>A new play is premiering tomorrow night at the National Theatre of Catalonia, in my beloved city of Barcelona, entitled “Gang Bang – Open Until the Hour of the Angelus”. As if the title was not enough of an obvious clue, based on [WARNING: graphic material] the press reports I have seen, the plot is a predictably amateurish and puerile mixture of anti-Catholicism and human degradation, fed through a meat grinder. The director-playwright and the actors claim that it is not an attack on the Church, but rather exploring loneliness and spirituality through unconventional expression. They also joke that there is smoking in the play, which is what the audience should find truly controversial given Spain’s new smoking ban.
Because the production is being funded in part by taxpayer money, it was inevitable that complaints would ensue. The National Theatre of Catalonia is a prominent theatre indeed in both influence and actual size; this is not some off-off-Broadway venue. There are already calls by Christian groups for an investigation, and promises of lodging official complaints and the taking of other measures against the government in Catalonia. As often happens of course, the controversy has led to record advance ticket sales.
Much as this sort of thing disturbs us to some degree, it is also an occasion to reflect on what it means to be a gentleman (or lady) in the present age, not only in framing our response but more importantly in examining ourselves. Regular readers know that Castiglione, the inspiration for this blog, has much to say on how a courtier ought to develop himself. What does he have to say about those who shock for the sake of provocation and notoriety?
In his seminal “The Book of the Courtier” (of which title the title of this blog is a pun), Castiglione explains why it is that those of marginal abilities who are seeking wealth, power, fame, or all three, often resort to shock value to make a name for themselves. During a part of the discussion in the book as to how to behave in public, the character of Archbishop Federico Fregoso describes how people who want to become popular are often so lacking in personal humility as to make fools of themselves. “People like this very often embark on certain things without knowing how to finish,” he says, “and they then try to extricate themselves by raising a laugh. But they do this so awkwardly that it does not succeed, and instead their efforts fall flat and they inspire the greatest distaste in whoever sees or hears them.”
Fregoso goes on to criticize the equally common tendency of the under-talented to try to shock others for the sake of shocking. “On other occasions, convinced they are being terribly witty and amusing, they use filthy and indecent language in the presence of ladies, and often to their face,” he states. “And the more they make the ladies blush, the more they are convinced that they are being good courtiers; they never stop laughing and they pride themselves on the fine talents they believe they possess.”
“But the only reason they behave in such a beastly fashion,” continues Fregoso, “is because they think it makes them the life and soul of the party. This is what they think truly laudable and what they pride themselves on most. And so to acquire this reputation they indulge in the most shameful and shocking discourtesies in the world.”
One feels that Castiglione could just as easily apply such descriptions to Josep Maria Miró Coromina, the writer and director of “Gang Bang”. Mr. Miró hails, appropriately enough, from the provincial sausage-making capital of Vic, where he was born in 1977. Through Catalonia’s generous education system he has managed to earn a doctorate in literature and work his way up to the prominent position of becoming a writer in residence at the National Theatre. He has feigned surprise in press interviews at the controversy surrounding his piece, telling people that if they are worried they will be offended they ought not to come and see the play, and that such complaints are completely foreign to his experience due to his age – an oblique reference to his having been born after the death of Spain’s long-reigning dictator General Francisco Franco, under whose fist censorship held sway.
Of course, Mr. Miró’s is a very old canard indeed: so old its feathers and the bits of beak and sinew have been fed into his sausage-making machine. It is typically waved about by shock-makers as a justification for their actions, since no one likes the idea of censoring the free exchange of ideas. In this case, it is their way of seemingly offering what most people want, i.e. a sense of choice. I do not have to eat the nasty broccoli on my plate, and can instead turn my attention to the mashed potatoes and the sausage.
However the point of course is not that one is free not to see the play, any more than one wants to see how to go about getting the bits with which to make sausages. Rather, the issue here is that public money is being used. Since I do not pay taxes in Catalonia, my money is not supporting Mr. Miró’s sausage festival; I can question his artistic integrity from a financially neutral position. Those who do have to pay for it however, have every right to question why they are being forced to do so: that is no choice at all.
This type of controversy is nothing new, of course, for such controversies over funding happen in this country and in Europe on an almost weekly basis. We have seen such things in New York, in Vienna, and here in the Nation’s Capital in recent months, and fortunately there will always be good Catholics in a position to stand up and complain. Sometimes they will succeed in getting the work removed from the taxpayer’s bill, and sometimes not. At first glance, this play is just another example of more of the same.
However, in considering the context of this particular bit of offal, I believe the fact that Mr. Miró set his play on the eve of Pope Benedict XVI’s Papal Visit to Barcelona this past November is a more significant one than he lets on. The popular reception which the Pope received when he came to dedicate the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s most iconic building let alone church, and raise it to the level of a basilica, took many of the commentariat in Catalonia by surprise. The fact that Barcelona, cradle of anarchists for the past century or more, and home to the most leftist of leftist intellectuals in the Iberian Peninsula would be inundated with people overjoyed to see the Pontiff, was no doubt itself a shock to those who thought that the Church was just about finished in Catalonia.
And what is likely even more worrisome to such people were the enormous numbers of young people, with no memory of either General Franco, the Civil War, or a time when they were forbidden to speak Catalan, excited to even catch a glimpse of this elderly German priest and to participate in the mass. Indeed, this past November was a likely preview of what is about to happen when the Pope arrives in Madrid this August for World Youth Day. If the Church as it exists in Catalonia today is no longer any real threat to Mr. Miró or those of his ilk, they would not bother to try to denigrate it. The fact that the flame may be burning low, but has demonstrably not gone out, means that the Church is not as weak as believed.
Ultimately, Mr. Miró’s efforts will fail of course. It is doubtful that any devout Catholics will go to see his play. He may succeed in further hardening the hearts of those who loathe the Church as he obviously does, and he may even convince a few unfortunate theatre-goers to go over the edge and join him. Yet one reason why Castiglione makes the point he does about those who seek to put on an uncouth show, is that no matter how much fame, attention, or popularity such individuals may gain, they know in their heart of hearts – even if they do not choose to admit it – that the more they wallow in filth, the more they disappoint those whose approval they desperately want. And in the case of Mr. Miró and others like him who attack the Church, that person is Christ.