Playing it Straight as Parody

ScientologyI recently saw the hilarious electronica-musical “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant.”  The cast, all children age 8-12, belted out various pearls of wisdom from L. Ron Hubbard, IRS accusations against his “church,” and legal disclaimers.  Some of the biggest laughs were provoked by mere recitation of Scientology doctrines, or descriptions of the auditing process (where, according to the play, members are questioned and gradually trained to subordinate their “reactive mind” to the “analytical mind” . . .  until they are “cleared” and thus capable of visiting a Mediterranean cruise ship to learn the highest church teachings).

The same theater company pushed this strategy even further with “Hell House,” where they used the exact same script developed by fundamentalist churches as the basis of their performance.  Newsweek called the performance “a grotesque and shocking imagining of contemporary secular culture, an extreme version of the way some very conservative Christians may think the unsaved live.”  Of course, the original author intended an entirely different response to the material.  Yet the theater company did not perform with distance and raised eyebrows–as the NYT noted, “Les Freres, whose approach to art lies somewhere between P. T. Barnum and Dada, have brought to New York an irony-free facsimile of the Halloween entertainment known as a Hell House.”

Which, finally, leads to a reflection on “reader response theory” and copyright.  We can pretty much count on at least 95% of the playgoers who attend the Scientology Pageant to share the theater company’s dim view of the material presented.  As Wikipedia helpfully summarizes, “Reader-response theory recognizes the reader as an active agent who imparts ‘real existence’ to the work and completes its meaning through interpretation.”  So does the fact that all these viewers take the thing to be a parody make it a parody? 

When I showed the infamous Numa Numa video to a friend, and asked whether he thought it a fair use, he immediately said “what a cutting parody of that inane pop song.”  Admittedly, he’s one of the brightest people I know.  So perhaps a free culture of “played-straight-parodies” depends on judges adopting the perspective of such ideal readers.