“Bless me Father, for I have sinned.”
“And what is your sin, my son?”
“Sacrilege! That is serious. What did you do?”
“On SuperBowl Sunday, I skipped the game and took my wife to a movie.”
I should point out that this sin resulted, as sin occasionally does, in immediate retribution. In the trendy area of town in which the movie was playing, there are dozens of restaurant, but all save one of them was closed for the game, as befits the honor due a great holiday. And the one that was open featured indifferent food but dozens of big-screen TV’s so the diners could watch the game. This was a kind of mercy, as the dullness of the game was a perfect complement to the indifference of the food.
Now, I don’t know for sure, but I feel reasonably certain that none of these restaurants will close for three hours on Good Friday, and I suspect they will all do a booming business on Easter Sunday. It seems difficult to reach any other conclusion but that for all this country’s vaunted “Christianity,” our real reverence lies with another god entirely. Religion is tolerated, but football is revered; the contrast of requirements for Good Friday and Super Sunday (and I don’t mean Easter) reveal what we really are.
This “toleration” of religion, which is really simply indifference, was illustrated perfectly by the movie we saw, The Lady in the Van, about an old bag lady who lives in her van. She browbeats the playwright Alan Bennett into letting her park her van in his driveway “for three months,” but ends up staying there until her death, 15 years later. Now, you would think that having an old derelict van on your driveway for 15 years would illicit some real interest in the old, derelict lady it contains. But you would be wrong.
In the first place, the movie really should have been titled, Alan Bennet, Alan Bennett, for there are not one, but two Alan Bennett’s in the film, “the one who writes and the one who lives.” If that trope were not irritating enough in itself, most of the story concerns Mr. Bennett’s conversations with his alter ego. This self-absorption is not presented with any sense of irony; rather, we are supposed to admire his constant inner dialog. But in truth, this alter ego really was necessary, since only another Alan Bennett could possibly find Mr. Bennett’s conversation interesting. But on the other hand, I must admit that he is, apparently, a successful playwright and people pay to hear his words, so what do I know?
Bennett’s attitude toward the Lady is a mixture of irritation and indifference. He does not bother to inquire into the details of her life until after she is dead, and then only so he can write this play about her. That is to say, she held no interest for him until that interest could be commercialized. If that’s not a metaphor for modern social relations, then I don’t know what is. Indeed, the commercialization of personal relations is the whole idea behind Facebook.
The only really interesting character is the “bag lady,” a Miss Mary Sheppard, but we get so little of her, just a few “character” bits, through which Maggie Smith can display her considerable talent; the dowager of Downton slides seamlessly into derelict of Camden. Would that she had more scope for her talent in this film, but as it is, this is no more than a “character” part, and she plays not much more than a cameo role in her own story. The real “hero” of course is the author. Both of them.
Miss Sheppard was at one time a concert pianist and a former nun, but Bennett won’t know this until after her death. Bennett sees her spend hours in fervent prayer, but takes no interest; he sees her being visited by a sinister man, who is obviously intent on blackmail, but he takes no interest. She is being blackmailed for the crime of leaving the scene of a fatal accident, and she mistakenly believes herself responsible for a young man’s death. All of these details could have been combined to examine a talented but troubled woman’s slide into mental illness, but the illness is treated as more or less a given rather than as something worth examining.
From the standpoint of playwriting, this really is a series of missed opportunities. For example, it would be interesting to contrast the self-absorbed world of Alan Bennett with the closed-in world of the van, but we do not get this. Bennett is portrayed as having a series of homosexual lovers, but they all seem to be gigolos. What a rich comparison could have been made of the inability of the “sane” playwright to form attachments with the same problem for the “insane” bag lady. Indeed, drama is composed of contrasts, but this play is composed of refusals to seriously examine contrasts.
Bennett has unintentionally written a metaphor for modern “charity,” which is a mere simulacrum of the real thing. His charity consists merely in a donation of excess wealth, in this case a bit of unused real estate (Bennett has no car, and hence no use for a driveway), but which excludes any real involvement, any real caritas. It is a matter of purchasing a good conscience, and doing so at the lowest price possible; it is, after all, just another commodity. At the end of this film, Bennett and his driveway are honored for his “charity,” and rewarded with a movie and a play. His “charity” turned out to be a good investment.
And just as accidentally, Bennett has written a metaphor for modern “tolerance.” The crazy Catholic is to be tolerated, so long as she keeps to her own space, but she is not to be engaged. Indeed, we will even give her a little space, on the edges, but she is not to be admitted to the house, as she would just stink up the place. Such “tolerance” is really a means to keep people “in their place,” a place that is really a ghetto, and the smaller the ghetto the better. Such “tolerance” allows us to feel good about ourselves without actually doing any good, or exposing ourselves to any real alternatives, any real meaning.
It is no wonder that people today prefer sports to ideas. The footballer takes real risks and provides real drama; the playwright does neither. And even our religion is a pale imitation of what it was, something that has not so much been marginalized as something that has marginalized itself. We have accepted our little ghetto and are grateful for our little space. So perhaps I am wrong; perhaps the sports fan has placed his reverence is the only place it can really rest in the ersatz “reality” in which we live. Perhaps only they have grasped the real point that there is no longer any real point to modern life.
At the very least, there was no real point to this play.