The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis

This week’s Random Book of the Week, fittingly for Easter Sunday, is a play which revisits one of the Bible’s most controversial episodes by getting some of its main players (even Satan himself) and other historical figures to argue it out in (what sounds like) a modern-day Bronx courtroom.

In The Last Days of Judas Iscariot two lawyers debate the guilt of Judas Iscariot – the disciple whose betrayal of Jesus for thirty silver coins arguably led to the Crucifixion – by cross-examining a series of witnesses as diverse as Mother Teresa, Mary Magdalene, Sigmund Freud, Pontius Pilate, and various saints, including Saint Monica, re-imagined thus:

My name is MONICA – better known to you mere mortals as SAINT Monica. Yeah, dass right, SAINT  – as in “better not don’t get up in my grill ‘cuz I’ll mess your shit up, ‘cuz I’m a Saint and I got mad saintly connects,” okay?

Yes, DASS RIGHT: Saint Monica is using double negatives and swearing like a navvy. Welcome to Guirgis’ world. Believe it or not, it works.

Primarily the play becomes a discourse on the thin line between good and evil (with will coming somewhere in between the two) and a treatise on the intricacies of human character –  even those witnesses we deem saintly are revealed as less clear-cut in their goodness, with Mother Theresa being a prime example of this:

CUNNINGHAM (Judas’ lawyer): You also took money from Charles Keating, the savings-and-loans scam artist who robbed American citizens of billions of dollars?

MOTHER THERESA: For the poor, I took it. You got five dollars? I take from you, too.

The most powerful way that Guirgis re-evaluates ‘the Bible’s most notorious sinner’ is through the bold move of presenting him as a complex human being rather than the cardboard cut-out villain we may have grown up with at Sunday School. The play opens with his mother’s grief:

On the day of my son’s birth I was infused with a love beyond all measure…I tell the world the one true thing I know: If my son is in Hell, then there is no Heaven – because if my son sits in Hell, there is no God.

and closes with a dialogue between Judas and Jesus, where Judas’ own betrayal is clear:

JUDAS: You forgave Peter and bullshit Thomas – you knocked Paul of Tarsus off a horse – you raised Lazarus from the fuckin’ dead – but me? Me? Your ‘heart’?…What about me??!! What about me, Jesus?! Huh?! You just, you just – I made a mistake! And if that was wrong, then you should have told me! And if a broken heart wasn’t sufficient reason to hang, THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE TOLD ME THAT, TOO!

JESUS: Don’t you think…that if I knew that it would have changed your mind…that I would have?

I enjoyed this play as a reflective yet often humorous way to explore this Bible story,  and as an honest appraisal of the complexities of religious belief from a playwright who admits his own struggles with faith:

…I think a connection to the spiritual is essential to us as individuals…I think our survival depends on it. I also think that religion gets a bad rap…and that non-maniac-type people who are religious or spiritual have a responsibility to stand up…and gently encourage others to consider matters of faith and to define for themselves what their responsibility are and what it means to try to be ‘good’…I won’t pretend at all that this play answers that question, but if it provokes the question in you, then please let it.

Happy Easter from the Turner George Clan!

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Rosemary Reader and Writer says:

    When I read the American-style slang, I too was very put off, but your review is very persuasive. I might give it go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s a definite danger that that sort of tactic could appear ‘gimmicky’ – i.e.’let’s make the Bible hip again people!!’ – but fortunately it is balanced out with ‘non-street’ speak and the depth of character observation. The overall impact is that it humanizes the characters, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. bookheathen says:

    It definitely has a certain irreverent appeal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That it does! However I appreciated being able to re-explore a Bible story – my knowledge is shamefully rusty (whatever my take on religion, these are long-told stories that I would like to be more au fait with as they often provide a reference point for wider literature etc) and this play really digs deep into the complexities of the story.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. bookheathen says:

        Bible stories are such a great source of ideas for novel plots.

        Liked by 1 person

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