At the Bonhoeffer’s Cost production, which the Honors Program attended this past Sunday, one of the characters, a German guard, used the expletive “shit” repeatedly. After each usage—and I mean each usage—he apologized to the person he was speaking to, usually Pastor Bonhoeffer, but sometimes Dietrich’s fiancé. The guard often covered his mouth in childlike fashion, as if to say, “There, I’ve gone and done it again.” Almost every time he used the word, the audience tittered.
I did, too, at least at first. There is something funny about excrement. C. S. Lewis once said that you could work out a rough theology from the simple fact that humans think poop is embarrassing. And I’ll admit that there’s a good deal of laughter in the Mattson household about the large remains of the day that we find in the smallest room of the house.
How did something that gigantic come out of someone so small?
So, no complaints from me about using that particular expletive. At the play’s intermission, the people around me agreed that we really liked the character of the guard, liked this earthiness and his thickheaded commonsense. Those values were important elsewhere in the production as well. After the play was over, I found myself missing Pastor Bonhoeffer, at least as he was portrayed. He was deeply humane, convincingly pious, and wry and wily in just the way that late modernity seems to require of us. So, the expletive felt important for naming something recognizably messed up about a world in which people like him die the way he did.
And there’s the further complexity that Provision Theatre addresses a variegated audience. This company is in the rough and ready Chicago theatre scene, doing their work with indisputable skill, “devoted to producing works” [as their mission statement says] “of hope, reconciliation and redemption; works that challenge us to explore a life of meaning and purpose.” Because of that mission, they’re also drawing pretty large audiences from the good people of Wheaton and Trinity and Moody. So, you might say, given this diverse audience, all along the spectrum from secularity to piety, it’s no mean accomplishment to use an expletive and draw a laugh.
I should add, too, that the use of this word was by no means the most important issue raised in this production. The show compelled us to talk and argue and wonder about nonviolence and resistance, about truth and truthfulness, about loyalty and faithfulness. I’ve gone to a goodly number of plays with students; and, at least in my experience, no other production has elicited so much discourse afterwards, both on the van ride home and at the burger joint afterwards. Perhaps all this good talk was somewhat a function of the fact that honors students are particularly primed to talk, but I can’t help feeling that this production did an admirable good job as a conversation-starter.
But oddly, the show also compelled us to wonder what saying “shit” is good for. By having the guard apologize after each usage, the show made laughter the primary function of the expletive. (Brooke and Bryan noted that this was especially incongruous as the play drew to its conclusion.)
I confess I have higher hopes for poop pronouncements. I find myself thinking about Ecclesiastes and its refrain (in Cal Seerveld’s translation) that all of the effort we put forth under the sun is like “a constipated fart.” And when Bonhoeffer’s interrogator said, near the end of the production, that everything the pastor had worked so hard for had turned out to be worthless, I couldn’t help thinking about the Teacher’s insistence that everything is wind-chasing. And when that noose fell and lay claim to dear life just two days before the Allies might have freed that shrewd, hard-thinking, good-living pastor, you have to nod to Qohelet’s insistence that “chance and what just happens” comes to everyone.
I’m thinking, that’s what expletives are good for.
Not for laughs among squeaky-clean-living folk. Not as a nod to hard-living Chicago theatregoers. But for an honest statement about the human condition. Maybe we should say the word very quietly and through our teeth. Maybe we should say it with a wry laugh. Maybe we should say it with tears. But an expletive that true could be—perhaps should be—a confession, a lament, an answer to the Lord’s devastating question in Genesis,
Where art thou?
We’re deep in it, Lord, up to our knees. And because we are, what else can we do but stand in awe of You?