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Published: 8 october 2012 11:42

Rimvydas Valatka: Seimas prudes turn to theatre criticism

Lithuanian Parliament, which seemed as good as dead just a week ago, suddenly sprang into life. And not over some trivial matters like legislation, the prolonged economic crisis, euro zone collapse, depopulation, or mass unemployment. An MP would not lose any sleep over that. No, what revived the Seimas was their shared hatred of the arts. A play by Romeo Castellucci, “On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God.”

Ex-conservative MP Žiemelis embraced conservative MP Aleknaitė-Abramikienė who, in turn, joined forces with Klumbys of the Order and Justice and one more MP, a nationalist (therefore pagan). For God and Motherland! Unprecedented mockery of Christian symbols! Ban the play! Fire the theatre management! “Cultural paedophilia!” the conservative lady trembled with indignation. For two days in a row, the Seimas clowns were playing theatre critics and reviewing the play, without neglecting to periodically express their utter horror – whenever a TV camera was around.

Did any of the Seimas prudes even see the Italian play? Not a chance. Yet what they heard from God-knows-where was more than enough to convince them that the (Catholic) sky was falling. Vilnius Archdiocese had published a statement urging God-fearing Catholics to fight such art. A few priests invited to boycott the theatre festival and the entire season at the National Drama Theatre.

When it comes to bishops, such over-reactions are hardly news – they managed to banish the poetry of our national author and priest Maironis from churches, so Castellucci didn't stand a chance. It seems that Lithuanian Christianity is turning into barbarism – much like in Portugal, where the authorities banished Saramago for his Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Only because the Nobel-Prize-winning novel slightly strayed from the accepted Gospels. Because Christ was depicted slightly more humane and less God-like.

Did any of the Seimas prudes even see the Italian play? Not a chance.

But, as some would argue, this kind of art can insult believers, hurt their feelings! It certainly can and not only believers. Many things in life hurt our feelings. But we are not the Taliban, so why does our Parliament make such a fuss about it? Even though you can't argue with taste, the crucial question to ask is this: did the creator do it intentionally to provoke or was he trying to say something he thought was meaningful?

And if the former is the case, no one in a free state has the right to order artists what and how to create or ban their work. If an artist, in pursuit of popularity, goes slightly over the top (but again, the Seimas prudes should better look at themselves and their desperate rating-seeking ways), his or her play will simply fail to attract audiences. And that alone is a legitimate criterion to decide if a piece of art has the right to exist.

On the other hand, one must understand the Catholic Church of Lithuania, too. Just like the play has every right to be performed, so does everyone who thinks it sacrilegious have every right to express their views. It is one of the perks that come with freedom.

One could, however, infer some bad faith on Cardinal Bačkys' and the bishops' part. Why the sudden interest in Castellucci's play, after years of silently observing a much more profane farce in Garliava?

The Church was silent when its priests were saying Mass for a murderer, when two clergymen even joined the party named after the murderer and now run for Parliament. Can it be that breaking God's commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is a lesser evil than the artist's attempt to reflect, in his own way, on Jesus Christ who, I believe, remains the most important figure in the Western civilization? What could Castellucci possibly do to cause such a stir among our Catholic Taliban?

“On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God” has been touring international stages for three years now. It has been boycotted only once, by a single French Catholic organization. How did the Catholic Church of France react to it?

French bishops did issue a condemnation – not of the play but of its censors. Pascal Wintzer, the Archbishop of Poitiers, circulated a communiqué among bishops, saying that protests were unacceptable since they undermine the Church's relations with art and artists. Believers were urged to choose a dialogue.

Pierre d'Ornellas, Archbishop of Rennes, went to see the play and put it even more plainly: “The play does not contain any signs of christianophobia and it is important to understand the author's intention, which will help understand the play.” According to d'Ornellas, “this is what artists do – by using human sensitivities, they manage to show us what we would not otherwise see.”

A completely different message coming from the same Catholic Church. While our local doom-mongers preach about the rotten Europe, one can wonder which position is closer to the Christian ideal of “love thy neighbour” – encouragement to understand or pleas to ban.

But the church has been separated from the state, so let's leave the inquisition-like pathos of Lithuanian hierarchs to their own consciousness and allow Lithuanian believers to do what they please, archaic as their reactions might seem.

We should only concern ourselves with our Seimas spending two days doing nothing more than reviewing a play. I am very tempted to say that the conservatives have abandoned all common sense and embraced dark ignorance – so much so that they want to throw Lithuania back into the times of Glavlit, when Communist Party censors felt qualified enough to rule on the merits of art. Is this something we want?

No political condemnation of our parliamentary pharisees can come close to the effect of Bishop of Antwerp Johan Bonny's words after seeing Castellucci's play: “Even though some staging choices can strike as shocking, the events presented on stage seem very realistic indeed. The artist leads us to the crossroads of our belief. These are thoughts of a man of faith. Such is the message that I got after seeing Castellucci's play.”

In other words, the Seimas prudes – obviously using the staff of Christian shepherds to ride into the paradise of re-election – have failed epically. But let us be graceful and forgive them as good Christians ought to – even though they know what they are doing.

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