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The Book of Mormon musical and “the grotesque”

The irony of the grotesque is a reality we deal with daily, yet a reality we tend to hide as days go by. This irony is a duality of qualities of things, a duality opposed, yet existent in everything. This is the duality of the beautiful and the grotesque, for in everything there is something beautiful and something grotesque. In society, we tend to hide the grotesque, the controversial, what makes us cringe, infamous things. However, the Grotesque, in the arts, gives beauty to grotesque things. In this essay, we will center our attention on the Book of Mormon musical, which uses the Grotesque to expose infamous aspects of religion, selfish actions of human beings and some of the darkest aspects of Africa in order to produce something beautiful.

Before we talk about the grotesque aspects of religion this musical exposes, we need to understand the format of this work. After all, it is a musical, which is a very specific and peculiar manner to expose grotesque realities. In the realms of musical theatre, the industry is rather referred to as “Broadway.” In history, theatre has been one of the few ways the plain people could be taught certain topics. An example would be Lope de Vega in Spain, where street productions of his plays would be performed and people learned more vocabulary and about topics they would regularly ignored. In fact, Lope de Vega became so popular among the people that became an idol of the people. Even censorship used to be more permissive with theatre. So it is nowadays; theatre is a way to talk about things people do not read about. After all, even though literacy is not a problem in the developed world anymore, people refuse to read and prefer to watch movies. Hollywood, however, is more about the storytelling and not much about morals or philosophies, going for merely entertaining rather than teaching, while Broadway and its productions make much more emphasis in teaching and making sure the audience understands the moral of the story. Therefore, we see Broadway is an excellent choice to when we want to teach a specific moral.

The Book of Mormon musical uses the grotesque to point infamous aspects of religion. In most religions, if not all of them, there is a punishment due to misconduct or disobedience and a reward after good deeds and obedience. The Book of Mormon musical centers most of its effort to make a critique to this fear in religion. Starting with the first song, “hello” where they state, “this book will change your life, so you won’t burn in hell…o.” Traditionally, in religion, the sacred books such as The Bible, the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon, are and have been seen as the supreme truth in religion. However, in the XIX century, specially, science started pushing more than ever against the truths found in those books. Nowadays, we tend to trust only in the latest information; when researching, we try to find sources closer to the present, considering outdated sources older than a decade. This need for the latest scientific information has changed our point of view on older sources of information, believing they are founded on speculation and mysticism. Considering this, religions and sacred books must be seen as something very outdated and definitely not trustworthy. Religion has many times has proved itself to be a scam. For example, it is not a secret that in Europe the Church had great political power; they even sold “indulgences,” these were certificates of forgiveness. We see that the fear of hell has been used to lie and make money. These errors have marked the public opinion on religion today, but now, religion’s tendency to reject modern social developments has made it even worse. When we compare democracy and society with religion, we realize that modern social developments are rejected by religion. A good example is the rights of homosexuals; while before they had to hide and life and sub-worlds, today homosexuals enjoy total freedom and civil rights equal to those of heterosexuals. However, although those advancements have brought happiness and freedom to many, most religions do not support such acts, sticking therefore to old ways and old information found in the sacred books. It is more than understandable that, given the errors before committed by religion, today people do not trust religion, its sacred books and the teachings within. The Book of Mormon musical makes this controversy very clear; it creates characters that are very fanatic about their beliefs. This fanaticism is evident in “spooky Mormon hell dream.” This song shows a dream about hell after the disobedience of rules, even when the act of disobedience is, seen from the outside, ridiculous. Indeed, that is the connotation of religious punishment nowadays. The laws of ethics, which mostly teach us to do good to others, have substituted religion in that sense. If there is such thing as a reward, now it is believed we just need to be a good person, but there is not a need to obey the laws of the sacred books; in the other hand, people tend to disbelieve in a punishment other than our mental hell on earth as we gain a bad reputation and the hatred of the people, but if there is an eternal hell people prefer to reject religion. The Book of Mormon musical, therefore, takes advantage of these bad concepts of religion to make of religion a good thing; basically, they say that, even though religion might be all a lie, if it makes us happy we can just believe in it all. What matters is to do good; as long as we do that, it does not matter what our beliefs are, we are still “latter-day saints” or, in other words, we are all the same.

The Book of Mormon uses the grotesque to point selfish actions of human beings. The Book or Mormon musical does not mean any politeness. Before I make a list of points, I have to admit they made an incredible job in the Mormon culture research, not only showing a grasp of the culture but giving us quite an accurate picture of behaviors in the church. It is very well known that the anti-hero is becoming more fun than a hero. In the same way we like to see criminals doing good things, we like to see real heroes doing good, or trying to do good. The Book of Mormon puts as protagonists two real persons. Elder Price and Elder Cunningham. Starting the second song, “two by two,” they show us the disappointment of going to Uganda. Never mind the mission, the point was to go somewhere cool. That is a very human grotesque attitude that we always try to hide. Elder Price, in the third song, “you and me, but mostly me,” shows his absolute intend to ignore his companion and make the work himself to get all the credit. These are the two songs that establish a very crude reality of human behavior which happens every day in our lives, where sometimes we participate and sometimes we suffer; this is the DUFF, designated ugly fat friend. In a very equivalent way, the Book of Mormon musical and the DUFF (a movie released in 2015) show how some people are used and discriminated in our society. While in past times these characters were meant to be funny but were fully integrated in the group, nowadays we see a deliberate way to picture these people in a more realistic way. Though we are not analyzing the existence of DUFFs and their superiors, I’ll allow myself to affirm their existence. The Book of Mormon uses this crude and grotesque reality, in a very clear way, to produce something good out of it: this is, the growth both characters have, where Elder Cunningham goes from being a DUFF to be the moral itself of the musical, and Elder Price, from being the prideful, superior part, becomes a depressed and failed missionary sunk in a pit of humiliation. We must note this is a universal moral which applies to all religious, agnostic and atheist worlds; after all, in this sense, we are all the same.

The Book of Mormon musical uses the grotesque to point the darkest aspects of Africa. In the realms of respect, the Book of Mormon has little to nothing to offer. The way this artistic work refers to problems in Africa is completely outrageous and out of the limits of courtesy and civility. This, of course, has an answer and vague explanation if we analyze the use of the grotesque. Within the grotesque, they make use of black humor, a very unfortunate way to name it, or dark humor. Within the last years, we have seen a tendency to use this humor to makes us laugh and show us a crude reality in an unusual way. Santa Clarita’s Diet would be a perfect example of this, where we are exposed to cannibalism hidden behind the pretention of zombies. The Book of Mormon musical uses this kind of humor to point a huge problem with AIDS in Africa, as we see in the song “Hasa diga Eebowai.” During the musical, we will see a very louse way to refer to the sickness and to joke with it. They show the rebels and assassinations they perform, after that, it would seem the rebels are people you can play with.

They also point women’s circumcision with a rather prophane and rude tone, almost making it seem unimportant or just an excuse to throw some crazy, made-up doctrine. In a very similar way, they make fun of hunger and starvation, where an African girl imagines buffets in America as places with “all the flour you can eat.” Although this musical is especially offensive toward Africa and Africans, I must admit there is a reason to it; a reason, however, founded in a non-excusable rudeness and bad taste which goes far beyond the tolerance of black humor. They are trying to show a positive side of these sad things. An interesting bounce back of the grotesque; even though the grotesque tries to expose terrible things as they are, this use of the grotesque actually blurs this hostile reality behind a smiling curtain. Toward the end of the musical, as they sing “we are Africa” the missionaries say “Africans are African, but we are Africa,” an imperialist diction which tops the mountain of grotesqueness and black humor. Not being sure what they mean exactly by saying that, the musical closes this cumulus of grotesque exposure with a moral, overly repeated: we are all the same. We are also Africa.

In fine, the Book of Mormon musical uses the grotesque to show the worst aspects of religion, human beings and Africa. This musical is a consequence of three very conservative ways of the arts to refer to reality which have evolved into ruthless ways to show us the world in a crude manner. Despite the grotesque being offensive at times, we must admit the impeccable moral this musical teaches to both religious and not religious people, this is we are all the same. Now, as a Mormon myself, I must also admit the many teachings this musical imparts to members of the church; maybe religion is not completely stagnant, although the laws of God do not change, we must change as a people and start loving everyone and tolerating social changes. After all, we are all the same. In religion, we must be careful with those DUFFs; we can learn wonders from them and they might humiliate us one day. DUFF or not, we are all the same, we all get the same. In religion, we need to truly help those in need; it is good to give money to help, it is good to be aware of the world’s situation, but what do we do about it? As good people, what do we do for Africans? We are all the same. This musical, whether rude or not, points, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, what we need to change in the LDS church. In the church we have to learn we are all the same.

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