Going clear

Based on Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, a documentary by Alex Gibney, is a sustained look at the extremities of religious belief and the exploitation of those who adhere to them. Gibney’s explicit goal was to demonstrate “how people become prisoners of faith in various ways,” and this the film does with elan. The depredations of the faithful are not exclusive to Scientology alone; and its founder L. Ron Hubbard once admitted, “If you really want to enslave people, tell them that you’re going to give them total freedom.”

The film itself, which premiered on HBO last night, is still a little woozy with stark imagery, grim solemnity, and a self-consciously spooky underscore that leans too heavily on the Theramin; it also could have used a little more cultural and social context, because it’s about far more than Scientology — it’s about all “True Believers.” For a somewhat less solemn takedown of the Dianetics crowd, you should have a look at “Do You Want to Buy a Bridge?”, a choice 1996 piece of investigative journalism by my Bard College classmate and friend Mark Ebner, published in the late lamented Spy magazine. Twenty years ago he revealed much of the same material as Going Clear does and a little more besides. He begins:

I am an ex-drug addict who has solicited prostitutes in my day. I’ve also masturbated and inhaled at the same time, and I have been arrested more than once in my life. I dropped out of high school, and I’ve been under psychiatric care. Oh yeah, and I owe the IRS roughly six thousand dollars that they are well aware of.

In the language of Scientologists, the above information reflects what they include in their “Dead Agent Packs” — dossiers of all the dirt they dig up on people critical of their “religion.” Often they disseminate damaging information like this to the friends, family, landlords, and employers of anyone who dares speak of — or worse, publish anything derogatory about the “church.” So what I’m doing here is Dead Agenting myself before we begin, beating them to the punch.

Recently I spent two weeks undergoing an initiation to Scientology for this magazine. My experiences constituted only the beginnings of the beginnings of what this cult is all about, but it was enough to leave me strung-out with fear, watching my back, and wondering where the next element of harassment was going to come from.

Scientologists don’t like it if you leave. Even if you leave quietly. There is a saying adherents fondly quote: “The way out is the way through.” Deep thoughts passed on by decade-dead megalomaniacal psychopath Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, in whose writings church followers find a labyrinth so complex, so full of elitist jargon and weird science that those trapped in it cannot see that the way out is the way through the fucking door.

You can find the whole article at Mark’s Web site here, and below is the trailer for the HBO film Going Clear. Gibney’s documentary could have used a bit of Ebner’s anarchic energy, but there’s no reason you yourself can’t have both.

Eliot and Beethoven

In 1931, T.S. Eliot was listening to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, Opus 132; he wrote to Stephen Spender, “I have the A minor Quartet on the gramophone, and I find it quite inexhaustible to study. There is a sort of heavenly, or at least more than human gaiety, about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.” It is likely, too, that Eliot had the Quartet in mind when he began to write his own masterpiece, Four Quartets, four years later. Neither Eliot nor Beethoven were strangers to suffering; nor, at the end of their lives, were they strangers to reconciliation and relief. I might also suggest that it would be nice to get something of that into drama as well. (So did Eliot, I imagine; all five of his plays were written after 1935.) In 2005 director Katie Mitchell put together a performance of Opus 132 and Stephen Dillane’s reading of Four Quartets for a theatre evening in London; she wrote an essay in the Guardian about both works then. The evening also toured to New York twice in the following years.

Below, the Alban Berg Quartet performs Opus 132:


Simon Gray “finishes” a play

I finished the play at six this morning, having worked through half the night. I’d also worked through three packages of cigarettes and half a bottle of malt whisky. But the main thing is that it’s finished. Olé! …

So at six this morning I numbered the pages, packed and shaped them into a completed-looking pile, toasted myself with a further gulp of whisky and a few more cigarettes, gloated. This, for me, is the only moment of pure happiness I ever experience in the playwriting business. I wish there was some ceremony, some physical ceremony, to express it — picking it up, turning it upside down, slapping its rump, dishing out cigars. But then there’d also be the alternatives, like having to rush it straight into an oxygen tent, or wrapping up its still little form and handing it back to myself, with a muttered: “Believe me, it’s better this way.”

Simon Gray
An Unnatural Pursuit & Other Pieces (27)

Drinks with actors

One or two too many drinks last night, maybe, with an actor friend of mine at the rather downmarket Thirsty Scholar; I was reminded that actors, and theatre people generally, drink quite a bit, maybe even more than parents after their children have been put to bed. My friend is both an actor and a dedicated loving father, so I suppose that genetically it was unavoidable. It was actually my first time talking to a friend in the theatre in quite a while. They’re excellent conversationalists, actors — the good ones, anyway; good listeners, ingratiating and entertaining talkers, mainly because that’s their job. So we exchanged trade gossip and shop talk and lamented a variety of things relating to both parenthood and the theatre, then he brought me around for a brief visit to a new-writing workshop he’s been involved in for a while (he’s a playwright as well). There, on the stage, were maybe three dozen actors, all conversing with each other and a few, eventually and quite delightfully, with me, and I realized how much I missed this kind of thing: standing around, glass of wine in my hand, pretending to be wittily knowledgeable about my craft. It could be why I write plays in the first place, and not poems or prose fiction. Being fundamentally something of a hermit, I’d never leave the house if I didn’t have to go out and throw this play into the hands of other people. Playwrights it seems feel needs for both solitude and camaraderie; my only problem is that too much of it and I’d never be able to get out of bed in the morning.

But it’s also evenings like this that make me turn to the play again and urge me on to working on that second draft. Not to mention spending the next few evenings in avoidance of the wine bottle.

Wise Child

Alec Guinness, Simon Ward, Gordon Jackson, and Cleo Sylvestre in the London premiere of Wise Child.

Alec Guinness, Simon Ward, Gordon Jackson, and Cleo Sylvestre in the London premiere of Wise Child.

Simon Gray’s first play, Wise Child (1967), reads like a combination Charley’s Aunt and Entertaining Mr. Sloane — as it was likely intended. Jock Masters, on the lam from the police, has been squirrelled away by a sympathetic chance acquaintance into a Reading hotel under renovation. In disguise as a middle-aged woman named Mrs. Artminster, Jock has his own master — Jerry, the young man who pretends to be her son; in the meantime, the spiritually-minded closeted homosexual who runs the hotel, Mr. Booker, finds himself attracted to the young Jerry. It’s a farce, with plenty of slamming doors and disguises, but appropriate to the time a dark one — the young Jerry is a racist bigot unsure of his own identity, while the criminal Jock turns out to be much more compassionate and morally sound than one might expect.

It’s a play both of and ahead of its time. In the only full-length single-authored critical book about Gray’s plays to date, Simon Gray Unbound: The Journey of a Dramatist, critic Peter Wolfe unpacks the cultural baggage of the play, writing: “A concern with the primordial roots of politics seeps into Wise Child. … If the hotel where chance has landed them resembles its surroundings, then Reading bears signs of age, wear, and neglect, making it exactly the kind of place where scavenger birds would light down. This sad phenomenon is not unusual. A black West Indian in the play’s cast of four describes both the ethnic and racial cacophony of England’s madding cities and towns. … Wise Child falls short of protesting the plight of the disenfranchised who live in poverty and shame. No spokesman for political or economic change, Gray describes the efforts of his people to survive on the outpost or fringe where fate has dropped them.” (116) The play both exploits and undermines the commercially successful form of the sex farce, and even ends with a perverse nod at the form’s necessary reconciliations and resolutions: Jock gets his freedom back; there is a marriage (of sorts) between Jerry and Mr. Booker; and a secret is safely stowed away in the cellar.

As its title suggests, Wise Child is also an exploration of identity: of fathers and mothers and sons, of spiritual fathers and sons as well. It’s a heavy load for a debut play, and the farce form that Gray chose wasn’t entirely able to bear it. Despite the presence of Alec Guinness as Mrs. Artminster/Jock Masters in the London production and Donald Pleasence in the same role in the Broadway production, both closed very quickly. It remains a curiosity, but one worth further exploration — perhaps by a company like the Potomac Theatre Project, which offers daring new looks at neglected British plays.

The text can be found in Simon Gray: Plays 1.