene went well. The audience watched with pity and terror as the soldiers gambled at the foot of the Cross for the robe of Barabas.

The children in McDonalds stopped munching their organic free-range salads, and came out to watch. Football fans who had emerged from the pub to see what the shouting was about wept openly at the Forgiveness of Judas Iscariot, but then waved their English flags (crossed red swords on a white background ) during the Triumphal Exit From Jerusalem.

God followed each word in the prompting book, certain, that finally, everything was going right. The Penitence of Pilate, the Conversion of the Jews, Jesus leading the Christian Soldiers in their epic March on Rome: the familiar story unfolded without a further hitch. God’s final speech as Jesus was crowned Roman Emperor went off without a single interruption.

The curtain came down; the audience’s applause was tumultuous.

And it was night.

God closed the book, and smiled. ‘It was all right in the end,’ said Mary.

‘Very good,’ said God, stroking his beard, ‘I’m well pleased.’

The audience started to disperse. Some of them went straight home to their communes; others stopped off at temple to offer a silent prayer and touch Christ’s sword for good luck.

God didn’t see what happened to the little boy; maybe he'd left before the end. He'd abandoned his colouring book by the kerb. He'd been trying to draw a scene from the play; really not bad for a boy of his age. The crayoned face of God was quite flattering, although that of Barabbas on the cross looked wrong—almost as if it was meant to be somebody else. God held onto the book: maybe he'd see the kid again one of these days. He wished he had some souvenirs like that of his own son. He wished he'd had a chance to apologise to the boy for his harsh words earlier. He couldn’t even remember what they had been about.

He was still in this melancholy frame of mind when he passed the graveyard by his local shrine on the way home. It seemed somehow strange, as if he was seeing it for the first time. He didn’t even have a flower to lay on his son’s grave.

While he had been performing the role of the Deity, the old, old story had seemed a comfort to him. It would seem a comfort again in temple on Saturday. But now, surrounded by the mortal remains of so many damned souls, he wondered. His son was in hell. All the people in the cemetry were in hell. And his one certainty was that he would one day join them. In a graveyard on a cold autumn night, a God who could defeat Rome, conquer the world, create a perfect society, a utopia of saints and monks but had never once let a single human being go to heaven seemed very, very cruel.

He smiled at this moment of doubt.

Drama, he thought, is a very powerful thing.

 

 

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