Monday, June 1, 2015

Godspell and the Parables (finale): The Prodigal Son

Godspell's Prodigal Son play: Merrell, Jerry, and Jeffrey


As noted in the last post, the action group moves to Cherry Lane Theater, the off-Broadway location where the play became a success. This theater is the setting for the narration and acting out of the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Jesus plays the piano, and the enactment of the Prodigal Son vaudeville-like parable/play incorporates the mode of silent films in theaters, and it also includes clips of silent films to illustrate various scenes of the parable.

Jesus begins the narration, in comic voice, and others in the group, often in comic voices, take turns narrating the story: Lynne, Joanne, Robin, and Katie. Merrell plays the role of the younger son, Jeffrey the older son, Jerry the father, and Judas the servant who informs the older son of the party for the returning younger son. Various scenes from silent films are interspersed throughout the narration and enactment of the parable; these clips are often humorous (e.g., when the prodigal returns home, the film clip shows a man riding a camel down a flight of steps and then a man apparently running on top of water) and include famous actors from the silent era, such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplain. These clips are shown after almost every key line, and sometimes the characters act out the parable in concert with scenes from these silent films.

Unlike the parable, but similar to other interpretations of the parable over the centuries, the reception in Godspell provides a completely happy ending to this parable. Initially, the older brother refuses to come inside the house and join the celebration of his brother’s return. The father, however—Jerry, who is dressed in a huge cowboy hat and speaks with an exaggerated “Western” accent—walks across the stage to speak with his older son: 

Jerry: My boy . . . You have always been with me, and everything I have is yours.  Now could we help but celebrate on this happy day, for your brother here was dead and has come back to life—metaphorically speaking. Was lost and he’s found.

As he is speaking, Jerry brings Jeffrey across the stage to meet Merrell. The boys initially refuse even to look at each other and turn away. Jerry then looks at Jesus, who nods at him. Jerry then comically knocks the boys’ heads together; they fall to their knees and then hug, as their father says, “Them’s my boys.” The scene ends with the whole group cheering and applauding enthusiastically the complete restoration of community within the family.

Once again, all are restored to fellowship.

The film immediately relocates the cast on a pier, where the group boards a boat and sings, “You are the light of the World,” and where they encourage each other to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and be the “City of God.” The goal, as we have seen over and over gain, is kindness:

So let your light so shine before men
Let your light so shine
So that the might know kindness again
. . .
You gotta live right to be the light of the world (score 86-90).

It is only after this scene, more than an hour into the film, that Jesus encounters opposition (in the form of large robot who represents the Pharisees and the doctors of the law, but which is manned by his disciples). Jesus says, “This is the beginning,” and the “Passion narrative” in Godspell begins. It consists of less than thirty minutes of the film.

Godspell is distinctive among Jesus films because it eschews miracles—there is only one represented, and it is presented not as a real miracle (one disciples puts a small branch into an empty pot and watches as Jesus waters it; when she is not looking, another disciple replaces the small branch with a larger one, and the first disciple mistakes it for a miracle of growth).

The film also is distinctive because it incorporates the parables so deeply into the narrative of Jesus’s life and teachings. Jesus is the proclaimer and bringer of the kingdom of God, which is found within the community formed around him. This community, however, grows and develops outside of any interactions with other people, except for the robot that symbolizes the opposition to Jesus and the police cars that drive up near the end of the film right before Jesus’s death. And at the end, the community apparently vanishes as New York City comes back to life at the end of the film with crowds once again filling the streets, leaving the question of the harvest in the parable of the Sower unanswered.  


Many argue that Godspell domesticates both the message of Jesus and Jesus’s life (such domestication is often found in interpreters of Jesus and his parables over the centuries). Others ask, however, whether Godspell also ultimately domesticates the counterculture in the United States in the 1960s (see Walsh 2003: 74).

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