Finishing the Imago Dei

So, apparently if I host an installment of the Stephen Sondheim film festival the night before a silent retreat, I end up spending a lot of time meditating on Seurat instead of Scripture.  A few weekends ago, I invited friends over to watch Sunday in the Park with George, Stephen Sondheim’s musical about Georges Seurat’s creation of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.  (It’s on Amazon instant streaming, go enjoy!).

In the first act, Georges struggles to express himself to his lover, to his mother, and to his friend.  And his great work can’t quite bridge the gap, since his compatriots conclude that his pointillistic style has “No Life” (“His touch is too deliberate somehow”).  When he and his lover, Dot, have their falling out he tries to explain the intimacy he feels they share:

George: I cannot divide my feelings up as neatly as you, and I am not hiding behind my canvas-I am living in it.

Dot: What you care for is yourself.

George: I care for this painting. You will be in this painting.

Dot: I am something you can use.

George: I had thought you understood.

Perhaps it would be easier for Dot to understand if she could see George sketching during the earlier number “The Day Off” (below).  As George studies the figures on the island, he’s drawn into their experience.  Although he appears absent and distant in dialogue with others, when he draws them he puts on their characters and mimics their cadences in brief musical monologues.

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But it’s hard for the audience to decide if looking from behind his sketchpad gives George a genuine intimacy with the people he paints, or if it just simplifies them enough for him to be able to embroider their personalities as suits him.  Is he really seeing Dot, his beloved, or just enough of an armature for him to hang his own inventions on?

It’s a question to trouble any lover, including all Christians.  When we pray, are we thinking with God or about God?  In C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, a malevolent demon tells his apprentice not to worry when his target turns to prayer, since it’s easy to be misled by the picture we paint:

If you examine the object to which he is attending, you will find that it is a composite object containing many quite ridiculous ingredients. There will be images derived from pictures of the Enemy as He appeared during the discreditable episode known as the Incarnation: there will be vaguer—perhaps quite savage and puerile—images associated with the other two Persons. There will even be some of his own reverence (and of bodily sensations accompanying it) objectified and attributed to the object revered. I have known cases where what the patient called his “God” was actually located—up and to the left at the corner of the bedroom ceiling, or inside his own head, or in a crucifix on the wall. But whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it—to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him. You may even encourage him to attach great importance to the correction and improvement of his composite object, and to keeping it steadily before his imagination during the whole prayer. For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if ever he consciously directs his prayers “Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be”, our situation is, for the moment, desperate.

As a lover of abstractions, and someone with George-like tendencies to do better with characters I imagine than creatures I encounter, this is a terrifying paragraph to read.  I’ll talk a little tomorrow about why neither George nor I should despair (though Dot may well despair of either of us).

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Joe

    I have heard that St. Theresa of Avila once described her imagination as the crazy woman in the room and that the trick to contemplative prayer is to evangelize your imagination, but Im not sure exactly how to do this with out falling in to the pit-falls Lewis describes. I look forward to tomorrows post

    • grok87

      I like the idea of evangelizing your imagination

  • Joanne K McPortland

    We are meant to be both Georges and Dot (“we have always belonged together”)–visionary and practical, contemplative and active. But only you could have teased this theological insight out of Sondheim! Thanks for another insight into a show I love.

  • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

    Almost totally off-topic, I’d like some musical theater advice. Advice by people other than Leah also very welcome:

    Soo, until recently I wasn’t bothered by my near total ignorance of musical theater, but now you’ve got me mostly convinced it’s a privation I should fix. When I say near total ignorance I’m not being humble. Excluding animated Disney movies for Children and some forgettable German stuff you never heard of, I have seen five movie-musicals and none live. I had to watch West Side Story for music education in high school and hated it less than everything else that teacher did, so adjusting for resentment it’s probably excellent. At some stage I watched High School Musical on TV and let’s say Vanessa Hudgens is very pretty and leave it at that. After relentless promotion on this here blog I watched Newsies (good entertainment but no deep impression because the emotion comes too cheap), Company (had a write-up on that) and Sweeney Todd (probably very warped intuitions there, because I read your paper before watching the actual thing). And that’s it, I don’t know anything else.

    So obviously I should see some live production of whatever is on offer relatively soon, which in practice probably means February. But I’m also planning on watching some recordings and/or movie adaptions of famous and/or good musical theater. Maybe one every other weekend for a few months which means I need about ten recommendations. I have a slight preference for famous stuff because it might be rentable locally while American Amazon takes a month to ship to Germany, but there is also room for gourmet tips.

    So long question short:
    What are the top ten musical theater productions available on DVD for completely ignorant people and in what order should they be watched?
    And, blatant attempt at emotional manipulation: Remember instructing the ignorant is a spiritual work of mercy!

    • ACN

      Here’s a good start to watch a few good ones in order of first appearance.

      1: Porgy and Bess. This is just incredible.
      2: Oklahoma. The first Rodgers and Hammerstein Collaboration.
      3: My Fair Lady.
      4: Fiddler on the Roof.
      5: Company.
      6: Jesus Christ Super Star. (It probably won’t make anyone’s best musicals of all-time list, but I love me a rock opera, and this basically started it!)
      7: Les Mis
      8: Rent
      9: THE PRODUCERS (my personal favorite!)
      10: Avenue Q.

    • http://dyslexictheist.wordpress.com/ Michael H

      Having perused Company and and Sweeney Todd, and now Leah writing on Sunday in the Park with George, I cannot help but think more Sondheim would never hurt you, particular as a thematic buildup. I find “Children and Art” (the closing song on Sunday in the Park), these two great focuses left behind, the investment one has in their children and likewise their creation – which, as Leah’s work points out, is a creation borne of the deep intimacy in observation – has to be partnered with “Children Will Listen” from Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which deconstructs and then reinvents classic fairytales, cautioning one to be careful with children, to value them enough to protect them, but also to give an adventure – it is quite Chestertonian, I suppose.

      As a Sondheim buff, I’ll keep plugging and also recommend his utterly fanstastic Gypsy, a work of biographical fiction of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, which deals with image, children, transformation and the nature of relationships in constructed space (Vaudeville and burlesque are so very constructed by nature).

      Trekking away from Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz Children of Eden, a secularized view of life through and immediately after the Fall, is just a great work, with songs that are prayers to god misdirected to other characters, and early the meaning being very coarse in sex – but to what end!? Also consider Pippin, which is both a lot of fun and a great look at longing for significance in a material world.

      For less heavy hitters and more fun, the quite new Catch Me if You Can is just plain entertaining, though it has a few moments of good introspection. I also highly enjoy Next to Normal, which won the Pulitzer – only the second musical to do so, and it wasn’t even on the short list of nominees, but was selected with a note that its lack of accord was an “oversight” by the committee – for the way it approaches a family and specifically a mother’s struggle with loss and bipolar disorder.

      Last, I cannot recommend Spring Awakening enough. It is not suitable for children, but how it deals with emergent philosophies in adolescence and the reality of consequences – and the real disconnect between adults and students – can be heartbreaking when done right.

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  • David J. White

    Gilbert — Watching a movie adaptation of a musical is a pale shadow of seeing a live production of it, particularly since there are many stage conventions in musical theatre that don’t translate well to the screen. In addition, the book and the songs are often sometimes rewritten somewhat for the screen. But two of my favorite movie adaptations of musicals are *The Music Man* and *On the Town*. *My Fair Lady*, *Camelot*, *Oklahoma*, and *The Sound of Music* are also good. For sheer fun, there’s *1776*. As for original movie musicals — that is, movie musicals not based on a pre-existing stage work — *Singing in the Rain* and *The Wizard of Oz* are at the top of my list, maybe followed by *Gigi*. That’s just off the top of my head. If I took more time to think seriously about it, I’m sure I could come up with more. Any fan of musical theatre and classic movies will have his or her own list, and I’m sure they will differ from mine. You can already tell from my list that my tastes run to older shows and movies. Others might recommend movies based on more recent musicals, such as *Chicago* and *Annie* and — as you mentioned — *Sweeney Todd*. I didn’t see *Phantom of the Opera* either on stage or screen, so I can’t offer an opinion about it.


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