Plays are like frogs. They start life in a form that scarcely seems to resemble the final product. What whirls to life on a dynamic stage is usually begun flat on the page. And, as far as writing goes, written plays don’t get much respect. The Guardian’s theater critic Lyn Gardner thinks it’s the “brazenly collaborative and transient nature that spooks the literary gatekeepers.” But the truth is that plays make great reading, at least the good ones do. Our mind’s eye follows the action, casts the parts and whips sets out of thin air. We know from dreams, that the brain is, at heart, a playwright.
Joshua Young’s The Holy Ghost People manages this morphing quality in innovative and exciting ways. He’s a poet and he’s made use of many poetic devices to present a play that pays homage to the dynamic iteration pulsing behind the written word. The work is even laid out like a poem, not in the sense of being precious or twee but as an object that is thought through visually, in imagistic language, the way a poet thinks.
The characters in The Holy Ghost People consist of two choruses (usually one of my least favorite ruses but in this play satisfyingly emblematic) the Holy Ghost People and The Speakers. They’re town and gown, so to speak. The other roles are a Policemen and a Barfly. The stage directions are atmospheric; moving light and darkness rather than chairs and tables. Young calls for “spotlights [to] cut holes in the darkness & fade to black at the end of each scene.” Scenes don’t exactly end or begin but, in the playwrights designations, “rest” and “reframe.” These elements succeed in part because the central conflict of the play is the clash of religious credo, which can never really begin or cease but, as in Young’s play, only rest and reset itself for the next round of recrimination.
The theme of warring religions usually calls for a geo-political stance but Young’s play wants to be more allegorical and also more truthful about the nature of a conflict that defies history. When one chorus says “our lies are more truthful than yours” it neatly encapsulates how religious belief (even an atheistic one) behaves in conflict with other religious belief. In the real world these conflicts can turn deadly. In The Holy Ghost People when the Speakers are driven to violence the Holy Ghost bodies they kill are bloodless and only filled with air. They are composed of rhetoric.
The Holy Ghost People claim to come from outer space. They wear cult-like robes and have a mission. Are they the remnants of old time religion that speaks in voices? They manage to antagonize the townspeople, the Speakers, by not falling into acceptable religious roles. The action follows a familiar trajectory: cults enter a town, the townspeople are skeptical, the cult refuses to be ignored, there is violence and the cult has to depart, with perhaps a few new members.
Ordinary law can’t help with this conflict, and Young’s wit helps us see that. When the police arrive, they state their case:
POLICEMEN: we got reports of some weird people being weird.
The Holy Ghost People are weird—they won’t tolerate faith, God or bibles. In fact all societally successful integration of religious belief earns their ire. They say: “god needs us to fail” recalling centuries of apologia for any deity who “cannot be seen.”
The play is full of beautiful and sometimes playful language—it is in a sense about language. The Holy Ghost People insist on the imminent arrival of “Sylvia” a figure that never materializes. After a long, repetitive chorus-and-response that claims both communities “drink the same water” we learn, perhaps, they don’t:
there are temples. there are towers. there are shafts of light & stained glass. There are foxes and wolf cubs. There are lilies& rose stems & pollen & old wasp nests. there are straps from moving trucks & hand trucks. There are metals & alloys and flawed glass bubbles, wrinkles, cracks from time & pressure. the holy ghost people say there are starships colliding & there are wormholes. there is no sylvia.
To which the Holy Ghost People respond:
… We survived because god wanted us to say this to you. to tell our story & show you that your bibles are full of lies. whenever possible we will conjure sylvia, but it is not possible if you
won’t listen. listen to us, we know space & what it’s like to stretch across a galaxy asteroid belt of frozen water. if you listen, we will conjure sylvia. we will conjure that languagemaker
to offer coordinates. sylvia will offer the next path, we will find her in the field when she is ready. though we have seen her, we have, in our time denied her but you, you must be willing to listen before you are willing to deny her. To deny without consideration is only a folly on the precipice of extinction.
Nebulous directives of the author—the time the play is set in “whenever”—can’t disguise an artistic intelligence that understands the stakes. The messianic Sylvia might be a person or an idea; she might be “sylvan” as the play seems partially framed as an environmental critique. The robed figures sometimes appear to want to visit the sins of the un-green fathers on their unbelieving sons and daughters among “lawns, our courtyards, in our malls, in our restaurants, in our drive-throughs” The scenes are replete with ordinary suburban settings, bars, a playground, sometimes characters speak out the windows of their cars.
It’s lyrical, sly and fun to imagine. It’s theatrical, transporting, very careful in its poetic language. Perhaps the audience will exit more full of the conundrum of religion than ever, but the script makes us want to be there. I’d like to see how the whole thing gets imagined. I certainly can’t wait to see how they audition that Barfly.
The Holy Ghost People, by Joshua Young. Plays Inverse. 85 pages. $12.95, paper.
Merridawn Duckler has published fiction and nonfiction widely, the most recently in Farallon Review. She has published poetry narrowly, the most recent in So It Goes, literary journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Library. Her scripts have been performed from Oregon to Valdez, Alaska. Her residencies stretch from Yaddo to Jerusalem.