Some time back, I was fortunate to receive a short term fellowship from the New York Public Library to support work on a book-in-progress about New York newspaper theatre critics. That book is at least “a year away from being a year away” – but here’s a report from the archives.
Playing God: The Bible on the Broadway Stage
“Trenchant in its analysis and rich with archival detail, Playing God tells the captivating story of what happened to the Bible at the box office.”
–Rebecca Kastleman, Modern Drama
“The book is as entertaining as it is educational—a desirable combination for any writer—and I devoured it thoroughly with a mixture of envy and delight.” – Claire Maria Chambers, Theatre Journal
Biblical texts have inspired more than 100 Broadway plays and musicals, ranging from early spectacles like Ben-Hur (1899) to more familiar works such as Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. What happens when a culture’s most sacred text enters its most commercial performance venue? Playing God focuses on eleven successful productions, as well as a few notable flops that highlight the difficulties in adapting the Old and New Testaments for the stage. The book is informed by both performance studies and theater history, combining analysis of play scripts with archival research into the actual circumstances of production and reception. Biblical plays, Henry Bial argues, balance religious and commercial considerations through a complex blend of spectacle, authenticity, sincerity, and irony. Though there is no magic formula for a successful adaptation, these four analytical lenses help explain why some biblical plays thrive while others have not.
“A detailed and entertaining overview of more than 100 years of Biblical theatre on the Great White Way, Playing God asks important questions about the complex interplay between theological, commercial, and aesthetic enterprises found in scripturally inspired theatre. Henry Bial’s love for the American stage and deep respect for religious practice shine as he addresses the interplay between religious antitheatricality and secular antireligious sentiment, all the while asking significant questions about adaptation, representation and transcendence. An important, and enjoyable, read for any scholar of religious performance, or lover of Broadway.”
–The Reverend Canon Julia Whitworth, Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine
“In Henry Bial’s fascinating study of Broadway stage adaptations of the Bible, theater and church meet and greet, celebrate or offend, garner glowing reviews or get panned, pack houses or close quickly, are frequently revived or quickly forgotten. Bial offers a terrifically useful series of Broadway Bible-adaptation keywords through which he smartly reads a wealth of archival materials and playscripts. This new excavation of U.S. theatre history gives readers—religious or not—compelling performance analyses and a vibrant sense of being-there.”
–Stacy Wolf, Princeton University
“[Playing God is a] well-researched study of dramatizing the Bible for Broadway audiences and the tensions between theater and religion that ensued…Highly recommended.”
“[Bial’s] writing is engaging and his performance-based analysis never loses analytical precision. Incidentally, Playing God is also entertaining in how it showcases the evolution in style, vocabulary, and zingers used by Broadway critics over the twentieth century.”
–Jill Stevenson, Studies in Theatre and Performance
“Incisive and sophisticated but also accessible and, frankly, fun.”
–John Fletcher, Louisiana State University