Jerry Springer the Opera

jerryopera2Ian Cooper

What can one make of it? A show that depicts a man who wants his girlfriend to treat him like a baby, wears nappies and gets sexual kicks from soiling his nappy. That was in the first half. In the second half, Jesus, played by the nappy-wearer, is introduced as the ‘son of the fascist tyrant on high’. These are just a couple of examples in a show which has plenty more of that ilk and where the lyrics rely disproportionately on the f word.

Is this some squalid anti-opera on the outer fringes of the fringe at the Edinburgh Festival? Well, yes and no. It started off like that on the Fringe but was later put on in London by our heavily subsidised National Theatre, to critical acclaim.

Let’s give a little context. The first half of the show is a supposed spoof of the Jerry Springer Show. This is a US TV show in which Jerry Springer interviews and exposes the most wretched, dysfunctional people he can find, real stereotypical ‘trailer trash’. They are bribed with money and the promise of TV fame and then their follies, perversions and compulsions are paraded for the entertainment of the public who squeal with both horror and delight at what is essentially a freak show. In the 18th century people went to Bedlam to laugh at the lunatics. Today they watch reality TV. The authors of the opera hit on the idea of sending up Jerry Springer’s Show by putting on their own version to opera. Hey, opera has some wacky plots and great music so why not set this freak show to fine neo-classical music? Well, they push their idea far too far – not least in the language they add – but the nobility of the music does bring out the tragedy of the Hogarthian lives portrayed in all their squalor and utter misery. Some of the songs catch this pain quite well.

If at this stage the opera had launched into a real attack onto the disgusting TV industry which puts on such shows, using and exposing people who actually need help, then it could have been interesting. But no. The Fringe success which had been made up purely on the first half would now have a second half added for the National Theatre production in London. The second half would be a spoof on religion and include God, Jesus, Mary, Eve and the Devil. They were all to be portrayed as equally dysfunctional as the characters in the first half and to be played by the same actors. In fact the message seemed to be that the screwed up people in the first half were the product of the screwed up religion of the second half. Evidence for this comes towards the end when there is a most amazing pantheistic hymn looking forward to a world where there is no good or evil, no right or wrong. Presumably, all is tolerated and somehow all are happy. That the uncle Adolfs and uncle Joes of this world would love the hymn amazingly escapes attention. Even the fact that Jerry Springer in the second half gets a kind of come-uppance doesn’t seem to change anything.

So how did this dog’s breakfast get put on by the National Theatre by talented people with great verve and to critical acclaim? Quite simply, chickens are coming home to roost. The message of the whole of 20th century high culture was that there is no message – no truth, no meaning and no value. Take anyone at almost random, Gauguin, Becket, Sartre, Pinter, Cage – everything is finally absurd. The latest manifestation of this absurdity, post-modernism, has been described as nihilism with a smile. Now what happens when a culture loses the plot? It regresses. Eventually it becomes infantile and Jerry Springer The Opera is just an example: sophisticated metro-trash at one level, but ultimately infantile.

I’ve said nothing about the fact that: the show is deliberately offensive to Christians; that it happened to be put on in Cambridge in the Council subsidised Corn Exchange over Easter Week; that a show similarly offensive to Islam would never have seen the light of day in our ever- so liberal culture. But in a way that’s irrelevant. When the culture is rotten, Christians protesting at its symptoms, while necessary, is not really the main priority. Exposing the secular lie is. What was particularly alarming is that there seemed to be no evidence in the secular response to the show that this trashing of Christian belief would have any consequences. That the good humane values which our culture says it espouses might be connected to these beliefs seemed to cross no one’s mind. Secular ignorance and prejudice know no bounds.

Ian Cooper, 09/06/2006