Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sweeney Todd: A Ruminative Appraisal

In shul last week, I spoke a few minutes from the bimah about my reaction to the movie Sweeney Todd, and specifically about how interesting it was to compare the way I responded to the movie and the way I responded to the Broadway show. I'd like to elaborate on those thoughts with you here this week.

I didn't actually see the original 1979 production with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou (although Joan did, during that year we were first dating and I wasn't going to musical shows because I was still saying Kaddish for my mother), but I did see the revival a few years ago with Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris. I liked the show very much, even despite the bloody storyline. It was a huge hit! But, at least at the time, it didn't strike me that one of the reasons I was able to enjoy the show was precisely because the bloody plot was depicted on stage with no actual blood present. Necks are slit over and over...but the floor remained dry. Dozens of people, including innocent people (more or less), ended up in the demon barber's murderous barber's chair...but you are spared the actual sight of seeing them decapitated. The audience, mostly, laughs! It is musical theater, after all-a comedic art form if there ever was one!

But the movie is a whole different story. Someone behind me in the theater commented that they should have a special half-price admission for people who can only look at the screen for half the time....and, believe me, I knew what she meant. I'm not that squeamish a person by nature, but I had to look away a lot too. I can take a little blood on the screen, but this was way beyond me...and I suspect most people will have similar reactions. Looking at people being murdered on the Broadway stage, when the whole experience consists of you being told that throats are beings slit, after all, is one thing. But actually seeing the deed, as the movie shows you again and again, is something else entirely. And it's also interesting how little it matters that, at least on some level, you know the movie is not real either. The actors' throats are not really being cut, after all. But you buy into the movie, you suspend your disbelief, and you do turn away...even while knowing perfectly well that you are watching cinematographic sleight-of-hand, not real murder.

I wonder what the world would be like if it was not possible to perpetrate violence or cruelty at all except by witnessing its aftermath. If it simply weren't possible to fire a Kassam rocket at Sederot (like the one that killed those little children playing in their family's sukkah last October) without actually seeing the bodies of your victims and listening to their parents' uncontrollable grief. If it weren't possible to blow up a market or a wedding or a funeral procession in Baghdad without witnessing personally the indescribable sadness you have unleashed in the world for some murky political end you felt justified the means, but without actually having to see what you have done with your own eyes. If it weren't possible to turn away from a poor person begging for quarters in the street without actually having to see that person scrounging in garbage bins later that evening to find something (or, rather, anything) at all edible. If it weren't possible to ignore the 47,000,000 Americans who have no medical insurance without actually having to attend the funerals of people who die each and every day in our country because they simply cannot afford the medical attention that might have otherwise restored them to good health.

You see where I'm going. It's so easy to watch beheadings on Broadway! But having actually to deal with the blood--even in a movie, even knowing perfectly well that no one is really dying, that all that blood is just ketchup--is something else entirely. We have an obligation as Jewish citizens of this great country never to look away, never to permit ourselves the luxury of imagining that our acts have no consequences, that our lack of empathy for the poor or the uninsured or the victims of violence has no consequences outside the narrow confines of the chambers of our own hearts.

How convenient would that be! But that's not how things are. Not really. Maybe even not at all. None of us is a suicide bomber or a terrorist. None of us, I'm sure, commits wanton acts of violence against others. Certainly, none of us decapitates the people we lure into our barber shops. But we are all experts at turning away from the consequences of our own actions nonetheless. And I write this morning to suggest, gently, that this is a luxury a people that feels called upon by its faith to mend and fix the world-the great goal of tikkun olam to which we are all summoned-that is a luxury such a people simply cannot permit itself in good conscience.

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