Vol. 21 No. 3 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. - April 2004
By Annie Laurie Gaylor
Sabrina in front of the play's poster
It might go without saying, but when you attend a children's play, you really need to go when children are there to fully experience this form of theater. We saw Part I of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" at the British National Theatre in the evening. Children were scarce and the crowd was somber, although our daughter Sabrina, 14, sat rapt, on the edge of her seat. When the curtain went up three hours later, she clutched my arm and exclaimed, "This is the best play I've ever seen!"
The matinee for Part II the following day, by contrast, was wild. I have never witnessed such an enthusiastic, noisy, rowdy audience--mostly uniformed school-children and young teenagers. One section was filled by a large group of preteen Muslim girls, their hair already completely covered in black headscarves.
When the live music started and the curtain went up, the theatre exploded in claps, whistles, hoots, and hollers. These kids were primed; it was clear they were hooked on this play (having earlier seen Part I). Their attention never wavered during the remaining three hours (with one intermission only), which is a testament to how fast-paced this play is. There are 100 scenes divided into six hours, so sitting through these plays is no light commitment for kids with TV-influenced attention spans. Kids were so comfortable some even started talking back to the actors at pivotal points, especially after cast members planted in the audience began climbing out of seats during one scene.
Philip Pullman's anti-C.S. Lewis trilogy, "The Dark Materials," is well-named. It is very dark. The first book introduces Lyra Belaqua, the 12-year-old protagonist, a half-wild orphan brought up at Oxford in a world that is a slightly askew version of our own, lacking major technology, where the Church still openly runs the show. Lyra is prophesied by outcast witches to be the one who will kill God ("the Authority") and destroy the Church.
Like everyone in her world, Lyra has a "daemon," a pet-like manifestation of her personality, who is inseparable. The Church is behind the sinister disappearance of many children, including her best friend Roger, snatched off the streets by "Gobblers" who have an unhealthy interest in their daemons.
Lyra's erstwhile uncle, Lord Asriel, is a renegade explorer intent on unleashing "Dust" (a positive take on "original sin") and destroying the Authority (God). Actor Timothy Dalton, still cutting a dashing figure at 60, portrayed the intrepid Lord Asriel.
A Church official orders Lord Asriel's assassination, saying: "You're either for the Church or you're against it." (Where have I heard that before?) The Church decries the "rebellion, dissent, confusion, schism, doubt" fueled by Asriel, who intends to kill the Authority with a "subtle," or "God-destroying" knife.
Book two, The Subtle Knife, introduces the character of young Will Parry, destined to be the bearer of this knife. Will seems to be from our world, and collides with Lyra while on the run, becoming entwined in her destiny as the new "Eve." The third book depicts the battle of creatures from many worlds and Heaven who are determined to unseat the Authority and dethrone the Church, as a backdrop to Will and Lyra's continuing adventures traveling through many strange and dangerous worlds.
The Church, which is relentlessly hunting Lyra via its Zeppelins, is the play's villain. In a brief scene uncomfortably close to what must have been played out in real life tens of thousands of times, Church officials torture a poor witch until she begs for death.
Several ringing freethought speeches grace the play.
Lord Asriel, calling for rebellion, orates: "The doors are open to us. The chains are broken. We can question everything we've been taught. We can challenge every dreary, grey belief that we've had dinned into our skulls."
Lyra's absentee mother, Mrs. Coulter (portrayed by the authoritative stage and film actress Patricia Hodge), is a handmaiden of the Church whose maternal instincts gradually triumph over her loyalty to religion. Realizing her daughter has been declared "an enemy of the Church," she tries to keep her safe.
At one point, as a captive of the Church, she offers this trenchant analysis of God:
"The Authority's useless. Nobody sees him. Nobody hears him. Nobody cares what he thinks. The rich get rich, and the poor and humble die in their millions without so much as a squeak of protest. If he's alive, he's clearly too old and decrepit to think or to act or even die. Wouldn't it be the greatest kindness, to seek him out and give him the gift of death?"
The witch Ruta Skadi declares passionately:
". . . it makes no difference what strange allies we find for ourselves, as long as we know our enemy. That's the Church. As long as it's been on this earth, it's suppressed and persecuted everything good about human nature. When it can't suppress, it cuts it out. . . . They burn witches! All to ravage the joy of life, in the name of that monster, that tyrant, the Authority. If the Church is on one side, then we witches have got to be on the other."
Lord Asriel, raising his armies against God, warns: "Our refusal to submit. Our resistance. Our will to be free," would anger the Authority most of all. He vows: "We will defeat the Authority. We shall topple him from his throne. We shall destroy him."
I could not help thinking of the impact of these speeches on the young girls with covered hair, those "submitters" to Islam, sitting in the audience. This isn't exactly how they speak about Allah at home.
When Balthamos and Baruch, two Authority-opposing angels, floated on stage, it soon became obvious they were gay. The schoolboys near us, many of them Muslim, got restive, some groaning and making derisive sounds. But the boys quieted as those gay Angels proceed to help save Will Parry. Pullman is full of subversive messages.
The books apparently draw heavily from John Milton, of course tweaking Milton's message. The "dark materials" phrase comes from this passage of "Paradise Lost":
Into this wild abyss,
The womb of nature and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th' almighty maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,
Into this wild abyss the wary fiend
Stood on the brink of hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage. . .
Pullman's trilogy features any number of magical and fantastical creatures, including a harpy, angels, and "Armoured Bears," of whom Iorek Byrnison is the hero. (This bear, who would touchingly do anything to help Lyra, is, I gather, Pullman's counter to Lewis' sacrificial Lion.)
These creatures were effectively portrayed by filmy puppets, manipulated to move naturally and given voice by puppeteers dressed in black, who often seemed to disappear from the stage while in full view.
The play, which took place in the Olivier Theater and was adapted by Nicholas Wright, made use of what Wright calls "that seldom-seen, subterranean monster," a drum-revolve developed in the 1970s. Walking sidewalks led the actors from one scene, or one world, to the next. Mini-stages, or "drums," moved up and down at what looked like perilous speeds, which the 30 actors took in stride.
Youthful twenty-somethings Anna Maxwell Martin and Dominic Cooper managed to embody the 12-year-old leads. Martin's demanding role required her to be in nearly every scene. Amazingly, some showings of the play ran back-to-back for more than six hours. Quite a tour de force.
The difficulty of staging this sprawling, multi-world fantasy was its stated draw for the National Theatre, which apparently loves a challenge. Imagine staging the "Harry Potter" stories, then multiply that difficulty level about five times.
But they did it.
Dan's (cute) assessment of the play: "It made me suspend belief."
Sabrina called it "brilliant" and even "ebullient." But her most revealing response was her request, which will not be granted, to go see it again this fall, when a new cast will restage it at the National Theatre. (Termed a "blockbuster," these plays were a complete sell-out.) Sabrina especially liked the musical score by Jonathan Dove. Eight hard-working musicians, who also provided split-second sound effects, were divided between two raised, recessed alcoves, visible to the audience.
Philip Pullman's provocative trilogy is now one of the most popular fantasy series for children, second only to Harry Potter in the United Kingdom. Its message can be summarized as: "We don't even need to kill God--he's a fraud. But we do need to junk the god and master idea if we are to achieve a happy home on earth."
The play concludes when Lyra and Will, irrevocably separated in distant worlds, tell themselves:
Lyra: You must be where you are . . .
Will: . . . and where you are is the place that matters most of all . . .
Will: . . . where you can build . . .
Lyra . . . where you can share . . .
Both: . . . the republic of heaven.
Pullman has found his own way to say what Robert Ingersoll asked humans to envision more than a century ago: "With love, earth is heaven, and we are gods."
We need Philip Pullman more than ever to counter the classic dogma of C.S. Lewis. Lewis' seven Narnia books are going to be filmed, and will be co-financed and distributed by Walt Disney and Walden Media. The first movie, with a $100 million budget, is expected out by December 2005.
The great news is that Pullman's books are set to be filmed, too. New Line Cinema, which produced the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, has put "His Dark Materials" on the fast track. Let's hope some of Pullman's philosophy survives the cutting room.
Annie Laurie Gaylor is editor of Freethought Today.