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A blog dedicated to the Source of everything good.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Oh, Susannah!

I recently had opportunity to see a very fine production of the American opera “Susannah" from a great seat. The only problem with the performance was balance; the orchestral score is heavy and sometimes the orchestra covered the singing.

“Susannah” was written by Carlisle Floyd in the 1950's. This two-act opera is a poignant social/religious commentary based on the Apocryphal story “Susannah and the Elders.” Susannah, a nice young orphan woman, lives with her brother, a hunter, in rural Tennessee. Her harmless admirer, Little Bat, is the “slow” son of the chief town gossip. Mrs. McLean and her friends are sure that Susannah will come to no good; she’s so pretty, she must be evil. While looking for a place to hold baptisms for the upcoming revival, the church elders spot her bathing nude in a creek. They are scandalized but cannot keep their eyes away.

When the itinerant preacher comes to town for the revival, he notices Susannah. The others quickly fill him in on her supposed character. They shun her at the pot-luck the night before the revival. Confused by the way everyone has turned on her, she does not attend the first meeting. The Reverend Blitch comes calling and beseeches her to repent on behalf of her soul. Suddenly he realizes he's a lonely man...and he advances upon her. (Susannah’s brother is out hunting). Susannah is too wearied to fight him off.

Blitch realizes that Susannah is not the hussy everyone has made her out to be. He calls a special meeting of the elders and gossips to try to clear her name. When they ask him how he knows, he says the Lord told him in prayer. He is truly repentant for what he’s done, but fails to confess. The townspeople, of course, don’t believe him, and Susannah is ruined (she is not strong enough in her faith to withstand the cruelty and personal violation).

The revival scenes, complete with folks being “slain in the Spirit,” are a subtle mockery and therefore uncomfortable (for me) to watch. No doubt much supposed Holy Spirit charisma is a sham, but there was no representation of authentic spiritual experience. The point of these scenes however is that the people do not truly change as a result of the revival, but are reinforced in their self-righteousness.

When he finds out what happened, Susannah’s brother Sam storms off to the baptismal creek in a drunken rage and shoots Reverend Blitch. The townspeople descend upon Susannah’s house to run her out of town, but she merely laughs them away. As the opera ends, Susannah loudly mocks and slaps Little Bat. It’s pretty awful to see what she’s become.

The ending sure is a downer, but “Susannah” is brilliant in its incisiveness and subtle irony. There are some exquisite arias too (not the German screaming kind ;-) ). If you get a chance to see it, by all means go.


  • You should rent the movie Inherit the Wind for a similar mockery of "fundamentalism" (this time with regards to the Scopes Trial).

    By Blogger Rusty, at 1:17 AM  

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