Coda

Coda: The Devil Wears Whatever He Wants

by BRIAN KELLOW

Coda Seafarer lg 1111
The Devil incarnate: Ciaran Hinds as Mr. Lockhart with David Morse in The Seafarer
© Joan Marcus 2011

I can still remember, with terrifying clarity, the day I saw someone acknowledge the presence of the Devil. I was nine years old, and I had gone with a schoolmate and his family to a service at the Assembly of God Church. I was stunned when I saw a middle-aged man stand up and start screaming that he could feel the Devil making his way through God's House. He then began speaking — or he appeared to speak — in tongues. I was so horrified that I covered my eyes with my hands, but I removed them in time to see him collapse, banging his head against the pew as he went down. I was petrified. My child's imagination ran wild: had I unwittingly let the Devil into the church, through my own lack of belief? My atheist parents were furious when they found out what had happened; they were the ones, after all, who would one day adopt a stray black tomcat with glowing yellow eyes and gleefully name him Satan. "It's a bunch of superstitious nonsense," my practical-minded mother snapped. "Don't think about it. Now get ready for dinner, and since you hate peas so much, tonight why don't you try eating them first and getting them out of the way instead of ruining the whole meal for the rest of us?"

As I grew older, I began to notice that the Devil I encountered in most of the books I read and movies I saw was not frightening at all. He was attractive, intelligent and sly. As a freshman in college, I listened to Gounod's Faust for the first time and was grateful for the presence of Méphistophélès; he had much more style and cunning and wit than the other characters in the opera, who struck me as types who would be annoying to have around. There were moments when the Devil would reassert himself as a scary force: when I saw The Exorcist, Linda Blair's first glimpse of the demon in the doctor's office made me gasp. But mostly the Devil seemed like a lot of fun. From Laird Cregar, pushing the button that sends Florence Bates down the fiery trap door in Ernst Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait, to Jack Nicholson leering at Michelle Pfeiffer in The Witches of Eastwick, the Devil has usually had a disarming honesty — and seems to want to keep us honest, too.

It's not hard to figure out why the Devil has been portrayed in such increasingly attractive terms. God deals with things that most of us have great difficulty getting our minds around — penance, sacrifice, abstinence. The Devil deals with appetite, for food, sex, money, fame. The Devil often seems to understand us far more deeply than God could ever hope to. As the world began to change dramatically in the 1960s and '70s, as daily life became more complex, less about the throwing off of what we had all thought we were supposed to want and more about what we were admitting we really wanted, the Devil kept popping up in more places than ever before. I remember how much I loved Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby and the superb film Roman Polanski made of it. The character of Guy Woodhouse, the ruthlessly ambitious New York stage actor who gets the career he wants by handing his wife over to Satan, was an inspired creation. (Years later, when I found myself in the company of a lot of New York stage actors, I began to understand just how inspired. I no longer guessed that five out of ten of them might do the same thing given the chance; I now knew the odds were much closer to ten out of ten.) Ever since the rise of the money culture of the '80s, the Faustian bargain has raised its head to the point of being commonplace. When I hear one of the pushy Pittsburgh mothers on Dance Moms asking herself the question, "Do I sell my soul for a crown?" I know she won't take long to answer. In today's culture, temptation has lost its sting. 

Occasionally, a devil still pops up who can scare me in the way he did when I was nine. In Conor McPherson's play The Seafarer, which had an acclaimed Broadway run in 2007, Ciaran Hinds portrayed Mr. Lockhart, a Devil who is both attractive and terrifying, never more so than when he describes Hell as a place where "you're locked in a space that's smaller than a coffin. Which is lying a thousand miles down just under the bed of a vast, icy, pitch black sea. You're buried alive in there. And it's so cold that you can't even feel your angry tears freezing in your eyelashes, and your very bones ache with deep perpetual agony, and you think, 'I must be going to die….' But you never die." 

None of the traditional Devils in opera can offer anything that comes close to this. But there are two characters who have a kind of power that I think of as Satanic. One is Dr. Miracle in Les Contes d'Hoffmann; the way he tempts Antonia to sing herself to death still strikes me as one of the most masterly portrayals of evil in all of opera. The other — my parents would be so proud — is the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo. Every time I hear the F minor chords announcing the entrance of the Inquisitor, I feel that I am being forced to confront the essence of evil. The choice that the Inquisitor places before Filippo — sacrifice his son or betray the church — brilliantly evokes the hell that Mr. Lockhart describes. A few years ago, a friend of mine, a Unitarian minister, laughed when I described someone as evil. But if we believe in the nature of good, don't we have to believe in evil — no matter how attractively it's packaged? spacer 

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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10