Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Tragedy of Lazarus

Often when reading or considering Bible stories I find myself wishing they were true. I use the word ‘wishing’ advisedly. Not believing they are true, nor even ‘hoping’ – it’s sadder than that. We have gained so much, but we have lost so much, haven’t we, eh? We could blame all sorts of people, from Galileo to the Boomers, but it’s not really anybody’s fault.

The story of the resurrection of Lazarus appears in John but in none of the other Gospels, which perhaps bodes ill for its veracity but adds to its intrigue. As does the frustratingly fleeting nature of Lazarus’s appearance in the text. We are told that:

1) Lazarus was terminally ill
2) His sisters Mary and Martha sent for Jesus in a bid to save him, but Jesus left it too late and Lazarus was cold in his tomb before he got there.
3) Jesus wept. But then said not to worry, that he was the resurrection, and that if they rolled back the stone Lazarus would walk out in his grave-cloths.
4) Which he duly did.

After that we learn only two more things about Lazarus. The first is that he went to a banquet hosted by Simon the Leper (unenviable moniker, that).

The second is that because his resurrection persuaded so many Jews to believe in Jesus, the Chief Priests ‘decided’ to put Lazarus to death (again). Now that really does have the ring of truth, since no Law is greater than Sod’s. However, the Gospel does not indicate whether the Priests carried out the execution, nor anything else about what Lazarus did with his unexpected second stab at life. Nor indeed, what he thought about being a pioneering transhuman.

It strikes me that this leaves a significant gap in the market for a ‘what Lazarus did next’ story. I envisage a play in three Acts. A tragedy of course, ideally written by Shakespeare but I hear he’s dead, so as the next best option I’ll have to give it a go myself.

Act I will recount the last days of Lazarus’s first life. In the early scenes he will fight a losing battle against an increasingly debilitating pox or plague (exact nature of illness still to be decided), but then he will begin the process of preparing himself for death, saying his final goodbyes, reconciling himself to the inevitable and finding consolation in the prospect of eternal rest. He will pass peacefully away, and the first Act will close with Jesus arriving breathless and late, weeping and praying outside his tomb.

So far, so familiar, but in Act II we will wander into more uncharted territory. In Scene 1 Lazarus emerges, blinking and baffled, from the tomb. Is he in the Afterlife? Was it all a dream? A long, slightly irritating and laborious scene will see his sisters and all the rejoicing onlookers trying to persuade the confused Lazarus that he has indeed been resurrected. Eventually he will grasp the truth, and will fall at the feet of the benevolently smiling Jesus.

However, doubts will begin to creep in during Act II Scene 2: the banquet of Simon the Leper. During a series of speeches by guests in praise of Jesus’s miracle, Lazarus will begin to feel like a sideshow attraction: the charmer’s snake, or the conjuror’s rabbit pulled from the hat. He will feel used by Jesus. At first he will quash these feelings, and berate himself as a damned ingrate. But later, in quieter moments, perhaps alone with Martha in the garden, he will voice further doubts. Having already prepared himself for death, how to cope with this new life? The goodbyes he said were final and heartfelt – now he must say hello again. And can he really carry on in the same way, or is he obliged to use this supernatural second chance to perform superhuman deeds? The weight of the resurrection suddenly seems a heavy burden to bear. The Act ends in alarums, as a messenger enters to warn that the Chief Priests have sent guards to capture Lazarus and put him to death. He and Martha flee the stage. Exeunt.

The real dramatic meat will be served up in Act III, as Lazarus hides out from the Priests’ thugs in a remote vineyard. In a sequence of searing soliloquies he will endure a universe of agonies. He will curse Jesus for cheating him out of his proper death and plunging him back into the world of terror and violence, where his second life must, by the very rarity of its existence, be more precious but more precarious than the first. Guilt will drive him to the verge of insanity as friends and family, convinced of the necessity of keeping Lazarus alive, sacrifice themselves to protect him from the soldiers. Martha is captured and cruelly tortured for information of Lazarus’s whereabouts. Lazarus threatens suicide but aborts at the last second and in a terrible twist on Jesus’s own sufferings, cries “Why hast thou forsaken me?” to the Heavens.

Tragedy and redemption will come in the final scene. Lazarus, reconciled at last to a second death, sees that he must give up his life again to save Martha and his allies, so he surrenders himself to the Priests. As he is crucified he soliloquises on the seemingly pointless circularity of his fate. Had Jesus not resurrected him, Lazarus would be dead but his loved ones would have been unharmed. Those supporters of Jesus converted by his miracle are scattered or persecuted. The mystery cannot be resolved, it must only be accepted. As the lights dim on his lifeless form, a spotlight on the painted backdrop picks out the silhouette of three more crosses on a distant hillside. The curtain falls.

Come to think of it, The Tragedy of Lazarus might also work well as a West End musical. There are some absolute show-stoppers in there, potentially. Perhaps it could be pitched as a collaboration between Tim Rice and Nick Cave.


Anonymous said...


The Russians got there first.

Brit said...

It's quite good, Elberry, but it's too Russian and would be unsuited to the musical format.

David said...

Number 1. Life on Mars has already run its course in England.

Number 2. But if you do write it, you should definitely do so under the name "William Shakespeare" (insert Pooh joke here) because who's more fun to tease than people who think that authorship only becomes clearer after a handful of centuries have elapsed.

Brit said...

That's interesting, David. Do you see Life on Mars as directly related to the Lazarus story?

David said...

That took some thought. I don't think of the Biblical story of Lazarus as being like Life on Mars, but your retelling strikes me as quite like it.

It depends, I think, on the roles (symbolic and dramatic) that one assigns to Sam and Gene. One way in which the US version is different is that, in tv symbolic language, Gene is very much playing a second banana to Sam.

Brit said...

Is the US version any good?

David said...

It's fine. O'Mara isn't Sims, but I don't have any big problems with him in the part. I prefer the UK Annie but US Ray and Chris. In the US version, Ray's hat is a darker gray and Chris is not a nebbish.

On the other hand, I find Harvey Keitel, who's 69 to Glenister's 45, hard to accept as Gene Hunt. He doesn't have the energy or the dynamism or the presence relative to O'Mara's Tyler that characterized Gene in the UK version. That's obviously a big hole and changes the whole feel of the series.

They're still working their way through the UK plot structure, so nothing in the way of plot has changed dramatically. We just had Annie in the red dress and the US version of Sam's confrontation with his dad is better than the UK version. Also, they named his mom "Rose," which I greatly appreciate.

The really interesting question for me is whether we're stuck with Sam for the run of the show (assuming that it runs more than one season/20 episodes). Do we just never get to Sam waking up or do we follow the continuing adventures of Sam and Gene after Sam throws himself from the roof?

My theory has always been that the real purpose of sending Sam Tyler back was to give 21st century tv the ironic distance necessary to remake a politically incorrect 70s cop show. "We're not enjoying watching cops beat up suspects; we're enjoying our superiority while watching barbarian cops from the past beat up suspects." I don't see how you keep up that pretense if Sam is just living in the 70s.

On the other hand, I don't see how moving to Ashes to Ashes US works. It just doesn't fit with the open-ended nature of American tv series. I'll be interested to see how they handle that, but it seems pretty delicate to me.

Brit said...

Yes it's a different ballgame for US shows because if they're successful they just run until they jump the shark and often well beyond.

I didn't like Ashes to Ashes much - the only justification for it was that Gene Hunt is too good a character to lose after just 2 series of Life on Mars - which is the problem with the British way of allowing the writers the power to kill the show while they're at the top of their game.

My theory has always been that the real purpose of sending Sam Tyler back was to give 21st century tv the ironic distance necessary to remake a politically incorrect 70s cop show.

Yes - and the humour comes both from how un-pc the 70s cops are, and also how soft and touchy-feely today's cops are. I can't see that working so well in the US, because US cops are still considered tough and un-pc, aren't they?

David said...

In real life, maybe, but on tv almost all of our cops are scientists.