Thursday, August 11, 2016

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock and James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree: Are We Really All Oppressed?

I somewhat reluctantly saw School of Rock as part of a plain and simple tourist trip to New York City last week.  I make an annual trek or two to professional conferences in New York and have always talked with the reluctant son about the city, bringing him back souvenirs of landmark buildings when he was younger and sports teams as he has grown older and his interests have shifted.  When it came time to go on a pilgrimage together to the city of his choice, he chose Chicago – and that was a wonderful town to explore together.  His grandmother (my mother) takes him to Stratford Ontario annually to watch Shakespearean plays and, when she asked whether he wanted to do that again this year – wondering if he had outgrown this shared outing – he asked if they could see plays (and a Yankees game) in New York City.  She said yes, and was willing to include her sister and me on this trip. 

We did our best to introduce the reluctant son to the city (and even squeeze in a college visit), and I think we did pretty well, but I was surprised by his and my Mom’s choice of School of Rock to represent Broadway’s tradition of musicals.  I have seen Jack Black’s School of Rock on TV – often in pieces – I’m not sure that I have ever seen it all in one sitting, and I found it an amusing screwball comedy based on a pretty unlikely premise – that a prep school hires a substitute teacher and doesn’t notice that the kids in the classroom do no studying but play rock and roll music all day instead.  Hmm… there must be pretty thick walls in that prep school.  Even more concerning, I had seen one of the musical numbers performed on the Emmy show and I was severely unimpressed (plus it was a rock and roll tune – would Mom and Great Aunt Julie like it?).

What a pleasant surprise that Andrew Lloyd Webber (who, after all, started his career with the Rock Opera Jesus Christ Superstar) could turn a madcap movie into a slick and even mildly psychologically compelling musical, complete not with just rock and roll, but some stolen Mozart nicely integrated into the mix.  Jack Black’s part, Dewey Finn, is played by Alex Brightman – who bears a physical resemblance to Mr. Black (and to John Belushi), but, as is the case in the best Biopics (see Saving Mr. Banks, for instance), he does not try to imitate him, but instead allows his own exuberance to be expressed – and this becomes an interpretation of the role that is immensely satisfying.  This Dewey Finn character is a ne’re do well living with (OK, sponging off) a high school buddy and one time fellow band member who is now moving on with his life.  Dewey gets kicked out of his lame Rock and Roll band just as his high school buddy – pushed by his girlfriend – demands the rent.  Dewey answers the phone when his roommate is offered a long-term substitute teaching job at the most prestigious prep school in town and he, masquerading as the roommate, takes the job.

And the irony begins…  The loser dude becomes the chief arbiter of cool in a classroom full of middle school geeks of incredible privilege.  Their respect for authority barely holds them in his orbit as he shows up late and derides all that they hold dear – but then he discovers that they have musical talent when he overhears them playing various classical instruments in music class.  He tells the students that, until he found out they could play, he thought they were “douche-bags”.  Once he discovers they have competence, he hands them rock and roll instruments and welcomes members of the class, telling them one by one that “you’re in the band”  (My personal favorites among the students - though they were all quite talented and engaging- included the bass playing girl and the nerdy keyboardist - whom my Aunt chatted up in the street after the show - a genuinely nice kid), And then we discover that this group of ultra-privileged kids feels alienated – their parents are wrapped up in their own lives and in directing/demanding what they will do rather than listening to who they are – and thus they resonate with Dewey’s message of “Stick it to the man.”

This message is one that I oddly found to be consistent with the message from a very distant corner: an award winning conversation available on YouTube between Bill Moyers and a Harvard Professor named James Cone whose thesis is that Christ’s cross is equivalent to the United States’ Lynching Tree – and that Christianity is a religion of the oppressed – and that when we turn it into a religion of the dominant culture some odd things happen to it.  So, for instance, we in the United States portray ourselves as the ones who are not the aggressors, but are reacting to aggression, when in fact we are often the aggressor – and the lynching tree – a form of terrorism that we enacted to help manage the behavior or recently freed slaves when we no longer could control them with the lash, is a blatant example of this.  Cone’s position is that to understand Christianity – to become Christians – we need to acknowledge our aggression – to realize that we are the Romans (who controlled oppressed people by terrorizing them with the cross) and to move away from that by empathizing with those who have been oppressed (including by us) – and to recognize that we are all oppressed.  That religion helps us realize that, though we are behaviorally controlled by oppressors, we can express what our soul feels in the context of a shared religious experience.  This means that to appreciate what is at the heart of the Christian message, we need to identify with Dewey and his students’ experience of being oppressed (a much less difficult position for privileged people to connect with than to identify with those who have been lynched).  Oddly, then, Cone's Christian message and Dewey’s line up: Both become a message of love – we all become members of the band – and we “stick it to the man” by banding together and engaging, freely, in what it is that brings us joy.

Freud takes the position, in Moses and Monotheism, that religion offers a defense against our fear of dying.  While it is certainly the case that any activity can serve a defensive function (I am thinking this thought in order to avoid thinking that alternative bad thought), we can think of the function of the defense – it is, in both Cone’s Christianity and in Dewey’s Rock and Roll to unite us; to allow us to make use of the limited time that we have in a particular way – by connecting with those around us in ways that sustain us.  Yes, we are defending against an oppressor – and what bigger and more common oppressor is there than death – the force that will rob us all of the most precious thing – life, but we are not, in either Cone’s or Dewey’s cosmology turning away from life by defending against death, but engaging more deeply in life itself - living, not hiding from or defending against living (which adds another layer of irony to the School of Rock - Dewey is the poster child for people who are avoiding moving forward with their lives).

Indeed, I think the point of the analytic endeavor is also to engage more deeply in life – to feel more fully connected to our own thoughts and to feel more competently connected to those around us in a self-perpetuating loop (at least this is how I read Loewald’s description of how the defense of sublimation works).  And I think that is why we play music together, and go to Church Synagogue or Mosque together, and why we engage in analysis – but also why Bill Moyers so sensitively engages in conversations with his interlocutors – sometimes difficult conversations like this one with James Cone.  Not just to distract us from the fact that we will die, though that is certainly a part of it, but to live.  And Andrew Lloyd Webber offers – along with the cast and crew of this show – moments that truly come to life – and a message of hope.  OK, it is a bit sickly sweet – but we are able to both identify with the kids – and then with the parents as they join us as an audience for the final show and end up reconciling with their kids – hearing, under Dewey’s unintentional tutelage – that the kids want to be appreciated for who it is that they are.  And my little band of three generations making a pilgrimage to New York found that Rock and Roll did, indeed, unite the four of us in a shared moment of appreciation of the human spirit.

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