The problem with the Phineas and Ferb movie Across the Second Dimension is that it’s too spectacular.
Phineas and Ferb (my favorite TV show next to Judge Judy and The Journey Home) is brilliant for many reasons, but these are generally small reasons – humorous moments that are not overdone, a variety of characters that are true to their traits in a variety of situations, complex and interwoven plots that are usually not forced. But when Disney wants a movie, I imagine Disney demands action and adventure and fight scenes and big giant devices and apocalyptic moments – and it all gets way too noisy. What’s good about this show is the contrast between the smallness of the kids’ back yard and the largeness of the adventures that fit into it – and that smallness doesn’t readily fit into a spectacle-sensation-with-pano-vision-and-full-screen-dolby-surround-sound-90-minute-movie.
And this is a problem in show business. When Miss Saigon came to the Fox Theater in St. Louis many years ago everybody kept talking about how an actual helicopter somehow descended from the rafters and appeared on stage. Nobody talked about the show or what it meant, only the spectacle and what struck their eyes and stunned their senses and knocked them senseless. When we saw Richard Harris as King Arthur in Camelot at the Muny, he more or less stumbled through the role until his big final monologue that he played so over-the-top (holding Excalibur in the air and shouting, “Vengeaaaannnncceeee!”) that the rubes in the audience stood up for him at curtain call – this a kind of spectacle of acting, an empty, noisy showing off, not unlike the spectacle of Spectacular Over-Production with props and scenery.
And while spectacle and its literary counterpart melodrama are always elements in dramatic art, to the extent they dominate a dramatic work, that dramatic work is compromised.
Compare the plays of St. Therese, the Little Flower, for instance.
I have been reading a collection of her plays translated into English, and published by ICS. These were written as recreation pieces to be performed by the Carmelite sisters. They all have a pageant-like or presentational feel to them, and being weak on dialogue, one wonders how they would play outside of a recitational setting. But they nevertheless, even in translation, have a stunning beauty of simplicity and a depth of spiritual insight and passion.
Take the very short “Jesus at Bethany”, in which Therese played Jesus and two sisters played Martha and Mary. This play is simply a series of stanzas sung to folk tunes in which Mary and Jesus speak to one another for five or ten minutes, followed by Martha and Jesus speaking to one another for five or ten minutes. The only dramatic conflicts are Mary’s feelings of unworthiness and Martha’s frustration with Mary. In the midst of that we have a bold – perhaps audacious – love scene between Mary (identified as Mary Magdalene) and Jesus – not the kind of love scene hoped for by those Da Vinci Code fans who assure us that Jesus and Magdalene had a thing going and he fathered children by her. It’s not that at all.
It is, on the contrary, much more daring than that. It is a love that goes so much further than that.
At the beginning, Magdalene declares her love for Christ, and St. Therese has Jesus answer
JESUS: From now on, O Mary,
You’ll want to live for Me
And all My life
I will suffer for you.
Think about that. What kind of intimacy is this! This makes that Da Vinci Code nonsense Puritanical by comparison.
A few verses later, Magdalene replies
MAGDALENE: Jesus, your very love
Makes my heart tremble.
Your supreme goodness
Increases my pain.
Think about that! What a beautiful line.
Into this rapt declaration of mutual love, Martha inserts herself complaining of Mary’s neglect of work, and Christ, in the course of a few stanzas, gently leads her to the truth. Then the eyes of the active and bustling Martha are opened, she abandons her jealousy and griping, and she declares her intention to match the love of Magdalene, even in the drudgery of her daily chores.
JESUS: You understand the great mystery
Which made me descend to these places.
Yes, the hidden life is dearer
Than all the glory of the Heavens.
MARTHA: Jesus, to delight You, I want all my life
To despise honors and human glory.
While working for you I will imitate Mary
Seeking only Your divine gaze.
The paradox of the Hidden Life surpassing even the glories of heaven is something I alluded to here, and is the antidote for all the show biz raz-a-ma-taz and noisy spectacle the dramatic arts are prone to. And the willingness to seek Jesus in the humble and ordinary routine of daily life is likewise an antidote to the hunger for attention we actors are prone to.
But spectacle has a role in drama, even in the drama of profound little things. For example, in her play Joan of Arc Accomplishing Her Mission, Therese includes a fair share of spectacle, notably the fire scene in which Joan is martyred, and which nearly consumed Therese playing the role of Joan in performance when the fire almost got out of hand.
But the play is not about the battlefields of blood and gore; it’s not about the raging fire that consumes the young virgin and spellbinds the audience; it’s not even about the spectacle of saints and angels appearing to Joan in prison. It’s about the Hidden Life of a girl who had faith, who put all of her trust in Jesus, and who was led through the fire and beyond it to Act Three. For, in Therese’s play, the martyrdom of Joan ends the Second Act; the Third Act takes place in heaven and engages Joan in the needs of modern day France, fallen into apostasy. The climax is not the fight scenes; the climax is not the crowning of the king; the climax is not the immolation of the virgin; the climax is in the world beyond, which for now is somewhat Hidden from us.
For while we see through a glass darkly, we must not forget the consolations we receive and the glimpses of what lies behind the drudgery of our daily chores. We, like Joan, are visited by saints and angels, though perhaps in ways we do not perceive – in ways that are Hidden, like much of the life of Our Lord.
It is not the spectacle on stage that concerns us, but the spectacle off. The Drama is about the God behind the scenery and how He is revealed to us through our characters and our conflicts, hidden by a veil that is torn at the crucifixion, revealed at that moment of sacrifice by the great glimpse into a love more audacious than romantic love, the unimaginable love of a God consoling us with His saints and angels and hidden visitations, His little things, His little ways, His little saints, that draw us closer, despite our showmanship, to the quiet and loving Him.