Tushnim Gangopadhyay/ Looking at Institutionalized Religion through the Eyes of Tiny Alice and Small Gods

Tushnim Gangopadhyay

Research Scholar,

Department of English,

Banaras Hindu University



This paper is intended as a discussion on institutionalization of religion, with reference to the play Tiny Alice by the American playwright Edward Albee, and the novel Small Gods by the recently departed English author Sir Terence David John “Terry” Pratchett. The discussion revolves around the fact that religion in the contemporary era, has lost the connection with spirituality, which was once the basis for the foundation of religion as a socio-spiritual institution. Its role as an intermediary between the effigy – which is the object of devotion – and the abstract symbolism – which is its divine referent – has been abolished, to the effect that the institutionalized religion has become the referent, and the effigy, instead of serving as the focal point of spirituality, now serves merely as a validation as the institution’s authority. Whereas Edward Albee’s play presents this phenomenon to its audience, covered in layers of nuance and symbolism, Sir Terry Pratchett’s novel takes an actively critical role and dissects the religious institution and its overbearing pretentions.


Full Paper

A curious theory was once voiced by Adora Belle Dearheart, a character in Sir Terry Pratchett’s Making Money (2007), regarding the role of horseradish sauce in beef sandwich. The hypothesis says that once a person gets accustomed to horseradish sauce in his beef sandwich, with time it may gradually lose its impact on him, and he may feel the necessity to continually increase its amount, until one day the beef itself falls out of the sandwich and he doesn’t even notice. Although this hypothesis was used in a vastly different context in the novel, one may also put it to application in relation to institutionalized religion as it functions in present times.

Edward Albee, in his play Tiny Alice (1964), explores the spiritual vacuity and corruption within religion – an institution which appears to have turned astray from its originally intended goals. Although it has been charged, as Stanley Romaine Hopper mentions in his article “How People Live Without Gods: Albee’s Tiny Alice”, that this play has been written about a post-Christian mentality; the religious sensibility that it showcases in its characters can be analogized to the religious scenarios in most nations, including India. Regardless of variations therein, religions are rooted in the most primal drive of mankind – necessity – be they necessity for protection from natural elements, or necessity for validation for individual demands. One or more provider(s) of the necessary object or service, or decrier(s) of the required norms is therefore created by every civilization. However, soon after a religion including its deities is institutionalized, Adora Belle Dearheart’s hypothesis comes into action. Institutions created in order to structuralize the religions founded over the Deities are much akin to the usage of horseradish sauce as depicted in the hypothesis; they are not necessary to the spiritual sensibility of the religious, but are added to the religion in order to make it more organized and easier to implement over its followers, be it for the added sense of decorum, or profits to the authoritative figures in charge of leading the institution. Profits to the structures’ authority does not necessarily translate into monetary terms, although such is often the scenario; they may also mean added momentum to the spread of the religion, since the subjects for conversion are often members of other religions who similarly synonymies their own religion with the institution that represents it, and a change of rituals therefore signifies a change of faith to them. Further utility for the institute may entail avoiding the rigor of explaining the protocol of following a ritual to its subjects through metaphysical argument. However, this condiment, as argued in the horseradish sauce hypothesis, has in several instances taken over the main ingredient of religion – spirituality – and due to its overbearing existence few take note of the fact that the entire notion of religion is today dominated by the institution, bereft of the spirituality which it was meant to uphold.

In Tiny Alice Edward Albee uses this conflict between form and content as the elephant in the room, by making a miniature castle the centerpiece of the stage and also by making the male protagonist of the play, Brother Julian, openly voice his own inner conflicts and dilemmas regarding the institute of religion. The deity, or God, in its spiritual, religious and institutional incarnations is represented by the character of Miss Alice in her three iterations, one of whom is the titular Tiny Alice, living inside the replica castle on the stage. Of the two other iterations of Miss Alice, one is a life-sized human being, living inside the castle which houses the replica castle and acts as the stage for most of the play; the other is a greater-than-life entity whose presence is only hinted at by the booming heartbeat at the close of the play. The symbolism in effect here is not difficult to comprehend. The life-sized Miss Alice is the symbol of the spiritual truth which Brother Julian seeks throughout his short life and which eludes him even when he feels that he has grasped it, just like Miss Alice who leaves him almost immediately after his marriage to her. Her identity is a conflict in itself, since she is on one hand a living human being, and on the other a mere symbol for the entity Alice, which again is a symbolic abstraction and not a meaningful referent. Brought to death by the hands of the Lawyer, Brother Julian is left on the stage as a sacrifice to Tiny Alice in her replica castle, a martyr on the altar bearing the effigy of the truth which he knows will never return to him. At his death, the presence of the booming heartbeat of greater-than-life Alice in the life-sized palace converges with the position of Tiny Alice in the replica palace, a union signifying the oneness of the God and his effigy, which though significant in its implication towards the validity of the religious institution, is nonetheless devoid of the spiritual truth to the quest of which Brother Julian becomes a martyr.

Albeit not spelled out intricately, hints occur repeatedly in Tiny Alice regarding the process of transformation of a religion from a philosophy to a hollow institute; and that this process takes place entirely within the human psyche, instead of the real world. The name-calling banter between the Cardinal and the Lawyer with which the play begins, unveils to the audience in an effective, if rather heavy-handed manner the self-serving nature of the institutions which govern mankind. The Lawyer is not a person, nor is the Cardinal, as is hinted at through the presence of the cardinal birds, signifying that the meaning of a title is merely referential, hence further signifying the symbolic nature of the two characters as the embodiments of religion and judiciary, which are yet again, symbols of two metaphysical non-entities – spirituality and ethics. That the ethical institute is unethical, is made apparent through the actions of the Lawyer throughout the play, be it in his offer of money in exchange for the sacrifice of an unsuspecting innocent, or his treatment of the symbol of spiritual truth – here represented by Miss Alice – as a commodity in order to attain his desired end, or his similarity to a hyena, as pointed out by the Cardinal. The money-grabbing nature of the spiritual institute could not be clearer than it is, due to the presence of the perverse and corrupt Cardinal. However, what is of particular interest, beside the role played by the three Alices and the miniature castle, is the character of the Butler. As pointed out by Stanley Romaine Hopper, his identity arises from the word “bottle”, and his father was the vintner; both pointing towards the idea that the creation of the wine, theologically associated with the Christian mythology, has now been handed over to the mere bottlers of the same, who formalize the theological concepts. The fact that it is Brother Julian, and not the Butler, who discovers that the wines in Miss Alice’s cellar has turned into vinegar, marks the notion that the originally intended spirituality behind the creation of theology is no longer maintained, and that it is ruined in present times is only noticeable to one who has lost faith in the institute, instead of the institute itself.

The ending of the play casts penetrating light on yet another aspect of the religious institution. The fact that the spirituality Brother Julian sought his entire life – the elusive nature of which had compelled him to succumb to insanity once – is more beneficial to the religious institution in its elusive absence, rather than its presence. Not only is the truth kept away from its seekers, but the ones who, like Brother Julian, come to grasp it even for a brief moment are recaptured and absorbed into the grand narrative of the institution and ironically turned into another symbol of the faith that they have realized as hollow and insignificant before death.

Albeit evading the actual death of the protagonist through deus ex machina, Sir Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods (1992) makes an observation identical in nature. The plot of Small Gods centers around three characters, among which the titular Small God, Om, is one. The others are Brutha the novice, and Vorbis the Exquisitor, or head of the Inquisitors. Small Gods’ lucid narrative structure allows it to voice the author’s concerns with significantly more lucidity as compared to Tiny Alice, but the issue at its core does not change in nature despite the gulf of difference between a grim, socio-critical absurd play and a satirical speculative fiction which emphasizes heavily on humor and witticism. In contrast to Miss Alice’s multiple iterations, Om appears simply in the diminutive form of a one-eyed tortoise – a form which negates his claims of omnipotence and omniscience for practical reasons – which he had been unable to revert from into his more traditional awe-inspiring incarnations. Reaching the “Church of the Great God Om” (Small Gods 11) by accident, Om attempts to remedy his unexpected impotence by consulting the priests, and to his surprise realizes that in an entire country named after him, not excluding his own church, nobody except Brutha – an humble novice – could perceive his presence. Whereas most of the characters in Tiny Alice are aware of and are in the process of manipulating their positions of advantage in possessing a controlling power over the institution of mass-religion, in Small Gods, Om’s worshippers are divided into two different sets of believers. The priests are described as people who supposedly feel a calling towards the religious persuasion, but are in truth people who have successfully argued inside their heads the benefit of an “indoor work with no heavy lifting” (Small Gods 36) over those of becoming a menial worker. The other section of Omnians appear to be the result of institutionalized religion’s effect on mankind, the very same reaction that Brother Julian’s martyrdom was intended to induce. They believed, as Sir Terry puts it, “like iron believes in metal” (Small Gods 36). However, in a situation where the religious body is effectively functional, it cannot be accepted without some cynicism that Om cannot be heard by either the fanatic worshipers, or the holy priests, and has but one channel of recognition – a lowly novice, Brutha. It is highly reminiscent of the fact that in Tiny Alice, only Brother Julian can point out successfully to the flaw in the construction of the chapel as well as the poor condition of the wine cellar. The tortoise is refused acknowledgment as Om, by Brutha as well as others, due to the popular expectations which require him to incarnate as mighty bulls and eagles, just as Miss Alice remarks that she is “noticeable . . ., but almost never identified” (Tiny Alice 59).

An interesting observation on the relation of the life-sized Miss Alice and her tiny iteration inside the replica castle can be drawn from the fact that even Miss Alice considers Tiny Alice to be the actual deity, as when she prays to her, requesting Tiny Alice to preserve the burning chapel with alternating comments interspersing her prayer. The confusion of identity between the deity and the replica is further increased by the Butler’s puzzle to Brother Julian, asking him to resolve whether the tiny castle is the replica, or is it the original of which the actual castle is a replica. This confusion seems reflected repeatedly in Small Gods, especially when the contrast between the idols of Om are prayed to by ailing worshippers, and Om in his tortoise incarnation is ironically kicked around, all the while trying to grant the boons that are asked of his effigies. Contrasting to the tiny effigy and alter of Miss Alice, Om’s own form is dwarfed by the gargantuan statues and colossal temples, commenting unambiguously on the diminutive stature enjoyed by the deity himself, if at all, compared to the stature of the institution. Miss Alice’s calling out declaring that Brother Julian will belong to Alice – this Alice being the one she prayed to earlier in the play – makes certain knowledge that the institution, to which the sacrifice of the seeker of martyrdom is to be made, and not the embodiment of elusive and beguiling truth, is the true essence of the religious institution. Om does the opposite in Small Gods and denounces every apostle of his religion, attempting to rest the control of his followers’ downward-spiraling civilization through asserting himself, instead of a hollow structure made in his name, as the true deity. Unfortunately it becomes apparent that the institution had already been granted the seat of spirituality in the belief of the worshipers, to the extent of excluding the God from the equation altogether.

Until the deus ex machine comes into effect, the fiction follows a closing pattern similar to the play, where the protagonist finds himself separated from the faith he had quested for till then and about to be sacrificed to the altar of the institution in the process of converting his death into a device for facilitating unhindered flow of faith in the de-centered machinery of religion. The arrival of Om at Brutha’s rescue and his subsequent swelling to his former huge proportions is also reminiscent of the greater-than-life Alice’s presence merging with the Tiny Alice, where the symbol and the symbolized comes together, validating each other. Whereas Brutha subsequently forces Om to depart and leave the Omnians to independently rediscover their innate spirituality, Brother Julian is compelled to accept this hollow unity with his dying breath when he says, “I accept thee Alice, for thou art come to me. God, Alice . . . I accept thy will” (Tiny Alice 190).

Works Cited

Albee, Edward. Tiny Alice, London, Jonathan Cape: 1964. Print.

Ballew, Leighton M. 1966. ‘Who’s Afraid of “Tiny Alice?’. The Georgia Review, 20 (3), pp 292 – 299. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41396277/

Hopper, Stanley Romaine. 1973. ‘How People Live Without Gods: Albee’s Tiny Alice’. The American Poetry Review, 2 (2), pp 35 – 38. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27774554/

Kinsley, Lawrence. 1973. ‘Reality and Illusion: Continuity of a Theme in Albee’. Educational Theatre Journal, 25 (1), pp 71 – 79. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3205837/

Livingstone, Howard. 1967. ‘Albee’s Tiny Alice: Symbols of Symbols’. The North American Review, 252 (3), p 3. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25116585/

Pratchett, Sir Terence David John “Terry”. Making Money, New York: Harper Collins, 2007. Epub.

—. Small Gods, New York: Harper Collins, 1992. Epub.


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