Ring around the Collar: American Comedy and the Clergy  

by Larry A. Brown
Professor of Theater, Nashville, Tennessee

This article was first published in Christian Scholar's Review 22:4 (June 1993):396-411.


        The Bible may say, "How beautiful are the feet of those that preach the gospel," [1]  but playwrights of American comedies have been stepping on ministerial toes for years. Long before the reverends Bakker and Swaggart, our modern Elmer Gantries, became the targets of tabloid headlines and talk show hosts, calculating churchmen were providing ammunition for satirists intent on revealing their hypocritical posturing. For over a century the same pious pastors that have given inspiration to their congregations have also provided theatrical audiences with many irreverent chuckles. As a result, the minister has become a minor but recognizable character type in American comedy. Although the comic clergyman's appearances on stage have been infrequent and scattered throughout the decades, a definite pattern has emerged over the years deserving of some critical attention, especially for those interested in the representation of religious life in American popular culture.

        A survey of nine stage comedies, [2] from Irving Browne's Our Best Society (1868) to Larson and Lee's The Illuminati (1988), reveals a striking consistency in characterization: the comic clergyman usually is Protestant, well-educated, liberal in his theology, and conservative with his finances. Concerned more with the appearance of piety than the reality, he fails to live by the high standards of his calling, making him an irresistible subject for ridicule. At the same time, this clerical portrait has evolved over the years, reflecting the changing attitudes of American society toward the ministerial profession. Nineteenth-century comedies depict the foibles of the mild-mannered Victorian churchman in his attempts to gain social status and financial security through the prestige of the pulpit. In contrast, some recent comedies portray the minister as a fanatical spokesman for the radical right, following the rise of reactionary ideology in certain sectors of American religion. These opposing images highlight a shift in the popular perception of the minister's role in society from representative and guardian of the status quo to advocate for a religious counterculture, the voice of one minority view among many.

        Previous studies have examined the depiction of the clergyman in serious dramas, [3] but none to date has focused on the portrayal of this role in American comedy, which tends to show less sympathy for the man of faith. This study seeks to close this critical gap by concentrating on the comic playwright's perception of the minister.  Because of some pertinent parallels, however, a brief comparison to similar treatments of the clergy in the plays of Tennessee Williams will help to disclose the serious implications lying beneath the satirical surface of these comedies. Under the scrutiny of the stage, the man of God takes on a different character once he steps down from the pulpit and we see him in a less than holy light.

            A number of American comedies written in the mid-1800s lampoon the social aspirations of New York's nouveaux riches. During this time influential families such as the Astors and the Vanderbilts were making their presence known in both financial and cultural circles. Faced with no proper social tradition of their own, the new elite of American society were attempting to establish themselves in the manner of European aristocracy, building expensive mansions on Fifth Avenue, sponsoring museums and opera houses, and throwing elaborate parties and balls at which only the best of the best mingled. Among their illustrious ranks, no one was considered more indispensable than the liberal clergyman. [4] A man of the cloth with his classical education and gracious demeanor brought an air of respectability to any fashionable occasion. Moreover, because of his intimate knowledge of others' private affairs, he was especially courted for his opinion on who should or should not be included on the guest list. As one example, Isaac Hull Brown of Grace Church was social arbiter over Fifth Avenue society for two generations, being described as "a walking social register of contemporary high life [who] knew the blood lines, bank accounts, domestic strains, and financial snarls of everyone in Gotham Society." [5]  His expertise in matters of etiquette and style gave him considerable standing among his status-conscious parishioners who in turn provided Brown with a respectable and well-salaried position.

            As Ann Douglas has argued, the liberal Protestant minister played a significant role in the development of 19th-century American culture. The rigorous teachings of Calvinism which had led to the Great Awakening in America during the previous century gradually gave way to a liberal Protestantism less concerned with traditional doctrines of atonement, predestination and original sin than with matters of family, respectability, and the social benefits of church attendance. In effect, the intellectualism of Jonathan Edwards was replaced with the Victorian sentimentality of Henry Ward Beecher. This "emasculation" of authoritarian Calvinist theology, Douglas contends, brought about the "feminization" of both 19th-century religion and American culture. Spirituality was thought of as a feminine virtue with little significance for the male-dominated "real world" of business and politics. Having suffered the loss of prestige and political power they once enjoyed, Protestant ministers became the self-appointed custodians of popular culture, joining affluent housewives in their leisurely production and consumption of sentimental fiction and poetry. No longer the fire-breathing demagogues whose voices swayed both Congregationalists and congressmen, these men of God found their new calling in the social sphere. [6]

            Naturally such a prominent figure of high society soon appeared among the stereotypical characters of early American comedy, two examples being the Reverend Cream Cheese in Our Best Society and Mr. Needham Crawl in Young New York. [7]  Reverend Cream Cheese plays a supporting role in the story of the Potiphar family in which Mr. Potiphar struggles to prevent his wife from spending all his money and his daughter from marrying a worthy but fortuneless suitor. The Potiphars first meet Cream Cheese at Saratoga Springs, a popular exclusive resort often mentioned in comedies of this period, and he soon becomes a close family confidant. Mrs. Potiphar adores the reverend and seeks his opinion on everything but matters of religion.    Mr. Potiphar prefers their former minister, old Dr. Polysyllable, for, as he says, decent folk could sleep through his sermons. Cream Cheese, in contrast, persists in bringing up "new-fangled idolatries."

            In the first act, Cream Cheese arrives to advise Mrs. Potiphar on a proper binding for her prayer book, fashion being a prerequisite for piety. He recommends a pale blue that should not clash with the yellow light coming from the windowpanes next to her pew. As usual, the minister has impeccable taste as to what is suitable in the best of society. The conversation then turns to the marital possibilities for the reverend and to the availability of Miss Lydia Croesus, a young heiress. Cream Cheese assures Mrs. Potiphar that he would never marry for money--unless, of course, it were his duty. He then leaves immediately to call on Lydia, whom he fears he has been neglecting in his ministerial visits.

            When they finally meet in act three, both parties are mutually impressed. Lydia has heard a rumor that Cream Cheese is of noble blood, a descendant of the French Huguenot, Creme de la Creme. She remarks, "How nice to marry into such a great family! As for money, we got enough of that, you know; what we want is blood!"  By this time the reverend has received word of an inheritance from England, and he interprets this news as a sign from God that he was predestined to wealth: "I should not allow worldly considerations to stand in the path of my evident duty. I accept the lesson and the boon in a spirit of obedience and humility.". His soul can now be at peace knowing that his avaricious longings are only the fulfillment of God's will. As this subplot unwinds, however, Lydia's family goes bankrupt, the rumor of Cheese's noble heritage is revealed to be only that, and the reverend receives a new revelation:

It only serves the more forcibly to illustrate the fallibility of human judgements. The advance of 500 pounds sterling, which I supposed to be the precursor of a golden shower, proves to be at once the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, and my pecuniary prospects are left parched and barren.

How true it is that God moves in mysterious ways.

            In Reverend Cream Cheese we find three traits common to many of the ecclesiastical examples in this period. First, the comic minister moves freely among the upper classes and people of culture and status. They respect his education, his opinion in matters of taste, his gift for eloquence, and he in turn says nothing in his sermons that would disturb their consciences or his position in society. By confirming in word and deed their luxurious lifestyles, he performs an act of benediction, sanctifying their secular pursuits with the official blessing of the church. Second, the comic minister is not at all tempted by the ascetic virtues of abstinence and poverty. He follows the example of Henry Ward Beecher who promoted conspicuous consumption as a Christian virtue in its demonstration of God's abundant blessings on his children. [8]  Without guilt or apology he enjoys to the fullest the material rewards his position brings. His only creed appears to be "In God we trust" as artifacts with this inscription are quite sacred to him. Third, whenever he discusses church doctrine, a rare event indeed, the comic clergyman preaches a brand of user-friendly theology which may be summarized as "No sin, no shame; God loves everyone the same." [9]  With his superior rhetorical skills, he can support almost any conclusion desired in matters of moral conduct, so none of his parishioners need be offended by the demands of the gospel. In various forms these traits continue to appear throughout the tradition.

            In Young New York, Edward Wilkins presents a kindred spirit of Reverend Cream Cheese in the character of Mr. Needham Crawl. [10]  The opening cast description reads, "Mr. Crawl: addicted to Bible societies, religious anniversaries, Christian associations, Oxford prayer books, and two-per-cent per month; with one eye on Wall Street and the other on Grace Church." The play opens in Saratoga, where Crawl converses with the wealthy and gullible Mr. Ten-Per-Cent, whose daughter Crawl seeks to marry, much against her wishes. As if to demonstrate his upstanding character, the minister speaks of the shameful way that money is wasted at Saratoga when it could be spent on evangelistic projects such as providing pious pocket handkerchiefs with scriptural imprints to the Comanche Indians. He rebukes the frivolous lifestyle of the wealthy, disapproving of their cigarettes and liquor. However, when offered both, he explains that he indulges in these filthy practices only at the recommendation of his physician.

            As we soon discover, Mr. Crawl is an American Tartuffe, an incorrigible hypocrite more adept at preying than praying. Everyone sees through his sanctimonious disguise except Mr. Ten-Per-Cent, who remains his devoted disciple. As his minister, Crawl counsels Ten-Per-Cent that his daughter's true love is unworthy of her, while he forces his young rival to leave town through a clever lie. Ten-Per-Cent, over the objections of his family, defends Mr. Crawl as a man of honor, someone he trusts even with his own finances. His faith in the clergyman remains unshaken until he receives word that his spiritual advisor has swindled him out of his fortune.  At this point in the story, Crawl ceases to be humorous, becoming more the melodramatic villain than comic buffoon. While both ministers are preoccupied with earthly rather than heavenly treasures, Mr. Crawl, unlike Cream Cheese, deliberately uses the appearance of virtue to trick and betray others for financial and sexual gain. In sheep's clothing he works his way into the family and bank accounts of Ten-Per-Cent until it is the latter who becomes the sacrificial lamb.

            This overtly demonic streak does not characterize all of the ministers in the American comedic tradition, however. Most feed off the leisure class using subtler methods. Clergymen such as the Reverend Matthew Phillimore, seen in The New York Idea (1906), maintain their privileged position in society less by deceit than by minding their own business. [11]  According to Bennett, well-to-do congregations at the turn of the century expected their ministers to uphold the status quo and to protect their vested interests. Judiciously avoiding current social problems, they were to preach about the blessings of the next life, not the transgressions of this one. Eloquence, not relevance, was what the people wanted, and the financially dependent minister usually obliged them. [12]

            Such is the case with Matthew Phillimore. Upon his entrance, he is described as "a high church clergyman to a highly fashionable congregation [whose] success is due partly to his social position and partly to his elegance of speech, but chiefly to his inherent amiability which leaves the sinner in happy peace and smiles on the just and unjust alike."  Matthew seems less concerned with the pursuit of mammon than the two previous examples, although he does listen for good tips on the horses. He peddles no spiritual wares and pursues no fraudulent schemes. His primary function in the play consists of mediating between scandalous divorcees and their jealous ex-spouses. Maintaining a careful neutrality on all subjects, he gets along quite well with his fellow man--almost too well.  He never offends anyone on moral issues, for he cautiously refuses to take a stand on anything. Surrounded by a society infatuated with divorce, Matthew avoids stirring up his congregation with scripture passages condemning the activity. Instead, in his Sunday oration he explains that divorce is a natural part of our temporal existence in which all things, including love, must pass away. Afterwards he exclaims, "It was an exquisite sermon. All New York was there, and all New York went away happy! Even the sinners--if there were any. I don't often meet sinners, do you?"   A wise pastor, Matthew knows that people attend highly fashionable churches and support their highly fashionable ministers just as long as they receive comfort and not confrontation from the pulpit. Thus, his preaching follows the path of least resistance by removing the guilt instead of the sin.

            To this point the image of the Protestant minister has not been flattering. In these early comedies, he appears hypocritical, greedy, and self-serving, more concerned with pleasing man than God. His role in society is to confirm the materialistic values of the upper classes, for which he is generously rewarded. There is little evidence of spiritual conviction beyond the willingness to conduct the necessary business of the church, such as visiting parishioners and performing marriages. His indifference toward orthodox dogma undermines his credibility as a guardian of traditional values and as an administrator of the sacred institutions of the church. In the third act of The New York Idea, Matthew presides over a disastrous farce of a wedding in which the bride runs out of her ceremony to stop her former husband from marrying another woman. During the commotion, the choir sings, "Enduring love, sweet end of strife! Oh bless this happy man and wife!"  With deliberate satire the playwright suggests that such fiascos may be expected when church teachings on the sanctity of marriage are set aside and fashionable divorces are openly endorsed from the pulpit.

            The next significant appearance of a minister in an American comedy occurs in Life with Father (1939) when another sacrament provides the comic dilemma. [13]  Clare Day must endure what he sees as the unnecessary humiliation of baptism or face the wrath of his wife. The representative of the church in this case is the Reverend Dr. Lloyd, "a plump, bustling man, very good-hearted and pleasant."  We first meet Dr. Lloyd before the baptism issue arises when he calls on the Day household to listen to the children's catechisms. When Clare arrives, talk turns to business at the office, and Dr. Lloyd delivers a sermonette on the true value of money:

My mind often goes to the businessman. The picture I'm most fond of is when I envision him at the close of a day's work. . . . I see him pausing in his toil--and by chance he raises his eyes and looks out the window at the light of God's sky, and it comes over him that money and ledgers are dross. He realizes that all those figures of profit and loss are without importance or consequence--vanity and dust. And I see this troubled man bow his head and with streaming eyes resolve to devote his life to far higher things.

To this speech Clare in amazement responds, "Well, I'll be damned!"

            Of course, as one might expect, this lesson on the folly of riches is merely a prelude to Dr. Lloyd's real reason for coming:  a humble but urgent request for money. The pointed irony of the situation is humorous, but the fact that the contributions are for a new church building and not for his personal coffers redeems the reverend's motives somewhat.  As evidenced by his confusion over the actual figures involved in the building project, Dr. Lloyd does not spend his time meditating on financial matters, a trait which distinguishes him from the avaricious attributes of previous pastors. Furthermore, he seems to hold definite religious convictions on certain doctrinal matters. He does not compromise on the issue of baptism even at the risk of Clare's anger and the loss of his financial support. By his choice of words and his respect for church ritual, he aligns himself with the more conservative branches of theology which uphold traditional doctrines of sin and salvation. In prayer he even goes so far as to refer to Vinnie as a "miserable sinner" who needs God's forgiveness, although this sounds more like religious rhetoric than an actual condemnation. Perhaps most important, the character of Dr. Lloyd benefits from the respect given him by Vinnie, the most sympathetic character in the play; she never questions his sincerity or his faith. Taking these factors into account, Dr. Lloyd represents a more honorable side of the clerical profession than we have observed thus far.

            If our faith in the clergy has been briefly restored, one look at Jules Feiffer's Little Murders (1967) quickly returns us to apostasy. [14]  Reverend Dupas of the First Existential Church (whose motto reads, "Christ died for our sins. Dare we make his martyrdom meaningless by not committing them?") stands for a new generation of mind-expanded ministers high on drugs and the Holy Spirit who feed their hip congregations on a gospel gleaned from existentialism and pop psychology. For Dupas, religion offers a free trip to personal fulfillment and meaning to life with no divine strings attached. He reassures his listeners that there are multiple answers to the ultimate question of existence; so if it feels good, believe it:

For, don't you see, any step that one takes is useful, is positive, has to be positive, because it is part of life. And negation of the             previous taken is positive. It too is part of life. And in this light, and only in this light, should marriage be regarded. As a small, single step. If it works--fine! If it fails--fine! Look elsewhere for satisfaction. Perhaps to more marriages--fine! As many as one likes--fine! To homosexuality--fine! To drug addiction--I won't put it down. Each of these is an answer--for somebody.

From this creed of moral relativism, Dupas challenges his followers to make their own choices and to define their own values, wherever they may lead. Whereas Reverend Matthew avoided drawing ethical boundaries so as not to offend polite society, Dupas openly speaks of sin in order to condone it, as long as it helps to authenticate oneself. He feels that "it is all right" for Alfred not to believe in God, for Carol to bribe him with $250 to mention the deity in the wedding, and for Dupas to take the money and not mention Him anyway: "Betrayal, too, is all right. It is part of what we all are." Presumably Dupas would bless the actions of the gunman who later murders him at a church happening, his dying words being, "It's all right, it's all right." Despite his love beads and hip jargon, this guru of existentialism appears as much a pious fraud as his high-church counterparts.

            Thus far, all the risible reverends in this survey of American comedies have played only minor roles, and yet the uncomplimentary portrait painted of them has been quite consistent over a number of years. As is true of most comic stereotypes, these characters function primarily as cogs in the narrative machinery, revealing little of the inner life that motivates them. Recently, however, four comedies have given greater attention to ministerial characters in major or supporting roles. These plays reveal a previously unseen dimension of the comic clergyman: his inner struggles with doubts about his faith and the challenge of maintaining a personal sense of integrity. Mass Appeal (1980) turns the stage into a pulpit and private confessional for its two ministers, allowing them time to defend some of their idiosyncrasies to the secular world. [15]  Of the two, Father Tim Farley more closely resembles his Protestant counterparts. Tim knows the professional and emotional security that comes from being popular with one's parishioners. He has worked hard to gain their confidence and appreciation, and he intends to let nothing interfere with this relationship. He has learned the necessary art of telling people only what they want to hear. His superiors encourage this approach and expect the same treatment. He explains his role as advisor: "The only purpose of the rector's advisor is to find out exactly what the rector really wants to do and then advise him to do that." Thus, he maintains his position by appeasing everyone and saying nothing of spiritual significance. As usual, money provides some of his motivation. Tim enjoys his Mercedes and his gift bottles of sparkling burgundy, and he refers to the collection after the sermon as his Nielson ratings. Nevertheless, Tim covets his congregation's admiration more than he does their financial support.

            Every apostle of Christ needs his thorn in the flesh to keep him humble, and Father Farley soon finds his in Deacon Mark Dolson. Whereas Tim is soft-spoken and tactful, Mark resembles a thundering prophet with "a certain James Dean quality about him."  Mark's motivation comes from his disgust at the materialism he sees in the world, in his family, and even at the seminary where his teachers spend more time before the television than the altar. He took up the priesthood not to receive such earthly comforts but to speak out against these "shackles," the mink hats, the cashmere coats, and the blue hair he observes in his audience. Complaining that Tim never tells the people what they need to hear, he calls Tim's sermons "song and dance theology." When Tim counters that it works, Mark retorts, "And what if 'what works' isn't the truth?"  Other ministers may shift their convictions with the tides of popularity, but Mark maintains that "what you believe has to be more important than what your congregation thinks of  you."

            Over the course of the play, each character begins to see the wisdom of the other's approach. Tim eventually concedes that sometimes people must be hurt before they can be healed, that a minister must care enough to run the risk of losing his congregation's affection. By his concluding speech, he is prepared to "cash in his popularity" in order to defend Mark's reputation and career as a priest, for as he confesses earlier, "The church needs lunatics" to keep her alive. At the same time, Tim has taught this lunatic some important lessons in how to survive. A fiery prophet may extinguish himself in one final blaze of glory if he uses too much fuel at once. Mark must realize that a priest cannot beat his congregation into submission; for him to lead them in paths of righteousness, they first must be willing to follow. The power of the pulpit exists only as long as the people are behind it. After awhile Mark learns that in order to encourage people to become what they can be, he must first accept them as they are.

            For all his stubborn zeal, Mark Dolson justly points to an inherent problem in the popular minister's willingness to abandon his convictions in order to appease the easy consciences of his followers. The substitution of material comfort for a deep personal faith runs as a common thread throughout this comic tradition thus far. In recent years, however, our society has been challenged by a different kind of religious mentality, one not so easily swayed from its sectarian beliefs. To combat the perceived threat of cultural pluralism in America, certain reactionary groups have reemerged who would force their system of religio-political beliefs on others. No longer sanctioned as representatives of the establishment, these men seek other avenues of influence outside the pulpit. Greedy for power and dogmatic to the core, they will resort to any means to protect their sacred vision of the American way of life.

            In Larry Shue's The Foreigner (1983), the Reverend David Marshall Lee represents this new breed of clergyman who has dedicated himself wholeheartedly to the task of reshaping America into his own ideological image. [16]  Lee, a distant relative of the Confederate general, does not at first appear to fit our expectations of a minister, being described as "neither the stereotypically pallid, remote young divinity student nor the hearty, backslapping evangelist." We soon discover that behind his warm and easy-going facade hides a cunning and deceptive nature.  The first clue comes when Catherine, his fiancée, unhappily announces, "I'm pregnant. You're not so sterile after all," to which David responds, "It must be a miracle." No sooner has he calmed this storm than Owen Musser, a local roughneck with a lecherous smile and two tattoos, arrives to discuss secret and ominous-sounding business. The two of them plan to swindle an old lady out of some property in order to establish a Christian hunting lodge. To accomplish this, David must also convince Catherine that her brother Ellard is too mentally incompetent to inherit half of their father's fortune. His tricks on Ellard go unnoticed by all but Charlie, the visiting "foreigner" who, by feigning ignorance of English, overhears everyone's plans.

            As the action of the play progresses, the full, frightening extent of David's duplicity is revealed: he wants to lead Owen and his white supremacist buddies into forming the Georgian Empire of the Ku Klux Klan. With their backing, he "could have made this country clean again! Wiped this nation clean of . . . Foreigners! Jews! Catholics!"  Even after his plans are thwarted by Charlie's counter-scheme, the sanctimonious tone of David's rhetoric shockingly reveals the dangerous self-deception in what Kenneth Burke called the religiofication of motives. Baptizing his own bigotry, David has convinced himself that a divine mandate lies behind his dream of a "Christian, white nation," and he justifies his actions with the philosophy, "God helps those who help themselves." Such fanatical self-confidence by which racism masquerades as religious zealotry makes his hypocrisy more terrifying than humorous, bringing a dark touch of reality to this otherwise light-hearted comedy. In David Lee we witness a new role being played by the minister in society. Unlike the Victorian pastor who sought to influence his world indirectly through cultural channels, the clergyman of the radical right desires the power to force his ideology on others. Persuasion from the pulpit has given way to coercion by intimidation and violence, adding a sinister dimension to the politics of American religion.

            In recent comedies such as The Foreigner, we observe a shift away from portraying the clergyman as one who mingles comfortably with the best of society. No longer a representative spokesman for the upper classes, the man of God has become a religious recluse set apart from the world by his curious ways and peculiar beliefs. Two plays by Larry Larson and Levi Lee, created in collaboration with their director Rebecca Wackler, focus attention on eccentric evangelists and their faithful followers. Unlike our earlier examples of New York high churchmen, these social misfits spring from the spiritual roots of the rural South, reminiscent of characters by Flannery O'Conner (cf. Hazel Motes, the fanatical promoter of "the Church without Christ," in Wise Blood). In Tent Meeting (1986), Ed Tarbox, a Bible-thumping, redneck revivalist, becomes convinced that the misshapen creature to which his daughter has given birth is the Messiah. [17]  With the reluctant help of his dimwitted son (who suspects his father sired the child), Ed kidnaps the deformed infant from the Arkansas research laboratory, christens it Jesus O. Tarbox, and heads for Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Becky, the blessed mother of the child, stuffs cotton in her ears to keep in the celestial music which has run incessantly through her head ever since she was "raped by God." During their journey to the promised land, Ed attempts to hold his family together with games of "Go Fish" (the only card game sanctioned by Christ himself) and with preparations for a big revival meeting where he intends to "baptize" (i.e. drown) the new baby Jesus to atone for the sins of the world. Ed's holy pilgrimage ends with Becky's rescuing the child from the ritual sacrifice as the infant begins to glow with a supernatural radiance. This outrageous mix of satire and surrealism, besides providing a highly theatrical conclusion, demonstrates the persuasive power of blind faith: the Tarbox family's delusions have become, at least for them, a kind of spiritual reality.

            Fanaticism turns to paranoia in Larson and Lee's Some Things You Need to Know before the World Ends (a Final Evening with the Illuminati). [18]  Reverend Eddie appears to be another incarnation of Ed Tarbox, now obsessed with his impending demise. Haunted by visions, whispered threats, and rumors of nerve gas, he prepares the hunchbacked Brother Lawrence to carry on the work after he is gone. Eddie teaches his deformed disciple the catechismal doctrines (which Lawrence recites in a mindless, robotic fashion) and the ways of the enemy, a conspiratorial secret society called the Illuminati, who supposedly died out in the 18th century but who, according to Eddie, still exist to perpetrate their evil schemes: "The Illuminati didn't die. John F. Kennedy died. Robert Kennedy died. Martin Luther King died. Proof enough that the Illuminati live." Eddie believes that the Illuminati seek to rule the world by controlling all the financial markets. The meager offering in the collection baskets convinces him that they have already infiltrated his congregation, so he has Lawrence search the audience for the missing funds. In his final sermon, "Life is like a Basketball Game," Eddie emphasizes the importance of money in that both life and basketball are usually played for it. He also bemoans the fact that with a little more passed under the table, he could have become a bishop.

            A greater temptation than money challenges Reverend Eddie, however, as he struggles to overcome his inner demons of self-doubt and depression. Throughout the play, Eddie experiences a series of visions which reveal the inconsistencies in the system of beliefs which he passes on to Lawrence. In each case, his discussion of church doctrine triggers a fantasy scene which satirizes the traditional teaching. After preaching on the one true church, Eddie and Lawrence are transformed into a country and western band who sing a pointedly sectarian hymn:

                        Jesus was a Lutheran, in every word and deed.
                        He went to church at eleven o'clock, and said the Nicene creed.
                       And when I get to heaven, I'll know just what to do
                        'Cause Jesus was a Lutheran, and I'm a Lutheran, too.

Using Lawrence's deformities as an illustration, Eddie next teaches him that "You can't be holy unless you hurt" because God "finds a kind of joy in pain." As he punishes himself on a bicycle equipped for self-flagellation, he hallucinates about applying for sainthood as an interviewer discusses options for martyrdom; unfortunately, his first choice of Quaaludes and a couple of beers is not allowed. In a third vision, Eddie learns how St. Paul and Timothy over lunch one day invented the official church guidelines for the treatment of women: no talking, no authority over men, and no trading recipes in church. St. Paul concludes, "Well, that's it. Two thousand years of oppression coming up." Burdened with a theology of pain, persecution, and fear, Eddie finally loses his struggle with despair. Contemplating suicide, he sees himself playing basketball with Death and learns that in the Big Contest, what matters is whether you win or lose, not how you played the game.

            Larson and Lee's irreverent caricatures resemble editorial cartoons with their exaggerated features and mannerisms. Their plays have a highly presentational, almost surreal quality about them in contrast to the realistic style of previous works in this study. This overt theatricality fits the clamorous, flamboyant nature of these high-strung evangelists, who belong more to the tradition of itinerant preachers such as Billy Sunday and Samuel P. Jones than that of Henry Ward Beecher. [19]  Both Tarbox and Reverend Eddie have a fanatical gleam in their eyes and speak as if they had heard the voice of God. Reminiscent of Elmer Gantry, their ministries depend on spectacle and sensationalism, yet they are not pandering to the prejudices of their followers. Unlike the doctrinally neutral pastors of earlier plays, they speak in accusatory tones of sin and guilt and are obsessed with apocalyptic images of judgment and doom. More so than any others in this study, these men are on a quest, trying to come to terms with their misguided notions of religion and reality. Whereas previous characters have used religion as a deceptive ploy for personal gain, the only ones deceived by these deranged evangelists are themselves.

            The nine plays in this survey reflect over six generations of religious life in America. During this time mainstream denominations have witnessed declining memberships while conservative sects and splinter groups have flourished. Evangelistic efforts have gone from tent meetings to sermons by satellite. Quasi-religious organizations such as the Klan have resurfaced in force, promoting their confusing mixture of neo-Nazism and Christianity.  Amidst this whirlwind of changes, the image of the American minister in popular culture has evolved as well, moving from the liberal high churchman of the Victorian era toward the charismatic fundamentalist prominent in the mass media today. Whereas once the minister exemplified the "best of society" in culture and sophistication, now he behaves like a man possessed, preaching a gospel of paranoia and experiencing visions of the Apocalypse. No single stereotype can represent the American minister today, given our eclectic religious environment.

            Yet, despite the obvious differences between the mild-mannered Reverend Cream Cheese and the manic-depressive Reverend Eddie, there remain some striking similarities in the comic portrayal of the man of God over the years. As one common attribute, all these clergymen seem to be motivated less by spiritual concerns than by the prospect of material wealth. Matthew plays the horses, Dupas accepts bribes, and Cream Cheese seeks lucrative liaisons. Tim rates his sermons by the jingle in the collection plate, while Eddie accuses his audience of financial conspiracy. Both Mr. Crawl and David Lee use religion as a ruse for fleecing their misguided followers out of their fortunes. Dr. Lloyd, the most sympathetic example of the group, seems to have good intentions at least, but he too appears preoccupied with money. Indeed, over the years one constant in American religion has been the spreading of the gospel of health and wealth, a common theme running from Russell Conwell's famous turn-of-the-century lecture, "Acres of Diamonds," to Jim and Tammy's tearful pleas for contributions. America has transformed materialism into a Christian virtue, and these comedies present clergymen eager to reap their earthly rewards. Besides encouraging this acquisitive attitude, the minister's dependence on the contributions of a satisfied congregation frequently tempers his prophetic voice, causing him to neglect the weightier matters of Christian faith such as morality and social responsibility. In his sermons greed no longer appears among the seven deadly sins.

            Of course, comedies have not been the only plays to point out this avaricious attitude among the ministry. In several plays Tennessee Williams has created ministers who resemble in striking ways their comic counterparts. The love of money provides the primary source of inspiration for the Reverend Tooker in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. [20]  Described as "the living embodiment of the pious, conventional lie," Tooker is drawn to the house of cancer-ridden Big Daddy like a vulture to dying prey. He discusses "vivaciously" with Gooper about other families' memorial gifts to the church following the loss of a loved one, which provokes Big Daddy with some justification to say, "Y' think somebody's about t' kick off around here?" When time comes to break the truth to Big Mama about the cancer, Tooker can only mutter under his breath and slip away with a half-hearted benediction. While his success as a fund-raiser may be uncertain, in his professional role as spiritual comforter he is a miserable failure. In Reverend Tooker, Williams shows us the serious consequences of the minister who neglects sacred for financial concerns: he no longer serves a productive role in society but becomes a parasite feeding on others' misguided generosity.

            For these pastors, however, a greater stumbling block than greed exists in the loss of faith they exhibit. With our earliest examples, Reverends Cream Cheese, Crawl, and Phillimore, the problem may be difficult to detect; their theology has been so diluted by modern thought that they have very little faith to lose. For them the ministry means a respectable, privileged position in society which one maintains by politely overlooking the sins of one's fellow man. This blissful indifference to church doctrine becomes blatant agnosticism in Dupas' case. As an intellectual victim of the sixties' moral relativism, his mind remains free from the taint of personal conviction. Not until Mass Appeal's full-length treatment of the clerical profession do we witness characters struggling with the implications of their faith. Fresh from the seminary and ready to set the world on fire, Mark faces not only a congregation resistant to change but also a complacent priest unwilling to upset the status quo. He challenges Tim to stand up for his beliefs, which forces Tim to confess, "I'm not sure what I believe anymore." Years of evasion and half-truths have blurred his vision of Christ which he once experienced ministering to people on the street. Having gained a comfortable parish, he has lost his sense of purpose. Only after Mark refuses to compromise the truth about his past, even at the risk of his priesthood, does Tim realize the demands of genuine faith.

            The greatest challenge facing these characters is their struggle for personal integrity. The gradual erosion of the theological foundations of faith coupled with the pressure to please affluent parishioners has taken its toll. Once an emissary of divine truth, the modern clergyman no longer accepts much of the orthodox creed he confesses. In The Illuminati this situation is demonstrated dramatically in Reverend Eddie's series of heretical hallucinations which reveal the hypocrisy of his own teachings. Bennett notes that during the 20th century especially, "the intensity and depth of the [literary] clergyman's doubts have moved from faith's periphery to its core." [21]  This collapse of the entire faith-system leads some like Reverend Eddie to feelings of irrelevance, alienation, and despair. He attempts to pass on a tradition to Brother Lawrence that no longer holds any meaning for him. His calling as a minister has left a spiritual void in his soul. Finally surrendering to his inner demons, he goes somewhat insane and commits suicide to escape the clutches of the Illuminati.

            Again Williams offers an interesting parallel in the character of T. Lawrence Shannon from The Night of the Iguana. [22] The defrocked minister, stripped of his office on charges of heresy and fornication, arrives at Maxine's Mexican hotel "at the end of his rope" and ready to "take the long swim to China." Like Eddie and his feared Illuminati, Shannon is haunted by his own inner demon of doubt and despair which he calls "the spook." Even in this exotic hideaway, he cannot escape the resentment he feels toward the institutional Christianity that made of Mexico "a country caught and destroyed in its flesh and corrupted in its spirit by its gold-hungry Conquistadors that bore the flag of the Inquisition along with the Cross of Christ." Dissatisfied with superstitious dogma, he has rejected Western theology's depiction of God as a "cruel, senile delinquent, blaming the world and brutally punishing all he created for his own faults in construction," but he has nothing better to replace him with than an elemental god of thunder and lightning. Hannah Jelkes, an observant artist on a quest of her own, recognizes his problem as "the oldest one in the world--the need to believe in something or in someone--almost anyone--almost anything." Eventually these two lost souls find their salvation in the nonsexual intimacy of human communication, with "a little understanding exchanged between them." Williams has said that the theme of this play is "how to live beyond despair and still live," [23]  and on these terms the story ends on an optimistic note. However, Shannon's solution to his crisis of integrity as a minister is simply to cease being one, an option which does not solve the existential dilemma of the doubting cleric: how to live without faith and still believe.

            In his study of modern religious dramas, Bouchard finds a common thread in the clergyman's struggle for personal integrity. Both T. S. Eliot's and Jean Anouilh's portraits of Thomas Beckett serve as excellent examples of a man striving to live by the high standards of his calling. [24] As a rule, ministers in American comedy do not exhibit such noble aspirations; the comic vision of life tends to look for human weaknesses, not strengths. Nevertheless, the plays in this survey do raise similar questions about the conflict between the pastor's role as spiritual leader and his willingness to forsake heavenly for earthly treasures, his lack of commitment to professed beliefs, and his desperate desire for social acceptance and personal peace. Interestingly enough, the primary target of all these satirists has not been religious faith per se, but the personal failure of religious leaders to live up to the standards they so fervently set for others. Reverend Eddie's final exhortation, delivered posthumously by Brother Lawrence, could serve as a lesson for all the ministers in this survey: "Don't tell lies. Don't do what you hate" (12). In the bible of American playwrights, hypocrisy seems to be the cardinal sin. The moral is that ministers should practice what they preach or be prepared to find audiences laughing at them both in the pulpit and on the stage.



1. Romans 10:15.

2. Regarding the selectivity of this study, these nine plays represent the only significant examples of ministerial characters found in this author's search of American comedy, the one exception being Rev. Harper in Arsenic and Old Lace, who exists primarily for expositional purposes.

3. See Ernest E. Bennett, "The Image of the Christian Clergyman in Modern Fiction and Drama, " DDiv thesis, Vanderbilt University, 1970; Larry D. Bouchard, "In Front of the Mask: The Priest in Contemporary Dramas of Integrity," Word and World 9 (Fall 1989): 372-81; and John J. Fritscher, "Some Attitudes and a Posture: Religious Metaphor and Ritual in Tennessee Williams' Query of the American God," Modern Drama 13 (1970): 201-15.

4.  Tice L. Miller, "The Image of Fashionable Society in American Comedy, 1840-1870," unpublished manuscript, University of Nebraska, 1985. My appreciation goes to Dr. Miller for suggesting this topic.

5.  Allen Churchill, The Upper Crust: An Informal History of New York's Highest Society (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1970), 40.

6.  Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Avon, 1978).

  7. Reverend Cream Cheese first appeared on stage in 1854 in Our Best Society which O. E. Durivage adapted from George W. Curtis's "The Potiphar Papers," a serial published in Putnam's Monthly Magazine the previous year. Unfortunately, this play is no longer extant. Another version of Our Best Society, adapted from the same source by Irving Browne in 1868, can be found on Readex Microprint, English and American Drama of the 19th Century, ed. Allardyce Nicoll and George Freedley. On Durivage, see Arthur Hobson Quinn, A History of the American Drama from the Beginning to the Civil War, 2nd ed. (New York: Crofts, 1944); on Curtis, see Gordon Milne, George W. Curtis: The Genteel Tradition (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1956).

8.  See ch. 5, "The Protestant and the Spirit of Affluence" in William G. McLoughlin, The Meaning of Henry Ward Beecher (New York: Knopf, 1970).

9. Liberal theologians of the 19th century de-emphasized the importance of traditional Protestant doctrines such as the Fall, the deity of Christ, and the infallibility of the Bible, leaving them, in Niebuhr's words, with "a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." From the perspective of the ordinary church member who might not grasp the finer points of liberal thought, the abandonment of orthodox dogma might appear to be the "new-fangled idolatries" that Mr. Potiphar dislikes. See H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1937; rpt. 1959), 193.

10. Edward G. P. Wilkins, Young New York (New York: John Perry, 1856). Reprinted on Readex Microprint, op. cit.

11.  Langdon Mitchell, The New York Idea (Boston: Baker's Plays, 1907).

12. Bennett, 67.

13.   Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, Life with Father; in Three Comedies of American Life (New York: Washington Square Press, 1961).

14. Jules Feiffer, Little Murders (New York: Random, 1967).

15.  Bill C. Davis, Mass Appeal (New York: Dramatist Play Service, 1980).

16.   Larry Shue, The Foreigner (New York: Dramatist Play Service, 1983).

17.  Larry Larson, Levi Lee, and Rebecca Wackler, Tent Meeting (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1986).

18. Larry Larson and Levi Lee, Some Things You Need to Know before the World Ends (a Final Evening with the Illuminati), in American Theatre 5:2 (May 1988).

19.  Davies makes an appropriate distinction between the minister of the local congregation and the itinerant evangelist. Horton Davies, A Mirror of the Ministry in Modern Novels (New York: Oxford UP, 1959), 22-3.

20.   Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (New York: Signet, 1955).

21.   Bennett, 113.

22.  Tennessee Williams, The Night of the Iguana, in Best American Plays, fifth series, ed. John Gassner (New York: Crown, 1963). For pertinent commentary, see Fritscher, 201-15.

23. Lewis Funke and John E. Booth, "Williams on Williams," Theatre Arts 46 (Jan. 1962): 72.

24. Bouchard, 372.


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