I finally got to see The Book of Mormon yesterday, and it was everything I’d expect a Matt Stone and Trey Parker production to be. Orgazmo – their 1997 film a similarly outrageous Mormon reference- is one of my all time favourite films.
It’s only a couple of minutes into the musical that you realise that the real outrageousness in this musical has nothing whatsoever to do with insulting Mormons, but is pointed at worldwide indifference to elephants in the room such as AIDS, poverty, military dictatorships, FGM and so on. It’s a curious mixture: three retired-age ladies in the audience on my left had disappeared after the first interval (and it wasn’t to find better seats – it was sold out, and this was the stalls). I was only surprised that more people hadn’t left, since there was no out-of-bounds topic or swear-word left untouched by the end of the second song. What the ladies probably hadn’t got the hang of, however, is that all those things that they were singing about weren’t indigenous to the musical, they were out there in the world. Stone & Parker are just make you see and hear it through the medium of song, and in a style that is so immediate and familiar, that it’s like someone dropping 10 ton ideas on your foot, while you’re laughing.
We all laughed, it’s a hilarious show, and the more outrageous the songs are, the funnier it gets. I thought to myself, this is great. I live in a world where there’s a whole theatre full of people who get the point like I do (apart from the three ladies, of course). The Book of Mormon is hugely successful, there must be thousands of us. So is this show a force for good? Can culture save us? Probably not, I thought – because what we’re doing, those of us who turned up, is celebrating the values we already hold through some kind of public ritual. It’s like choral evensong in South Park. Great, but eventually, will it change anything? It’s high satire, probably some of the most provocative satire in the world (more so than Charlie Hebdo, in many ways) yet I’m not sure it makes a difference, precisely because it’s preaching to the choir. There was a wonderful moment when Elder Cunningham, who has called the Ugandan girl Nabulungi by the wrong name every time he speaks to her (implying that he can’t be bothered to find out what it is, or spend time learning to pronounce it), calls her “Nigel Farage.” The house collapsed with laughter for several seconds. It was a master stroke. In one multimodal moment of musical theatre, the politics and personality of Ukip and Nigel Farage just imploded in a communal guffaw. The trouble is, of course, no-one could hear us.
And that led me back to thinking about another period of intense satire, Germany in the 1930s. If it hadn’t been for a cabaret singer that I teamed up with when I worked in Berlin in the early 1990s, I would never have known about a song by Friedrich Hollaender, written in 1931, called “An allem sind die Juden schuld” (Everything is the Jews’ fault). The song, sung to the tune of the habanera from Carmen, pokes fun at Hitler, two years before he came to power (so the commonly held idea that Germans just woke up with a start after the second world to find that Hitler wasn’t who they thought he was needs some revision, if this song is anything to go by).
It has some cracking lines and rhymes like schwul/Stuhl (“If the Prince of Wales is gay, or your dog has hard stools… it’s the Jews’ fault”). It’s as risqué in several senses as The Book of Mormon. But my point is, as accurate and funny as it is, it didn’t stop Hitler getting to power. My guess is that like The Book of Mormon, there were probably clubs full of people who were glad to find their ideals celebrated in song, but who nonetheless found themselves transported and killed by people who had no time for such things.
By chance, I’d recently read a brilliant article (Rediscovering Operetta – and overcoming the Nazi shadow) on how operetta, once a caustic, Book-of-Mormon type genre for social and political satire, got toned down into the anodyne schmaltz that we think of it today by – guess who, the Nazis. What’s brilliant about The Book of Mormon is that it satirizes within itself the kind of sanitized, politics-free sugary world of musical theatre, while carrying on its own more edgy version at the same time. The song “We Are Africa” is a masterwork of this kind of parody,
And yet. And yet, and yet.
Much as I love satire (and I love it almost above everything else), I think we overrate its power. Did Spitting Image change much? Or did it just give us a vent for our powerless rage at the politics that had overcome us? Months after Charlie Hebdo, have a few cartoons really changed the world?
I don’t think so, and that’s why, whatever you think of him (I don’t care – I love him), I think Russell Brand has got it right. He’s a comedian, but he’s not relying on comedy to change the world, but a Buddhist vision of right living and thinking. I’m not saying stop the satire, don’t laugh, or don’t see “The Book of Mormon,” but don’t pretend that “free speech,” in the form of satire is magically going to get us out of any conceptual ruts, because in the end, we choose what we listen to, and we pretty much know what we’re going to believe before we listen. It takes much bigger thinking, and much more personal investment in change to make a difference.