To celebrate my wife’s birthday, yesterday we drove to the historic Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania to see a show. The Playhouse has an illustrious history, having hosted performances including such players as Kitty Carlisle, Lillian Gish, Bert Lahr, and Robert Redford. We went to see a production of Guys and Dolls, the musical based on characters and situations penned by Damon Runyon. (My first introduction to Runyon, I must admit, was in the Alice Cooper anthem, Department of Youth.) Although we attended a performance of the musical back in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a couple of decades ago, I’d forgotten how much the Bible moves the plot along.
Naturally, any love story that involves a Salvation Army cadet will have its religious conflicts, but it is Sky Masterson’s knowledge of the Bible that drives Sarah Brown to first give him serious attention. Without the arresting power of the Holy Bible, the love interest would never have sparked. As I frequently tell my students, without some knowledge of the Bible, American society just can’t be understood. Even Sky Masterson’s real name is Obadiah (“servant of Yahweh”).
Damon Runyon was anything but a saint. His lifestyle was diametrically apposed to that envisioned by his fictionally pure Sarah Brown – a heavy drinker, smoker, and perhaps womanizer, he was a friend of crime bosses and a noted gambler. But Runyon, like most Jazz Age Americans, knew his Bible. One of his famous phrases derives from the book of Ecclesiastes: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s how the smart money bets.” From the quiet streets of an artsy hamlet in Pennsylvania to the glitzy lights of Broadway, the Bible still makes itself known. The smart money is on the one who learns to spot it.