Is there anyone up there?

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The Independent Online

The critics were fairly unanimous about Sebastian Barry's new play, Whistling Psyche, which opened at the Donmar Warehouse last week. The word "verbiage" was used in more than one review, with some asperity, and the polite but ambiguous epithet "densely lyrical" featured strongly as well. But reviewers also shared an odd reticence about one crucial aspect of the play - the fact that its conclusion is unabashedly devotional in tone and content. Barry's play features a supernatural encounter between Florence Nightingale and a Victorian doctor, James Miranda Barry (who was revealed after his/her death to have been born a woman), and ends with a rhapsody on the subject of love and forgiveness that is pointedly religious.

"God takes each and every one and makes him new, returns him to the crisp, clear lines of the original mould, relieves him of his heavy sins, and in his wise mercy lets him go into that strange eternity where there is no earthly story and no human song" says James Barry. Florence Nightingale, reaching beyond her prejudices in the closing moments of the play, assures him that she "will bombard the government of heaven, assault the ministries of angels, on your behalf". And though nearly every reviewer wrote about this passage, they almost all did so as if it was a broadly secular moment - that familiar, late-20th-century sacrament of touching and feeling.

One writer, it's true, did describe the play's fantastical setting as "limbo". But, perhaps, that only underlines a general detachment from the niceties of Catholic doctrine, since, if the sepulchral waiting room of Simon Higlett's set was anywhere, it was surely purgatory - a location that would have seemed tartly appropriate to some of the more disgruntled critics. Wherever it was, though, the final scene was an epiphany of faith, and it seemed odd, given the rarity of such things these days, that so many reviewers should have felt it not worth mentioning. Was it fatigue (there was a feeling that Barry's play tested the patience of its audience) or was it a glitch in reception - a default which treats references to divine mercy and intercession as essentially (and safely) metaphorical?

Curiously, there is now also a case in which exactly the opposite has happened: deity had gone missing, and everyone noticed. Though it was largely based on Homer's Iliad, Wolfgang Petersen's film Troy had dispensed with Athena and Apollo (and all the others) as characters in the drama, apparently because he feared that it would end up looking like an expensive Ray Harryhausen movie. You can see his point. In a largely monotheistic culture, the Greek gods tend to come across as a supernatural version of EastEnders; and costuming them would be an absolute nightmare. It surely wouldn't have been beyond the bounds of possibility, though, to split the difference and recreate a mind-set that treated every natural occurrence as a text message from Olympus. Cinema is actually very good at representing other states of mind - at making visions real. But Petersen didn't take that route, opting instead for a kind of enlightenment Iliad in which the occasional person mentions the gods but nobody really behaves as if they're actually still paying house-calls. And one's best guess as to the reasoning behind this would be that the makers just felt anything else would be an embarrassment to a secular audience.

In truth, the audience is anything but, at least in the United States. In a survey four years ago, Newsweek found that 75 per cent of adult Americans believed in the devil, and 48 per cent believed they had personally experienced a miracle. This thick vein of credulity can be a mother-lode, as the success of Mel Gibson's Passion and Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins's Left Behind series of novels about the second coming have proved. But it remains largely unworked by mainstream culture, which operates as if religious faith was either obsolete or unmentionable.

As a non-believer, I can't honestly say that this greatly troubles me. But there is a hitch, because both these forms of occlusion - the ignored presence and the calculated absence - undermine one of my own casual articles of faith, which is that a culture will reliably reflect the society that makes it. And while I'd be happy if it was a long time before I saw another film as medievally pietistic as Gibson's Passion, the idea that the defining beliefs of millions of people exist below the cultural radar is a bit worrying. This might sound like an odd thing for an atheist to say, but it may be time for a bit more religious art.

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