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17.4.11

Racing Demon


Usually, when I read a play for the second time, I like it more. That didn't happen with Racing Demon. I first read this play during a wonderful course on British Drama at NYU. I adored it. It felt risky, and dangerous, pushing boundaries about what could be said (and shown) about religion onstage. As an ex-Catholic (ask me for the story over a drink), I can appreciate the ritualistic comfort that church provides. I can also understand, however, why the men of Racing Demon struggle to fulfill their mission.

The play is about a group of clergymen, struggling to do God's work. They are in a town that needs them but doesn't exactly turn out in droves on Sunday mornings. The men are a hodgepodge - ranging from committed to doubting. Lionel, arguably the conscience of the play, leans more towards the doubting end of the scale. He believes in the importance of their work, but he wants to talk straight to the people - show them that he has fears and doubts, too. Unfortunately, the townsfolk don't want their priest to be 'like everyone else' - they want him to be unshakable. Naturally, they complain. Lionel's superior, the Bishop of Southwark puts him in his place, telling him:
As a priest you have only one duty. That's to put on a show.
Lionel gets the point. He'll try harder to be what people want him to be. Meanwhile, a new, young recruit joins Lionel's group - his name is Tony. He's a radical. He believes that the clergy should be more active in recruiting people to find God. He believes Lionel is being complacent. Lionel tries to explain that while he may see things differently than Tony, they believe in the same thing, essentially:
In God everlasting. As I understand it. And in his Son, who came so that people might know God was close. And in the Holy Spirit. Who of the three always seems to me much the most mysterious. Much the shadiest, as you might say. 
What Tony doesn't understand, being new to the parish, is that "bums on seats" on Sundays isn't the only way to judge a town's spirituality.

Re-reading the play this time, it felt less dangerous. Not as shocking. Does this mean I am just harder to shock? Perhaps. Granted, at this point, the play is over twenty years old. It was written in 1990 and first performed at the National in London. What has not changed since the first read is my belief that David Hare is an amazing writer. I have read many of his other plays - I highly recommend Stuff Happens and The Blue Room.

So, despite the fact, that I wasn't as blown away this go-around, I remain enamored of the characters that Hare has created.

There is a beautiful love story between Rev. Harry and his Scottish lover Ewan, an actor who never feels satisfied with Harry. He asks him:
Why don't you fight? Why don't you fight for me? That's all I want. To be loved enough so that someone will fight for me. So that I can start to exist.
Still a controversial topic today, a homosexual love affair in the British religious community within the world of the play was not easily accepted. Harry and Ewan keep their love a secret, even when a snooping reporter comes around, trying to get a rise out of the men. Ewan tells him off in a heartfelt monologue:
You'll never get me, you know? You won't get anyone. I'll tell you why. Because what people still have ... which is theirs... which belongs to them... which is precious... is what happens in private. That's right. And that's why you want it. That's why you want to slime all over it. Because it is private. And in private, there's still some decency. 
Zing. Take that, media!

One of my favorite devices that Hare uses throughout the play is having the men speak their prayers out loud - in essence, through soliloquy. Each prayer ends with a question that will then become a point of dramatic action. For example, Lionel asks:
Why do the good always fight among themselves?
This comes about the time that we see the priests turning on each other. Politics exist in all organizations, no matter how pure the intention. Deep in prayer, Rev. Donald, aka Streaky, asks another question:
The whole thing's so clear. You're there. In people's happiness. Tonight, in the taste of that drink. Or the love of my friends. The whole thing's so simple. Infinitely loving. Why do people find it so hard? 
If only it were that easy.

I would be interested to see this play and Doubt in rep.. that would spark some interesting conversations. Thoughts?

Tomorrow's Play: Laughter on the 23rd Floor by Neil Simon

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