Sunday, 16 August 2015

The Carpenter’s Son

The Carpenter’s Son

As a play, although it can be seen on YouTube, Dennis Potter’s “Son of Man” looks in part dated and old fashioned; Jesus stripped bare is perhaps too white, too clean, and the black and white, sometimes good, is on a set that is often too bright and overlit. There is however still a good performance by Colin Blakely, very much an unconventional depiction of Christ - this is not Robert Powell!

When we move from the images and read the text, the words of the play are powerful, strong, and challenge the religious status quo as the brief extract below demonstrates.

Potter’s Christ is a real man, full of doubt, and yes – he really laughs. But this is not the mocking laughter of the Gospel of Judas, this is laughter at a cosmic irony, of how man takes the gifts of God and uses them for evil ends, it is laughter at the foolishness of mankind.

There’s also a nice touch when they come across a cross, for the Roman punishment of a criminal, and this leads Jesus into talking about the wood – “good wood, this” – and you really get the impression that he is a carpenter’s son, in a way that is actually surprisingly absent from the gospels themselves.

Although Potter does not here use the phrase “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.”, this would provide a context for that remark from the Gospels; as it stands in the Synoptics, it lacks that context; it is something which Potter gives it.

There is no cross apparent in the Gospels, and no mention of any cross until the passion narrative, and the sentence is actually an anachronism, although because we read the story with hindsight, we gloss over this. It would make no sense to the listeners in its context, as the cross did not possess any significance at that time of Jesus ministry. It is very likely that “take up your cross” is a later interpolation by Mark, looking back just as the reader does.

This part of the play leads into a parable about a tree, which is very good, a strong view of the irony, in which anger is also present at the way the good things of this world are misused, and what Potter says about a meaningful sacrament in this context is very likely to offend some religious sensibilities.

And of course, there is also the dig at the priests – “Priests who talk about the love of God and hold out a collecting box at the same time.”

Potter’s Jesus is a man of many moods, volatile, emotional in his outbursts, subject to self-doubt, and yet still charismatic. This is not portraying Jesus as a fake, but very much as a human being; if anything, it is taking the idea of incarnation very seriously indeed. As Potter said:he wanted to “strip the mysticism away (of the traditional representations of Jesus) in order to find mysticism.””

And Potter’s Jesus has a past; we can see the influence of being “the carpenter’s son”, which is an accusation levied against him in the Gospels, disparagingly, about his humble origins. Here we see it in full force: here is a carpenter’s son, one who has worked with wood –something that most traditional portraits of Jesus forget; it gives him a back story, a context, in which he brings something of his upbringing with him.

Dennis Potter wrote of his Son of Man Jesus in 1992: "There's this brave, witty, sometimes oddly petulant, man striding around in an occupied territory knowing and then not wanting to know that he's bound to die and die painfully. And in the middle of it all, to say things that have never been said, about love. As a model of what human behaviour can be like, it still stand supreme."

Son of Man by Dennis Potter
An Extract

JOHN I like the one about the traveller who fell among thieves, and the Samaritan.

JESUS [eagerly]: Do you think they understood? Was making myself clear to them?


[But JESUS, introspective, turns in on himself, ]

JESUS:. I don't know…I'm not so sure about that…

JOHN. The crowds are getting bigger. All the time.

JAMES:: More and more of our people are talking about you and arguing about you -

PETER. They've laughed and they've cried.

ANDREW: And gone home with their heads singing with: new thoughts..

JESUS: I don't know. I don't know.

PETER' Beats fishing, any road. [He sniggers.]

JESUS [angry] What did you say?

PETER [defensive]: Well, you know what I mean journeying around the country like this, seeing all sorts of people and big crowds and ...

JESUS: You enjoy it, do you?

[There is such a bite in the question that PETER gapes back at him confused]

I said you enjoy it, do you?

PETER: I like being with you my Lord .

[Agitated, JESUS stands up, towering above them ]

JESUS: Fun! That's what it is to all of you a jaunt through 'the countryside, living only for today and not the morrow ...

[They are making protesting noises]

Shut up! Shut up! Before I lose my patience with all of you! What do you think I am? Who do you think I am? [He strides about among then, extremely agitated.] Yes, the people listen. Yes, more of them are coming out to, meet us. Yes, I can move and excite them, to pity or terror. Yes, the days pass with some hope and some gain. But great God in Heaven have I come for this? To pass the time!

[he snorts] Why do we skulk about on the hill sides and in the sad little villages? Eh? Where are the Temple, police, then? The Romans? Eh? I must go to the Holy City itself. Into the Temple. Clear out the pigs and the profiteers. Make them see who - Who am I? [repeats to himself, almost doubtingly] Who-am-I?

JAMES: Lord -?

[He begins to sweep on;, twitching with excitement]

JESUS: You must go on ahead of me, each of you. You must announce when I am to speak, where I am to speak. You must make the water ripple. And listen ! from now on my friends, my dear friends, from now on we -- trumpet our corning. We speak loudly. And clearly. We are here to cleanse a whole nation with the purity of the One who is on high. Ach the light must not be hidden! The truth must not be whispered ! [He ruffles Peter’s hair] Then, my Peter, you can rightly be filled with joy and exultation'

PETER: Yes, master.

JESUS: Why! They don't even know who I am in their palaces and temples and garrisons. I do not challenge them out here in the sour grass!

JOHN: Your words have spread far, Jesus. You have -

[JESUS waves him down almost contemptuously.]

JESUS: A few miles. A few villages. Along the shores of Galilee!

JOHN: Yes - but.-.

JESUS: And I want. my words to echo along the edges .of the whole world! The whole wide world. do you hear me? Eh? Or else I might as well be making tables and benches in a carpenter's workshop [JESUS goes to the cross. He almost. strokes. at. the wood, his expression suddenly less tormented.] Good timber, this. Hewed with the grain from the heart of the tree. I could fill a room with tables and chairs with wood like this. [He chops the air with his hand.] Cha-owl Split, it would, straight as ever you could want. Yes! There's nothing like a bit of wood in your hands. Cha owl Not a knot in it, see? Good stuff. [He puts his head against the crest, as though it were a pillow, and momentarily closes his eyes.] :[whispers] Father, Father..

[His shoulders start to shake, as though in sobbing. ]

ANDREW [steps forward anxiously to comfort him, putting his hands on Jesus shoulders.]

ANDREW:: Oh, Master, please . .

[But JESUS turns swiftly, and we see that, far from sobbing, he is in fact shaking with laughter.]

JUDAS; Wh-what is it?

JESUS: A tree! A t-tut-tree! [He laughs out loud, then speaks, still smiling.]God puts it in the soil. A tiny little seed, he sends the sun to warm it. He sends the rain to feed it. He lets the earth hug the little plant like a mother with a baby. So it grows. Years and years it :grows. Little roots like veins twisting underneath our feet. First it's a sapling, tossed by the wind, a feeble thing. But still sun, rain, still it grows. And grows. Oh, a huge thing. A great, strong tower climbing towards heaven. Older now, than a man, than two men. What has it not seen? Eh?

PETER [child-like]: Go on go on!

JESUS: Cha-owl Down it comes! Crash! Oh, great tree, brought low by the axe. Eh? But God doesn't JUDAS [aloof, still]: Doesn't he? How do you- ?

JESUS: No-oo, What are trees for? Wood. God wants us to build. To have tables to eat off. Chairs to sit on, He has filled the earth with good things, all for man, for me, for you. So He doesn't mind, does He? No-oo. All that sun. All that rain'. All those years. All that struggle from seed to giant - well, tables and chairs are fine things too ! But look what we do. Look! A cross! To kill a. man ! All that sun. All that rain. And here is the end of it - something to hold up and stretch out a man while he dies I

[Again he throws back his head and laughs. The others are puzzled, and even rather disapproving.]

JOHN: But what is funny about that, Lord?


ANDREW: what?

JESUS: [angry rhetoric]: Man ! That's what is funny about it! Man, silly, stupid, murdering man! We take the good things God gave us in order to hurt each other! Why.- look at us! - look around you, here in this dreadful place. And think. Look into the distance, at that haze of towers and palaces and houses. And think! [Again he taps his forehead with a furious urgency] Use your heads, eh? Use your flaming heads ! There are fat men down there rich enough and vain enough to eat off gold plates, And stinking beggars crawling about in the. dust for a tiny scrap of rubbish to keep them alive for one. more miserable day. Is that right? Can that. be right:? There are men down there with swords ready. to use for the sake of what they call their glory. T’cha! Is that right? Can that be right? Look at. all the pointless suffering. The greed. Extortion, Exploitation. The killing. The pomp and swagger and hunger. Priests who talk about the love of God and hold out a collecting box at the same time. Soldiers, trained to put a lance into the belly of another mother's son. Can all this be right? Eh? Why a fool can see that it isn't I

[Pause. A change of tone. The others are enraptured.]

A fool, Yes-And perhaps one a fool, an idiot, can see what is so wrong with the world. Why else do people put up with it? Eh? If they knew the truth they: would gather on the street corners in order to be sick! Now that would be a meaningful sacrament! Eh? But people don't know the truth. That's obvious:. That's flaming obvious! They carry on with, their jobs and their burdens and their burnt-.out hopes. They don't stop in the middle of the street and shout, ‘Why?' And if they did they'd be put away. Look at me. Eh? I ought to be sawing wood or making benches and tables. Mm? If I had any sense.

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