Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.

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  • "Corpus Christi"-- a Flawed Play, But Worth Pondering

    • Posted on Dec 23, 2001 by Scott Cawelti

    12-23-01

    Such a firestorm over a student-produced play! I've seen many controversial UNI theater plays,  from "When you Comin' Back Red Ryder?" to "Marat/Sade" to "Equus" but I've never seen a production picketed at UNI, nor security officers in attendance to keep the peace. 

    That's what happened recently when UNI students performed Terence McNally's "Corpus Christi"  for three nights in a small classroom-lecture room.  Incidentally, the play was wholly student chosen, directed, and produced.  

    Nor have I seen such venomous letters to the editor, both in the Courier and the UNI student newspaper.  Some alums have threatened to pull all their support, not just from Theater UNI, but from the whole University and its many programs.  That's a classic case of overreaction, in my humble opinion. 

     I have to confess, I didn't see the production myself, but I did read the play, twice, and talked at length with Dr. Steven Taft, head of Theater UNI. He's understandably concerned about a number of issues, beginning with a misinformation campaign that seems to have been generated from a radio talk show host in Des Moines.

    The buzz I heard and read:  It's blasphemy, an obscenity-laced put-down of Christianity, an outrageous slur that would not have been allowed had it been against any other religion, and that state institutions, funded with taxpayer money, have no business supporting such anti-religious garbage.        

    Now here's what the play's about, just to set the record straight.  I encourage protesters to actually read the play before firing off more invectives.

    First,  "Corpus Christi" supports and condones nothing less than compassion and love for outsiders.  McNally wrote his play in response to Matthew Shepherd's murder.  Shepherd, a young gay Wyoming man,  was "crucified," left on a fence to die, simply because he was homosexual.  He was a victim of the virulent homophobia that still infects America.   

    McNally believes that if a religion doesn't offer unconditional support and love for everyone, including homosexuals, it loses credibility.  Genuine religions embrace all. 

    In "Corpus Christi," McNally creates Joshua, an imaginary character living in Corpus Christi, Texas in the 1950s.  Joshua insists  on compassion, forgiveness, and love as a way of  life.  However, he's also openly gay, and gathers twelve gay disciples as followers.  That's what makes the play controversial, but still not anti-Christian.

    It's a thoughtful and thought-provoking drama, intended to jolt audiences into examining their too-comfortable ideas about a savior who loves only people with whom they agree.   

    Incidentally, this is not a new idea.  Other writers have wondered how long it might take some people to crucify Jesus should he return and insist on loving the homeless, destitute, the criminals and societal rejects. Such a man or woman would run a grave risk of running afoul of the priests, oops, I mean authorities. Especially if he/she were gay. 

    Granted, McNally use vile language, but almost exclusively from characters who are possessed by demons. When Joshua casts out their demons, they return to their normal ways.  Quoting them out of context, as did many critics, destroys their entire meaning and purpose in the play. 

    Department Head Steven Taft did in fact examine"Corpus Christi," but maintained a long-standing policy of not interfering with student productions.  And he believes that "students who discover things for themselves most often learn much more than those who are not provided with such latitude.  The students involved in this play have perhaps had the most valuable experience of their educational career, even though it is not tied to any academic course."

    Taft roundly objected to people condemning it before trying to understand it.  And he admits that it would offend some people, that it was intended for mature audiences.  The language, the fact that Jesus performs a gay marriage, and that Joshua is clearly identified as Christ make it a difficult play for Christians who don't want their image of Christ challenged.

    It's not a great play, either.  McNally misses an opportunity to explore one of the major features of Christianity, namely transformation.  Instead of showing how young Joshua had been transformed from a hateful and vengeful man by living Jesus'  message, McNally makes him an actual version of Christ, complete with the ability to perform miracles and create loyal followers.  How he became Christ isn't examined; it's just a given.  

    In other words, "Corpus Christi" delivers a message of love and compassion, but misses the deeper message of transformation.

    Thus it's a theologically problematic play, and seems a bit gimmicky, a too-easy means of promoting universal love.  Yet this doesn't mean "Corpus Christi" shouldn't be performed. Any production that provokes discussion of these powerful issues deserves a hearing, as long as people don't let their passions shut their minds. 

    As Stephen Taft says,  "much of the play is open to interpretation.  However, as a father, husband, professor, and Christian, I personally find it difficult to condemn a work that embraces compassion, love, and understanding, and the philosophy that if one seeks forgiveness it will be granted."

    Amen. 

     

               

               

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  • Harry Potter and the Adult Experience

    • Posted on Dec 02, 2001 by Scott Cawelti

    12-2-01

    Walt Disney understood better than anyone that adults get tired of being adults. They want play, they want a simple world, they want fewer responsibilities, they want to feel as good as they often did before they grew up.   

    Disney's theme parks appeal, as they say, to the child in all of us. The rides and music offer mindless repetition, which itself seems comforting.  The physical action of spinning and whirling and falling takes the mind off everything. 

    Overall, Disney's parks offer an appealing combination of fantasy and safety.  Whole-self candy. 

    I visited Disney World for three days several years ago.  The first day was plain fun. I was wide-eyed, taking it all in, a child of about ten again.  The second day I began to notice how tired the help looked, how the garbage was there but well hidden, how often we were told how much fun we were having. 

    The third day I grew utterly bored.  I realized then that I had become an adult, after all, and needed more than what Disney World, for all its flash and noise, could offer.  

    So too with "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."  I saw it last Sunday. 

     The first hour I felt engaged, intrigued by the special effects, the emerging child characters and their wide-eyed innocence.  The second hour I began to wonder when anything that concerned me would emerge, some real dilemma that I  could ponder after the movie was over.  Nothing. 

    The last half hour I looked at my watch several times and went to the bathroom. It was a long movie.  It's also melodrama for kids, escapist fare that's predictable and finally rather dull. 

    Like Disney parks, it's candy.  Grownups requires nutrition, or at least some nutritional balance.  Give them a movie that connects with life as they know it, and they'll pay some real attention, going home with something to contemplate. 

    Give me a "Saving Private Ryan" or a "Schindler's List" or a "Clockwork Orange" any time.  Kids won't like such films, won't get them, probably shouldn't be allowed to see them without extended discussions with an adult before and after.  These movies reveal dilemmas with which adults must struggle, and offer both insights and guidance.

    From "Saving Private Ryan" we understand the immediate horror of soldiering, the terror of facing men trained to kill you so they can survive, and you're trained to do the same.  It's hell, and probably unavoidable at times. 

    Adults need to understand how modern warfare has become murderously destructive, good cause or not.  Kids need to feel they will live forever, given a little magic and wizardry.

    From "Schindler's List" we question how we might behave if our country should condemn and beginning eliminating some of its minority citizens, forcing us to choose between risking our lives to save them. 

    Adults need to know this really happened.  Kids need to believe in universal goodness provided by adults who understand.

    From "Clockwork Orange" we ponder whether a psychotic adolescent human is still human, and whether the state should attempt to force him into goodness, turning him into a automaton.  State-induced goodness. 

    Kids need to believe in villainy, not psychosis, and that all villains will get their just desserts.

    Adulthood used to mean becoming legal. Legal voter, legal drinker, legal husband or wife.  Now it seems to mean trying hard to enjoy kids' entertainment. 

    "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is clearly a kid's movie that some adults seem to love.  They want to believe in the kind of literal magic that kids love. Children believe in magic because it allows them to control virtually everything, including the laws of physics. 

    Adults know that such magic is pure fantasy.  Yet that's one of those truths they'd like to deny, especially now, when we seem to have less control than ever.  Once upon a time, adults felt safer too. 

    As adults, we face real life straight-on.  Real life requires hard decisions where there's no clear right answer.  Real life means accepting that you're not going to get everything you want.  Real life means having little control over anything but your own response to life's challenges.  Real life means not relying on literal magic to get you out of trouble. Along with joys and beauty, real life brings genuine losses and disappointments.   

    That's the grownup experience, and that's why Harry Potter makes sense for children. 

    And for grownups who wish they were still children.  

    Go comment!
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