God and Death in Houston
By Daniel Rigney
Last week was an eventful one for me. On Monday morning my father died peacefully, but not unexpectedly, after a long illness that ended his remarkable and thoughtful life as a scientist, educator, and man about home. Whatever analytical abilities and sense of humor I have, I owe largely to him.
On the following Saturday, far-right Gov. Rick Perry of Texas convened a (non)political prayer rally, half-packing an NFL stadium in Houston with some 30,000 faithful religious conservatives, plus me and a few other lost souls. Blogging pad in hand, I observed and later reported the (a)political event in this space on August 8.
With these two events still vividly juxtaposed in mind, I’ve been in an even-more-reflective-than-usual mood this week, pondering the imponderables and contemplating the eternal variables. Having ended last week by attending Perry’s (a)political prayerapalooza, it is perhaps only fair and balanced that I should end this week by attending a stage performance of the notoriously non-Christian Woody Allen’s “God and Death,” performed admirably in a black-box theater in downtown Houston by the Back Porch Players.
“God” and “death” are words that have been rolling around in my head all week. How appropriate that I should be attending a stage play about religion and death just now. (Don’t try to tell me that’s just a coincidence.)
I like to imagine that if my Dad had been sitting next to me, he would have laughed at many of the same lines I did today.
Woody Allen has been informing my sense of humor at least since the 1970s, when his film “Play It Again, Sam” lightened a dark moment in my life. (Indeed, I have sometimes described myself as a kind of gentile Woody Allen in my comic sense.) “God and Death” is based on two one-act plays from Allen's Without Feathers (1975), performed back-to-back. Each deals with anxiety, morbid dread, and metaphysical uncertainty as comic predicaments. In other words, they were written by Woody Allen. Strangely absent, though, is Woody’s usual hand-wringing about the Role of the Artist in Society.
These are existential comedies, and they are not for every taste. (Warning: Don’t overthink these. You may be charged with committing an act of intellect, a misdemeanor in some U.S. jurisdictions, particularly in the Shallow South.)
The first one-act features players-within-a-play-within-a-play set in ancient Athens. The characters in this philosophical dialogue have names like Diabetes and Bursitis – things people don’t normally joke about, especially when these are in their own repertoire of ailments. But this is a special occasion: the act of asking whether life has any inherent meaning or purpose, whether there is a “God,” whether there is life after life, etc., etc. I won’t trouble you here with my own responses to these questions, except to say that I think we can question the questions themselves. But that’s a whole other series of blogposts.
The second play deals with fear of death, real or imagined kafkaesque conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, social panics, and the general insanity of the human species. In other words, it’s a very contemporary piece, and probably always has been.
I won’t give away the ending here (spoiler alert) except to say that (second and more urgent alert) someone dies. (I tried to warn you. Did you listen?) But that’s not important now.
What is important is that even in the face of Existential Uncertainty and Death we can still cock our heads to the side, squint (even as Monty Python's Brian has squinted), and find humor amid the tragedy. Most tragedies, anyway. I can think of a few that aren't funny from any angle.
Thanks again, Woody,* and thanks again, Dad. It’s been great laughing with you.
*My records show that this is the first commentary on Woody Allen in nearly twenty years that has not brought up you-know-what.