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.