The most significant, religious, mystical, and literary phenomena of the world are the Mystery Plays of the Middle Ages. Despite the fact that in recent centuries few religious plays have been written, the Mysteries have kept their appeal, and it fell to the lot of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber to bring them to the sensibilities of our age. Their work, as we easily guess, will be a mixture of poetry, music, drama, and spectacle, and so this paper will perforce partake of an intertextual approach.
The rock opera starts with Judas claiming his mind to be clearer about Christ, who, he believes, is basking in the myth people have woven around him. Judas complains he is not Christ's right-hand man any more, although he still loves him as a man. The land is under Roman occupation, and Christ and his followers must be careful not to provoke the Romans. Judas feels that Christ's followers have "too much heaven on their minds", which is entirely wrong and which is one of the most telling ironies in the text. One wonders why Judas thinks their mission and fellowship have lost their glamour. He may have a jealous and possessive nature or he is already a toy in the hands of Christ's spiritual enemies. He may feel that Christ and the Apostles had achieved a camaraderie, which is now in peril.
The Apostles seem to be always half asleep. They often ask, "What's the buzz? Tell me what's happening." They seem tired out and unsure of the nature of their mission. They are reliable enough but their spiritual and physical strength and the degree of their faith are suspect.
Mary Magdalene has been allotted a fairly large part, representing the affection Virgin Mary would feel for her son, and the curious and fascinating attachment a sensitive woman might develop for a devoted and enigmatic man, a man who is unique. She also represents the unconditional, unselfish, and fearful love partaking of the human and the divine. Christ happens to be the only person she talks to in the opera.
We see now the vanguard of Christ's enemies, Caiphas the Chief Priest, Annas, and three priests. Their enmity seems firstly to arise out of their concern for their position and material gain; secondly jealousy of Christ's increasing fame.
The music acquires a discordant and menacing quality, supported by the deep and rasping voices of the five singers. In the 1972 Broadway production, they arrived, on the stage in saucer-like, fantastically-shaped, small, hellish vessels, which, as explained by the director of the production, had been meticulously copied from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Breugel the Elder. The characters outlandishly and outrageously costumed, appeared to be fiends of hell, but they also represented the proud tormented. Their horrible and fascinating vessels were a blasphemous parody of the symbolic ship in which Christians took refuge against heresy.
In the meantime, the choir starts the Hosanna prayer but with the word "Hosanna" corrupted out of lack of reverence or understanding on the part of the people, into "Heysana", "Sanna, "Sanna Ho", and "Sanna Hey", without any change in the tune. The words Jesus Christ are shortened into J.C., which, however, implies loving familiarity.
The repetition of the word, "superstar" on the part of the people, referring to Christ, gains significance and irony. He has become their one and only leader, protector, and skilful healer, but they probably have not understood the nature of the force guiding his activities They may have been dazzled only by his useful, supernatural cures, unique parables, and charisma. Christ's enemies will pick up and use the same term, for irony.
In the next song, the people seem to praise Christ but actually they only make demands based on supposed good behaviour on their part. Christ is to believe at face value that the people love him, believe in him and in God, and they think this is all there is to it; there is no question of them acting as the true followers of Christ, proving their worth and faith by fitting action. They sound as though they wanted to be saved, but it is doubtful they know what is meant by salvation. Our authors' low opinion of the general public is reminiscent of Shakespeare's, although based on the interpretation of the Gospels. At this moment Simon the Apostle, a patriot, tries to persuade Christ to lead an army against the occupying Romans. This theme of patriotism adds to the list of varied and even conflicting demands made on Christ. Yet, if Christ is the true Messiah, he could be expected to save his country from persecution.
We now hear Pilate, the Roman governor, mention his dream of a Galilean, who is accused by a lot of people and whom he has to protect from death if he does not want to be blamed by future
generations. In Matthew Chapter 27, it is Pilate's wife who has the dream, as in the case of the York cycle The Tapiters and the Couchers Play, in which we find a theme which will be introduced later by Judas in the rock opera. Apocryphally, Satan causes Pilate's wife Procula to have a dream by which she is warned to persuade her husband to let Christ go free. This is Satan's device, and his purpose is to prevent Christ from dying on the cross and thus achieving Redemption of mankind. Our authors transfer the dream to Pilate himself, who is obviously less impressionable than his wife. Pilate says Christ "had that look you very rarely find / The haunting, hunted kind". The word "haunting" implies the mystery surrounding the mission and the real intention of Christ, and "hunted" refers to a man who has been burdened with an almost impossible mission.
The authors are careful to give us a convincing local atmosphere and every day activities of the time, as well as a Biblical reference. This piece recreates the commercial, materialistic, and self-centred background of the land as opposed to Christ's seriousness of purpose and unselfishness. Christ's attack on the people who misuse the Temple is one example of his forcing the hostile powers to get ready to destroy him. It also shows us Christ's readiness to use force, if only verbal kinds, as in the York play, The Harrowing of Hell. We shall also be hearing a dirge sung by Christ for himself.
In Matthew Chapter 26, Christ chooses to keep the Passover with his Apostles after the Last Supper, at the Garden of Gethsemane Christ feels sad and heavy. He wants to pray while three of his Apostles keep watch, who fall asleep. The premonition of the coming events, as well as the starting of a new era, must have made them tired. In our opera, the Apostles sing a song reminding us of one's half asleep state during convalescence. They express the yearning of normal people for a respectable job, in this case being an apostle, and here lies an irony, and for a comfortable retirement when they will write their Gospels. They will thus be remembered after death. What is very significant is that there is no reference to or hope for immortal life by the side of their Master in Heaven. Christ's Twelve-Chosen seem to be very fond of this world, short-sighted, and quietly materialistic.
When the priests accuse Christ of treason, blasphemy, and causing disturbance, Pilate sends him to Herod Antipas, the local administrator who is responsible for Galilee, where Christ was born. Herod is polite in an ironic way. Christ's miracles viewed as magical tricks, and popularity with people, have supplied him superstar rating. He may even convert the cynics, who include Herod himself, on whose swimming pool Christ is invited to walk, and whose water to change into wine.
When Christ is silent, Herod dismisses him from his life and from that of his family, if we remember, Christ's causing even at his birth, a lot of trouble and embarrassment to the present Herod's father, Herod the Great, thirty years before.
In this scene, Herod sings his song to the Charleston rhythm, which is energetic, decadent, naughty, and yet pensive. The actor-singer of the 1972 Broadway production was over six-foot tall, and wore high clogs. He was going to fat but was well built. He was nearly naked. He was being followed closely by an almost naked boy of seven or eight who apparently represented Cupid. The actor danced to his song often lying on his back on a well-cushioned settee, and moving his legs in circles from back to front.
To present an example of a different kind of stage-business, I shall summarise the same scene from the 1972 film. Here Herod was a film tycoon, a director and producer, of the 1920s, surrounded by glamorous starlets. When Christ was brought in he was very pleased because he might have found his superstar at least. But as Christ refused to talk, he was disappointed, and he and his starlets performed the Charleston for the benefit of Christ.
In conclusion, in this rock opera, as in the Gospels and the Mysteries, the holy people are represented as fairly normal men and women who may have some weaknesses. In this opera Christ's main dilemma occurs on account of his being among quite ordinary flesh-and-blood people, without the presence of such purely mystical figures as John the Baptist or Virgin Mary. Even then he copes well and becomes one of the crowd, his doubts make him both a man and a potential dramatic figure.
Drama is a genre that contains a conflict, almost any conflict. The set of incidents that surround the story of Christ presents the evil against the good. In the rock opera the organisation of the powers of good is fairly good but there does not seem to be enough solidarity, unity of purpose, or stamina in it. The powers of evil have on their side the foreign occupying powers, the local administration, and the priesthood, but they lack the imagination to effect a more decisive action; they repeat the same manoeuvre, which is trying to tempt Christ into committing a final mistake; but he is too clever for them. The greatest irony of it all is that even when they win, they will have played into the hands of Christ, and the Redemption of mankind will thus be achieved. Yet it so happens that the conflict is never a mock battle, especially, when it is a battle of wits. This true not only for the rock opera, but also for the Mystery plays and the Gospels.
One instance of the tragic potential inherent in Christ and in the people around him occurs when Christ is about to be betrayed by Judas after the Last Supper. Judas seems to suspect that Christ has planned for himself to be betrayed by him, and so he hesitates, saying: "You want me to do it! / What if I just stayed here / And ruined your ambition? / Christ, you deserve it". Later he will say: "My mind is darkness now - My God I am sick, I've been used / And you knew all the time / God! I'll never know why you chose me for your crime / For your bloody crime / You have murdered me! You have murdered me!" Judas believes he has realised Christ has to be betrayed, crucified, and he has arranged for the events to take a particular way, which needed Pilate's final decision and betrayal by Judas.
In Christ's world there must have been opportunities for comedy, and one incident in the opera shows us the way to it. Judas criticises Christ for allowing himself to be soothed by Mary Magdalene. Christ answers : "If your slate in clean - then you can throw stones". This line takes us first to John's Gospel Chapter 8. A woman has been taken in adultery by the scribes and the Pharisees, and she is led to Christ to ask him if she should not be stoned to death for her crime. Christ makes no answer, he "stoops down", and writes with his finger on the ground. Later he says: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her". The accusers go off. We pass on to the Hegge play, Woman Taken in Adultery, in which the three accusers surprise the lovers by breaking their house door. The quotations will be given in modem English. The stage-direction is a typical farce: "Here a young man runs out in his doublet, with shoes untied and holding up his breeches with his hand". Then she is taken to Christ. The stage direction says "Here Jesus, while they are accusing the woman, shall all the time write on the ground with his finger". Then the accusers have a change to see what Christ has been writing on the ground, and it is a list of their crimes and sins. The Pharisee says: "Alas, alas. I am ashamed!/ I am afeard that I shall die;/ All my sins, even properly named,/ Yon prophet did write before mine eye." The Accuser: "Alas, for sorrow mine heart doth bleed! / All my sins yon man did write; / If that my fellows to them take heed, /I cannot me from death acquit.: I The Scribe: "Alas the time that this betid! / Right bitter care doth me embrace; / All my sins he now unhid: /Yon man before me them all doth trace". Then they run off for shame This is an excellent piece of high comedy.
The many instances of anachronisms that also come from the Mysteries, and ironies with double or treble edges, add to the modernity and the immediacy of the work. The varied rock music gives a strange power, energy, and impatience to the motions churning up in the characters. Any other type of music would have come short of the feverish vision that asks questions without waiting for an answer.