Review: Hell House ~ theatre notes

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Review: Hell House

Some notes

I saw Back to Back's Hell House - or, at least, the Hell House part of it - on Friday. I've been thinking about it ever since, and I want to get some thoughts down before I head off to see Robert Lepage's Lipsync this afternoon and my head is full of something else. These notes will be hasty and provisional, but I suspect that their discursive nature is what the experience is intended to provoke. Hell Houses are a recent phenomenon in America's Middle West, which draw on the US tradition of making haunted houses for Hallowe'en as a means of conversion. They take their audiences on a tour of contemporary sin, showing in gruesome and absolute terms what their fate will be if they don't embrace Jesus. Significantly, they are directed towards children. Rather amusingly, Back to Back warn that the show isn't suitable for audiences under 18.

Back to Back have picked up a version from Keenan Roberts, of the New Christian Destiny Centre, that's franchised over the internet. "The method is timely! The message is timeless! Desperate times call for drastic measures! If your church or ministry is determined to take a stand against sin and the kingdom of darkness and to reach people for Jesus like never before, then this outreach is for you!" It comes as a theatrical kit: "Piece by piece, prop by prop, costume by costume - the master plan is organized in a comprehensive manual," says the website. "This sizzling evangelism event is designed to capture the attention of our sight and sound culture!" And Back to Back have faithfully realised this hokey piece of theatre, with the help of a huge cast of volunteers from Geelong, at the North Melbourne Meat Market.

In groups of 25 or so, audiences are taken through a series of scenarios, walking from space to space. It opens with a funeral service, where Satan - done up in horns and red make-up - gloats over a man who has died of AIDS. "He thought he was born gay! Hahaha!" Next up is a gruesome enactment of an abortion, where brutal medical staff remove chunks of flesh from inside a protesting woman. Other scenes include the brutal aftermath of a car accident, in which a drunk driver has killed his wife and daughter, and a Satanic ritual where gamers worship Satan with human sacrifice.

Then we are given a short tour of Hell, where damned souls are eternally tormented. Finally Satan reveals his wicked plots to possess our souls, before an angel appears, driving off the demons, and guides us into a kitschy heaven. Here Jesus stands on astroturf in a white dome, surrounded by dancing angels, and tells us that He is the only recourse we have against death and Satan. Finally we are spilled out into the applauding community, to be welcomed with red cordial and lamingtons and a country and western band.

Created with the resources and imagination of Back to Back, Hell House makes the most of these crude and naive visions: they have a kind of chutzpah that seems strangely true to their origins. Here are all the fundamentalist Christian obsessions: homosexuality, abortion, drug addiction and so on, with a frank promise that a dire and eternal fate awaits anyone who falls for the Machiavellian wiles of the Devil. There is only one problem (Satan) and only one answer (Jesus). And only one motivation: fear, properly guarded by angels of paranoia. It's here you see the seduction of simplicity: if you believe this, you don't have to deal with any of the complexities of modernity. To address complexity itself is one of the wiles of Satan, tempting you from the true path of the Christian.

Of course, the axis is belief. A secular adult audience in Melbourne, attending this as a theatrical event, is quite different from a credulous audience of teens in a faith-based community in Colorado. It's impossible not to respond to this show ironically, or not to laugh at its larger absurdities, its grand guignol theatricality. But underneath that I felt a deeper dismay: here writ large is an enormous poverty.

The driving force in this theatre is fear (of death, in particular) and hatred (of anyone who listens to Satan - homosexuals, non-Christians, the Other). But these are distractions from real problems, real grievances, using the emotional energies of those who feel marginalised or alienated and funnelling them into belief. Fundamentalist churches offer a sense of community in places where community is degraded and threatened, a culture where culture barely exists, certainty and security where people struggle at the margins, purpose where purpose is hard to find. And somehow, in the determinedly ignorant certainties portrayed in this weird work of theatre, all this lack is theatricalised: curiosity and doubt, the seeds of intellectual and spiritual life, are nowhere present.

They do present a kind of hell: it's the hell that makes this kind of absolutism possible. The irony is, of course, that this very absolutism ensures that these worldly hells will continue: Fundamentalist Christianity depends on social alienation to gain its congregations. It's worth remembering that US-style Evangelical Christianity is a fast growing force in the outer suburbs of Melbourne. The only books I have ever thrown into the bin are some literature my children picked up in the city proselytising this kind of Christianity. They are templates for hatred.

Unsurprisingly, Back to Back has contextualised this work very carefully. There are large notices on the wall before you enter the theatre, explaining the history of hell houses and the company's attitude towards them: "an anthropological study of a particular faith-based community theatre of Middle America". The entire show is physically designed so that after the experience, the audience spills into a panel discussion. The discussion is, I'm told, the whole point of the exercise. There are debates after each performance, on topics such as provocation, belief and morality.

I didn't go to the panel that followed Hell House. I felt properly rebuked later, but some deeper feeling prompted this. Given the set-up, it was in fact easier to stay than to go: the Meat Market has been converted into such a maze that it's hard to find your way out. Afterwards I wondered about my reasons for not wanting to go. Perhaps I wanted to think about it on my own, before the experience was domesticated into discourse; perhaps I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I could predict the kind of discussion the show might prompt; perhaps I already know where I sit in relation to the "other" represented through this work of theatre. 

I think there were a couple of other impulses at work: primarily, that I wanted to respond to the theatre, rather than the discussion. Does enfolding discussion into the work threaten to obscure the thing itself? Is the act of theatre diffused and disempowered through directed discourse of this kind? If the panel discussion was the point, why bother making a work of theatre at all? Was Hell House in fact the right kind of provocation to such discussions?

One suspects another kind of fear: that Back to Back's presentation of it might be misunderstood, and taken to endorse the sentiments of the show: ie, that its denunciation of gays, or crude, inaccurate portrayal of abortion, might be read without irony. Given the fuss about Ganesh and the Third Reich, it's understandable that Back to Back might be super careful about exploring religion again.

So, even though I knew that the theatre I had seen was overtly performed as a provocation to a public discussion, even though the whole thing was physically designed to send me out into the generous space of discussion, I went home. This says more, and more contradictory, things about me than the show: isn't TN itself about public discussion? I went home and googled hell houses, and thought about the kinds of communities where this kind of work is presented without irony, without provoking laughter or disgust. The word that kept coming back was poverty.

Nothing in the theatre had a hope of challenging anything I think; but the unambiguity of its message is, sadly, the location of its power. Anyone who knows anything about the fundamentalisms operating in US politics won't be surprised by what it reveals, but there still remains something shocking in its crudity, in how the logic of this kind of absolute belief entirely shuts down any kind of critique. I guess this is theatre as symptom.

Hell House: Provocation, Belief and Morality. From a kit by Senior Pastor Keenan Roberts, directed by Bruce Gladwin. Back to Back Theatre at the Meat Market, North Melbourne Arts House. Closes tonight, August 5.


Casey Bennetto said...

Having not seen it, I shouldn't really comment, but you articulate your disquiet well. I wonder: isn't the experience best presented in its original, bleak sincerity? Doesn't the attempt to remove the potential for misunderstanding lessen the work in some way?

There's a great tourist attraction in Glenrowan called "Ned Kelly's Last Stand", an "animatronic" recounting of Kelly's exploits that is so awful as to be amazing. (Bill Bryson writes about it at length in "Down Under".) The last time I went, the show concluded with an unsolicited tour through the proprietor's living quarters - it was creepy in a way that the Kelly part of the show couldn't touch. It was in essence a perfect two-act play.

Now, the broader social resonance of "Ned Kelly's Last Stand" is of course not a patch on what Back2Back seem to be going for here. But it sounds like both pieces (meaning the "show" part of each) have in common an underscore of unrelenting singlemindedness - a determination to annihilate ambiguity and admit only one interpretation. That pressure, properly presented, should be something to which we viscerally respond - with wholehearted kowtowing and enthusiasm, with great resentment at our railroading and rough handling, with laughter, etc., whichever path we feel. I don't think we should necessarily need counselling afterwards, or be encouraged to reflect on the deeper implications if we don't want to. Surely the experience is more interesting, more provocative, if taken uninflected?

If you must have a postlude, I'd think I might prefer the quietly Lynchian visions of the post-Kelly show. The serious intentions of the proprietor - the unabashed pride in the show, the determination to show us round the (strangely "un-lived in") place, all of that - made for genuine, disconcerting tension. There's a significant difference between a deliberate portrayal of theatrical/ideological singlemindedness and an accidental one - the former is giving the lie to itself just by being there.

So, for mine, I hope the chief topic of the post-"Hell House" discussion is the earnestness of the post-"Hell House" discussion. Otherwise surely we become what we behold?

Keep in mind: I haven't seen the show and, even if I had, I rarely if ever know what the hell it is I'm talking about.

But, seriously, get ye to Glenrowan.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Casey - thanks for that. That Ned Kelly show sounds pretty fascinating.

I'd be interested to hear from anyone who attended any of the panels what the post-show discussions added, what they addressed, etc. You can't talk about the effect of something if you didn't attend. Naturally. I can only talk about my refusal.

In particular, I wonder if any of the panels addressed poverty as an issue.

Anonymous said...

I managed the trip through The Inferno once, and two of the fora.... forums.... postshow thangs. And I have to acknowledge front and centre that I am (a) on the board of this company (b) an unabashed admirer and (c) (apparently) an academic - so....
I tried to ask a question about the experience of watching a representation of a performance which would normally be performed by fervent believers - and what the distance between the originary imagination and the representation meant - particularly about performance. The responses became a bit mashed up with discussion of othering, deontology, and the pornography of violence and suffering - mostly in the world rather than in the performance. I think, however, it was one of the questions the project sought to ask, particularly in the light of the set of riveting, unresolved questions it continues to pose about working in the gap between the real and the performed, the assumption and the challenge. I think the sort of ambiguity you are talking about Casey is in the context in which the work is presented - confronting the godless relativists with a vision of unrelenting singlemindedness and asking them to make sense of it. For this godless relativist it was a reminder that Hell is other people.
When he saw a performance in New York (done by avid believers), Bruce said that it was the worst piece of theatre he had ever seen and that it brought home to him that the Right seldom gets a guernsey on stage.
BTW - I had to leave yesterdays forum before the end, but it was interesting to watch the representative of the Catholic Church determinedly avoid repeated provocation to address issues of homosexuality and abortion. Yoni

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Yoni - thanks for those reports. Yes, indeed - that gap is fascinating. It is this re-placing so different from the questions raised when Duchamp placed a urinal in an art gallery and called it Fountain? Except that instead of an object we have an event that is radioactive with meaning/s. Certainly wrenches perception sideways in ways that Back to Back is so good at. What if some other thing was placed beside it? that 2002 documentary Stevie (for instance) which was shown recently on the ABC: one of the things that struck me about that one was when Stevie's mother was born again, how predatory it seemed of the church, how startkly it was fixing on and feeding on despair. Maybe I wonder if the discussion, if there was to be one, needed some other pole in order to spark, something to triangulate the thought.

Casey Bennetto said...

Thanks Yoni!

I understand - or have presumed - that the intention is to present the work in a manner as 'straight' (if that's at all the right word) and singleminded as possible - it would be weak sauce indeed if it were openly mocking the work for cheap laughs - but surely we can't help but bring context to it. This comes in a Back To Back wrapper, so we *know* its intent is to confront and provoke discussion about these issues; the more strident the polemic, the more we nod and stroke our goatees (at least those of us who have 'em). The work may be singleminded, but we already take it for granted that the vision behind it is far from that; indeed, to present dogma in order to examine and question it is almost the *opposite* performance to the original author's intent.

I know, I know - then we end up playing university games about whether William Carlos Williams writes a fridge note or a poem. But the discussion, the explanation, removes ambiguity even as it discusses it. I'd have loved to see Back To Back storm out and say "We've had a religious conversion, and here, we must present this" - so at least the wrapping contained its own questions.

But, again, haven't seen it, and definitely arguing from an undergraduate understanding myself, so... best I shut up about now? :)

Alison Croggon said...

What can't be replicated is the motivation of belief - there will be audience members in the original pieces who will really believe that they will go to hell, and those who make it, however cynically they exploit the form, believe it too. I can only imagine that fear, I can't experience it as any kind of reality. It's easier for me to imagine that notion when I read Dante, because Inferno is intentionally a work of art and is designed to provoke self-reflection, but I guess it's worth remembering that Inferno is based on garish popular publications of the time that were just as hokey as Hell Houses, only in that case St Paul was the guide through Hell.

Pretending to a belief they didn't hold would have been a dubious move, I think. But I agree that Back to Back's presentation itself creates a context that prompts a reflective response.

Born Dancin' said...

I felt the discussion was an fascinating part of the performance because it introduced a different dynamic of authority, itself an essential element of organised religion. We became churchgoers, in a sense, and were told of ways of interpreting the sacred text. Of course leaving is a valid option too - reflecting that form of spirituality that involves a private, individual relationship with the sacred. But thinking about how a communal homily shifts the meaning of the thing itself is worth doing.

We do seem to be leaving out the question of questioning, though. The trouble with Hell House is that it doesn't seem to demand its audience question what's really going on in any complex and self-contradictory way. But that, I think, is the point. If it were to openly waggle its finger at fundamentalism - or, conversely, the secular liberal vision of fundamentalism - it would be reproducing another, perhaps more insidious kind of conservatism that is maybe the antithesis of really interesting art.

So the problem is a fine one. I feel that B2B implicitly trusts its audience can grapple with these questions without handholding. Certainly, at the discussion I attended, people were raising these issues from the pews, including people I'd seen sniggering during the performance (and had recoiled from).

And if an audience member does just shake the head and chuckle 'those Christians!', it's not a failure of the work.

(And nice reference to WCW, Casey - was one of the old uni reference points that immediately sprang to mind for me as well).

Born Dancin' said...

That's right, "an fascinating". That is what I meant.

Casey Bennetto said...

A context that prompts a reflective response is a context that swamps us and tempers the nonce.

But yes, exactly. To me the framing of the show as "this is what THEY say" (which the fact of the discussion itself contributes to) is a long way from the original's, which is not "this is what WE say" but "this IS". (It seems to be that the context sets up an implicit "this is NOT".) All interesting questions, of course. Now I have to go and see it.

Born Dancin' - I think I hear that poem in the voice of Chris Wallace-Crabbe.

Casey Bennetto said...

By the way, after "tempers the nonce" above, it should say
" < grimace > < clutches head > "

Alison Croggon said...

Always a Gnostic, me. (Trying not to type "fascinating", which I've said far too often now). But thanks John, a most useful insight to the panel. For me, the very lack of questions in the piece prompted a whole lotta questioning: I mean, it was addressing teen suicide, abortion, addiction and so on, all serious social issues, with a staggering certainty and unambiguity that in itself opened, even violently, an absence in which those questions arose. But this assumes that one is at an oblique angle to the show, not part of it: a witness, not a participant in the way people are intended to participate. I mean, it's so crude I'm not even sure it qualifies as propaganda. I'm sure I'm not alone in finding that prompted questioning, and I'm sure, like you, that Back to Back trusted its audience to do that.