Wine, sex and Mormons: an inquiry
As everyone knows, I try my best to steer clear of controversy on this blog. But these are times that try the soul. Here’s something that just makes me want to scream!
Rough play? References to wine, sex prompt BYU to cancel U of U production of Greek play
That’s the headline in one media outlet reporting how Brigham Young University, the Salt Lake City school owned by the Church of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), canceled a performance of Euripides’ Greek tragedy, The Bakkhai, just hours before it was scheduled to be shown.
Let’s break it down. The Bakkhai (sometimes Bacchae) premiered in Athens in 405 B.C. It is a morality tale, relating a fierce confrontation between Dionysus, the Greek God of wine, and the temporal King of Thebes, Pentheus. Dionysus calls upon the people to celebrate his annual Festival in the usual way, with wine-drinking, dancing and sex. Pentheus, a rather conservative sort who was the ancient Greek equivalent of the Family Research Council (or perhaps Mike Huckabee is a better example), doesn’t believe it’s right for the people to so indulge, and orders Dionysus’s arrest. However, the table is turned on Pentheus, proving that it’s a terrible idea to challenge a God, particularly one so popular with the people. Pentheus is torn apart by his own mother, who exhibits his head as a trophy. The Bakkhai has been called “the most horrific, powerful and theatrical of all Greek tragedies.”
The production, staged by the University of Utah’s Department of Theatre and Media Arts, had been scheduled as part of its 39th annual Classical Greek Theatre Festival, and was to have been shown at BYU. You can imagine the dismay of the 350 BYU students who purchased tickets when they were abruptly refunded their money and told the play wasn’t happening.
What prompted BYU to muzzle it? University officials knuckled down on the Univ. of Utah, and who knows what local political and religious pressures they brought to bear. The play’s producer, James Svendsen, offered this lame excuse: the production “does not really fit the BYU proscenium arch theater nor their audience.” If you believe that, I have a Tabernacle Choir to sell you. Is it really credible that the producer would have discovered his play didn’t fit onto BYU’s stage hours before it was to open? And in what way did the play not “fit” BYU”s audience? Isn’t that a judgment that the 350 people who bought tickets should have made, rather than had imposed upon them?
What really freaked BYU out was the “gender-bending in the casting” and “abundance of phallic symbols and cleavage” in the play (this, according to Svendsen). In the straight, white, male-dominated Mormon culture, any artistic expression, no matter how rooted in history, that doesn’t accord with their idea of correctness must be quashed, censored, driven underground. (And don’t forget, the Mormons were behind last year’s Proposition 8 campaign in California.)
The Mormons were also clearly obsessed with the focus on wine, notwithstanding its place in the Bible of both the Hebrews and Jesus. Wine is evil, because it lets people relax and be themselves instead of following some imposed mania, and so it must be resisted!!
Look, we’re not talking about some weird performance artist covering herself in chocolate and licking it off, or about the head of Jesus Christ in a jar of urine. I can understand why people would find those objectionable. No, we’re talking about an ancient Greek play by one of their greatest tragedians. The Bakkhai deals with a perfectly reasonable and important topic: the relationship between God and man. The Bible, Shakespeare, even modern playwrites like Kafka have asked precisely the same questions: Who is man to give his devotions to? What are the consequences of the clash between spiritual and civil authority? Jesus wisely recommended rendering unto Caesar, etc., and our own U.S. Constitution took the same route, famously prohibiting, in the First Amendment, the establishment of a State-sponsored religion.
But obviously, some reactionary religious groups never have been comfortable with the separation of Church and State. They would prefer to see governance and theology tightly intertwined, even in the halls of academia, where freedom of inquiry and expression ought to be celebrated, not despised. Why is that? And why is it that such people so often hate wine and the spirit of freedom it inspires?
Well, at least the Salt Lake Tribune gave The Bakkhai a glowing review, advising playgoers to “get there early to catch dramaturg Jim Svendsen’s informative introduction.” Too bad BYU crushed it.
Dionysus won’t be playing in Salt Lake. Maybe San Fran?