The Playgoer: "Springer" Opera done in by protests

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

"Springer" Opera done in by protests

The terrific UK musical Jerry Springer: The Opera can't keep up the fight anymore against organized campaigns by christian fundamentalists, which are finally taking their toll on tickets sales of its ambitious national tour. Polly Toynbee opines in the Guardian with lots of chilling details:

For 552 performances in London it was a smash hit with no controversy. It even had good reviews in the Church Times and the Catholic Herald. It wasn't until the BBC broadcast it that the evangelical extremists of Christian Voice saw their chance. Rude, lewd and raucous the show certainly is - but not enough to stop Cherie Blair [wife of PM Tony] taking her children to see it. Blasphemous it barely is. It is just not true that Christ is presented as a coprophiliac - but then the protesters never bothered to see the show. Even if it were blasphemy, outrage has to be tolerated. But Christian Voice got more than 60,000 people to protest to the BBC and put the home addresses of BBC executives on the internet, attracting death threats requiring police protection.

The tour was planned for 39 cities, but the furore panicked many venues, especially those run by local councils. Christian Voice wrote to every theatre, warning of prosecution if they put the show on. If it wasn't the blasphemy law then it would be the new, untried "incitement to religious hatred" bill then progressing through parliament. After more than a third of the theatres pulled out in panic, only 23 weeks of bookings remained - too few to have any chance of recouping costs. The authors waived their royalties and the producers decided to take the loss; the Arts Council tipped in a little so people in the regions could see something they regarded as excellent....

Far from all publicity being good publicity, it put off the usual audience for musicals, who assumed this show must be all filth, shock and schlock. Fear of running the gauntlet of rabid zealots also kept many away. Most local reviews were raves, but too late for ticket sales. No wonder evangelicals gloat on their websites that they have won and that the production is "under a curse" financially. Censorship has many weapons.
As you can imagine, the show has had significant trouble finding any US producer or company committed to taking on the Christianists on these shores. Nor will any American television network--even PBS or cable arts stations--air the BBC version.

(The "incitement to religious hatred" legilsation referred to, of course, is the measure taken up by parliament to appease angry Muslims, Mohammed-cartoon style.)

As Toynbee indicates, the fuss--as usual--is over something kind of incidental to the play, the appearance of Jesus as a character in the "Jerry in Hell" finale. Yes, Jesus in hell, I know. It's definitely irreverent--but no more than "South Park." But enough to qualify the show as a political football. Perhaps what's more threatening is the idea of a successful piece of satirical popular theatre that mixes high and low and dares not to declare Christianity off-limits.


June said...

And of course, it's not just the Christianists. Sikhs in Birmingham managed to shut down the play Behzti after protests and disturbances outside the original venue. The author essentially withdrew the play from circulation after facing death threats.

Playgoer said...

I've had the pleasure of reading "Behzti" recently, actually. The fact that the writing was so good made me even more frustrated at the scandal, and Birmingham's caving. It will probably impede its ability to be done here, which is a shame.

Anonymous said...

It seems that we may need a kind of Arts Action Strike Force - an elite squad of people to go to places where such silliness is happening and mobilize people in opposition to the forces of silence and anti-art. They can be our equivalent to Special Forces. Equipped with a thorough understanding of public relations, resistance organizing, arts funding, theatricality and blogging, they can go in and take on the Fundamentalists (of whatever ilk) with lethal--at least ideologically lethal--force.