The play begins with a distraught mother’s monologue about her son, dead now, presumably in Hell, and hated by the world. She states that if her son is in Hell then God cannot exist. Needless to say, the monologue is full of despair and unease, an uncertainty about certain fate–it is a mother refusing to accept what she knows to be true, with such force and emotion, that the audience also doubts what they know to be true. This is, in part, the beauty of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot–the certainties you come in with must be tossed aside, here, nothing is certain and everything is up for debate.
Then it all shifts. The stage goes dark. When the lights come back on, we are being introduced to Purgatory, the place people go where their fates have not yet been decided, quite literally, in a courtroom. The mood is no longer dramatic, but funny, even bubbly, as a vivacious angel shows us around. Deathly silence has been replaced by laughter as we are introduced to the real characters of this show: a judge and two lawyers, one fighting for Judas, the other for Heaven. This is now a courtroom drama, albeit one ruled by the dead.
As the play goes on (and it does go on–it has a runtime of 2.5 hours), many different characters, primarily historical figures or religious icons, make appearances in the courtroom, called on as witnesses. These range from Mother Teresa to Sigmund Freud to Pontius Pilate, and when I say characters, I mean characters. These are not mild-mannered, historically-researched portrayals, but updated, bawdy versions, almost cartoonish. Mother Teresa is practically deaf and prone to talking about “handsome boys.” Sigmund Freud is a braggart, egotistical and cocky, beyond what even his worse critics would claim. Pontius Pilate dresses and acts like a rapper from the 90s, basketball jersey and goldchains, talking about his bros. They are caricatures, in a way, and easy humor, but somehow, they still manage a deadly seriousness. They have, after all, come here to decide a man’s eternal fate, and though sometimes that thought is not at the forefront, it is never fully forgotten, and the tone of play flips between with ease. Further, though many of these characters clearly side with either the prosecution or defense, their testimonies never fully condemn or exonerate. Viewers do not get a clear answer on Judas and what he deserves, only waters further muddled by questions personal, philosophical, and political. The play demonstrates that even if we can construct the events exactly as they happened, we will never fully understand the why behind them or how to proceed.
If you want answers and certainties, this is not the play for you. Even at the end, after the verdict has been passed, the final scene leaves the audience not knowing what they hope, what it even is they could hope for. Though often a comedy, this play is, at its core a tragedy.
SMTD’s production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot was excellent. The acting was phenomenal, managing the twists in tone deftly and with heart, and the Arthur Miller made for a particularly perfect stage.