Sunday, 23 December 2012

Jesus Christ in Lisbon

In the spirit of the season I’m reviewing a play about Jesus Christ returning to Earth… and being crucified again.

Jesus Cristo em Lisboa (1927), a tragicomedy in seven acts, resulted from the collaboration between two Portuguese writers I need to read more about: Raul Brandão and Teixeira de Pascoaes. Brandão (1867-1936) was the author of Húmus, a novel I’ve written extensively about; he’s the father of the modern Portuguese novel and one of José Saramago’s 11 favourite writers. Pascoaes (1877-1952), whose popularity has waned, was in life considered the great Portuguese poet. Both men were fervent Christians, something they had to publicly point out when they had to defend the play from critics.

As Brandão and Pascoaes explained in an open letter to a newspaper, “We merely tried to wake up the Christian spirit in materialistic and fallen souls. We wanted to paint our social milieu and what in it would represent the living presence of Jesus. The tragicomedy results from this conflict.” As Christians, both men were appalled when critics started accusing them of heresy, blasphemy and attacking the name of Jesus Christ. In spite of their good intentions, it’s easy to understand why readers misread the play. The text is infused with the message of Christ, but more importantly it’s riddled with the cynicism, stupidity and cupidity of men, to whom Christ’s message means absolutely nothing.

Raul Brandão
When Jesus Christ shows up in Portugal, first he visits the countryside, where he spends a night with a family of poor farmers and manual workers. These are wretches who harbour no illusions about a better life. “”Earth exists to kill us in life with work and to eat us up after death.” They have no future, they don’t believe their hardships will be rewarded with a better afterlife, there’s just darkness ahead of them. A blind man is the first one to notice that a shadow is on their door porch and they invite the stranger to enter and sit by the fireside. Soon Jesus starts preaching and mesmerising his listeners with his message. The local rector is called for because there’s a man pretending to be Jesus Christ. A defender of the order, he fears the influence of this stranger. “He may be a dangerous man. He knows how to speak to the wretched.” Christ leaves and the rector forbids his congregation from following him. His word ends up being stronger than Christ’s.

Already in Lisbon, Jesus ends up in a police precinct for disturbing the peace. Again he gets in trouble with the authorities, because he preaches the truth. The truth, however, is what people don’t want to hear. “Now I ask you, Commissioner, sir, who can put up with the truth? May God deliver us from the truth! If I went about telling the truth to everyone I know, I’d be in jail already. And if he starts telling the truth, the world ends. Truth is a lie!” says a man in jail. This is one of the problems Jesus faces against in the play: his messages flies in the face of the forces that have built civilization.

Teixeira de Pascoaes
Nevertheless prison can’t hold Jesus and he leaves with a crowd of followers. Wherever he goes he only hears complaints from people who have led miserable lives without having received anything for their decency and goodness. Jesus’ simple message of love falls in deaf ears since living goodly requires a superhuman effort that few are not fit for. This aspect of the play is one of its greatest weaknesses, and in general of all theology: it doesn’t really say how Christ’s message could ever be put into practice. To the laments of people who have only known poverty, exploitation, injustice, humiliation, Christ replies with wishes of a poor but honest life, as if that by itself were enough. The play was written during the Estado Novo dictatorship and Christ’s message here resembles in essence one of the favourite slogans of the pious Salazar, “Poor but Honourable.”  

With his severe message of austerity, Jesus doesn’t seduce anyone. Instead he has to resort to a sort of hypnotic power, to some unheard words he whispers in the ears of doubters which convinces them. If this hadn’t been written before the rise of Adolf Hitler, I’d even say it was a critique of the dictator’s much talked powers to sway crowds. I’d love to interpret the play like that. But as the authors themselves explained, although situations may be comical, they never intended for Christ to be anything but beyond reproach. I can only assume it’s their beliefs that blind them to the inhumanity and aloofness of their Christ.

With magical powers or not, Christ continues to spread his totalitarian message of a kingdom of miserable wretches. The government is forced to take notice of him and to discuss his threat:

Fourth Minister: And what does He want?
President: To destroy this world and replace it with another.
Fourth Minister: And what does He say?
President: What He says we all know. We’re sick of knowing it. We hear it perhaps in our consciousnesses.
Jew: I don’t know anything…
Second Banker: Neither do I.
Prime-Minister: Destroy this prodigious world of activity! The great inventions, progress, wealth and beauty?
Another Minister: Replace it with what?
President: With poverty and truth.

The world moved on in spite of the message of Christ and not because of it. Progress and civilization are the by-product of greed and imperialism. “Minister, sir, being a thief is an honour that takes us to the Capitol. What did Alexander the Great do? He stole. What did Julius Caesar do? He stole. What did Napoleon do? He stole! And what do I do? I steal like they stole. I’m somebody!” says a Jew in the meeting. The world is built on a lie, Christianity is a conservative doctrine that would have kept the world static. Or as someone says, “The devil is a futurist.” Christianity is only good to keep the masses under control while their leaders build civilization and the future for them. At least that’s the pessimistic premise of the play.

This play also proves what every writers has intuited: writing about evil is easier and funnier than writing about good. Every scene with Christ is fake and lifeless. On the other hand, the antics of the devil or the cynical dialogues between ministers and bankers are always fascinating. Pulling off goodness and virtue is hard work, but evil is always fascinating. Like the Devil says to Christ, in victory, man belongs more to earth than heaven, earth, the world of the senses, the material world, the realm of the devil. He of course is the first to recognize that man is not totally evil, that he lives torn between the poles of light and darkness. “Man himself is an eternal conflict.” But he also seems convinced that most of the time men will choose his side.

But not even the Devil is as violent as the crowds that condemn in on his way to public execution. “You forced us to look up, when everything forces us to look down,” they shout at him, it seems furious at Jesus for having brought hope in a world unfit for it.

Although this play didn’t generate the levels of hatred and indignation José Saramago’s novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ caused, Brandão and Pascoaes were still attacked for their portrayal of an ineffective Jesus Christ and a callous Mankind. Reviews were mixed, tending to the negative. One newspaper called it a scandalous book that had nothing recommendable. It’s curious how values change. The book to me has nothing too scandalous about it; I was more perturbed by the casual anti-Semitism which didn’t bother anyone. Another newspaper urged Christians not to buy the book. The play itself wasn’t staged until decades later. Other newspapers favourably compared it to Goethe’s Faust, and Spanish and French reviews were more positive (I was surprised Brandão and Pascoaes were so internationally well-known at the time). One of the most positive reviews, the one I agree most with, came ironically from a priest, who understood the point of its authors. For him it’s not strange that the world would crucify the world again. What’s fascinating is that, after two millennia, the world didn’t learn its lesson. The first time people were ignorant. The second time they had no excuse to reject his message. The tragedy of the play is that history never changes.

I’ll be back next week. Meanwhile I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and lots of books on their stockings!

This play was read for the European Reading Challenge.


  1. Superb Commentary Miguel!

    This play sounds very compelling. It sounds like some of the thoughts presented here mirror my own regarding the Christian philosophy. That is noble seeming but extremely ascetic and perhaps unworkable.

    Have a Merry Christmas.

  2. Just visiting to wish you a wonderful Christmas & an exceedingly pleasant new year.

  3. What a fascinating review; Jesus Christ never ceases to be a controversial figure for many, even among His own people. His thoughts are not our thoughts, and I'm not surprised this play received criticism. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, along with Saramago's work. I'm always interested in the perceptions of Christ which abound through literature and text.

    Merry Christmas!

    1. Brian, although I don't believe in God, I think Christianity has many fine points regarding ethics. The real problem is whether they're compatible with human nature at all.

      Parrish Lantern, thank you; I'm too late to wish you a Merry Christmas, but happy New Year 2013!

      Bellezza, Christ is a fascinating figure indeed; even Saramago, who was a fierce atheist, once declared that every writer should write about him once because he's such a fascinating character.