I was tweeting about my latest show, Rebranding Beelzebub, and poet Sarah Thomasin replied to say:
@TimRalphs I'm so excited about this. It's worrying how well you do "devil".
— Sarah Thomasin (@wordgeeksarah) June 12, 2013
So I thought I’d take a quick moment to unpack exactly how I approach Old Nick in my stories, and why I think the result can be so effective. Via Superman. Because what the hey, it’s my blog, and I’m not really sure anyone reads it.
I was watching one of Movie Bob’s videos lately in which he talked about Superman in the run up to the release of the latest remake. One of the things that Bob says is very revealing.
“In a way flawed, broken anti-heroes like Batman, Dirty Harry, Wolverine, whoever are easier to get right because they give you more layers to work with. But Superman is supposed to be a genuine icon of our potential for ultimate good realised and that kind of character, one who has already obtained complete, uncomplicated goodness to the extent that the development is all about the other characters reacting to him being the real thing, is hard to get right.”
I find Superman pretty hard to engage with as a character. He’s a bundle of super-powers and simple morality. There are very few external challenges he can’t resolve with some combination of his strength, levitation, laser-eyes or time-travelling. There are very few internal conflicts, because Superman is a generic force for good with straightforward priorities. In order to make films interesting, writers tend to introduce villains of equivalent power and opposite morality, be they nuclear-powered Superman clones or trios of Kryptonian war-villains or whatever. (It’s probably clear already that I’m not particularly well versed in comic books, so feel free to educate me if you think I’ve missed something that comes out in that medium.)
In this, Superman and The Devil are very similar. Milton managed to write a story that got to terms with Satan as a character, but only by setting up a central conflict with God. The result is one of the first pieces of art that allows the reader to understand, possibly even empathise, with Satan. Milton’s Satan has a personality, complete with motivations and emotions, that make sense to us as human beings. And that’s one way to approach the Devil, but it isn’t my way. When we “humanise” the Devil I think we lose something of the incomprehensible threat that Lucifer represents. We are distracted from the Devil as the ultimate force of darkness, as a metaphysical mystery. By treating Satan in the same way as the other characters in the story we lose a sense of the separation between mortal and fallen angel.
Which brings us back to Movie Bob and Superman. Instead of being a paragon of goodness, Him Downstairs is the exact opposite morally. But it is possible for the stories to remain grounded in the idea that all the development must come from the characters reacting to such an pure presence.
This, then, is my interpretation of Satan. It isn’t a character in the normal sense. The Devil exists as a force of temptation and corruption. (And the occasionally injection of comedy.) Whether the story is light-hearted, incompetent, petty, sinister or majestic doesn’t matter. The Devil is there to hold the mirror up the other characters, to let us see deep inside them, to find out how they respond to the threat of damnation and the promise of power. The Devil is an opportunity for heroism and calamity.
This approach works particularly well within oral storytelling, where motifs can be the driving force in the story. Does the Devil need exploration and development? No. We already know everything we need to know the moment we catch a glimpse of a cloven hoof.
Rebranding Beelzebub, my latest show, is a collection of traditional Devil stories set within a modern frame. It’s been brewing for a long time: the story of man playing scrabble for his soul has its roots in a conversation I had with Rachel Rose Reid in Belgium in 2008. The idea that the fruit of eternal life was on sale at a supermarket is lifted from work I devised for the Crick Crack Club in 2010. There’s also a lot of new material, some of which will be performed for the first time on Thursday at The Miller, near London Bridge, for June’s Night of the Storyteller.
Come and see it. It’ll be hilarious and darkly diabolical and now you’ll be able to appreciate the unlikely similarities between The Devil and the Man of Steel.