On Balaam And His Ass

22:21 And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab.

22:22 And God’s anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him.

22:23 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.

22:24 But the angel of the LORD stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side.

22:25 And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall: and he smote her again.

22:26 And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.

22:27 And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.

22:28 And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?

22:29 And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.

22:30 And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay.

22:31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.

22:32 And the angel of the LORD said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me:

22:33 And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.

22:34 And Balaam said unto the angel of the LORD, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.

22:35 And the angel of the LORD said unto Balaam, Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak. So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.

There is more to the story of Balaam, but it need not detain us here. The crucial point is that we have no evidence the LORD, having opened the mouth of the ass – that is, given the gift of human speech to Balaam’s donkey – remembers to close the mouth of the ass, or take away the gift of speech, before Balaam and the donkey trot away with the princes of Balak. We must therefore assume that it continues to speak.

That, at least was the conclusion of the dipsomaniacal Irish playwright Finbarr na [Unpronounceable Thicket of Consonants], who in 1959 produced his most famous work, The Donkey Dialogues. When the play begins, Balaam and his ass have taken leave of the princes of Balak and gone a-wandering throughout the Middle East and beyond, ending up – surprise surprise! – in Dublin. They roam from bar to bar, drinking pints of porter, and regaling their fellow-drinkers with what are supposed to be comic skits. Much of the so-called humour relies on the idea that Balaam is a foolish glutton while the donkey is imbued by the LORD not only with a human speaking voice but with His Ineffable Being. The donkey is, in other words, in this reading, God.

Unsurprisingly, the playwright was accused of blasphemy and more than one priest personally socked him on the jaw.

Of more interest perhaps is what has been done with Finbarr’s work in a new adaptation for television. Balaam and his ass are no longer relocated to Dublin, they barely drink at all, and the comedy dialogues are jettisoned entirely. Speaking in generic BBC peasant accents (à la Lark Rise To Candleford) the pair traipse back and forth across the sun-bashed verdant fields between Lark Rise and Candleford, exchanging observations about the peasantry, the weather, and ancient hostilities between the Israelites and the Moabites and the Amorites. Thankfully, there is no attempt at humour.

Whereas in the original, it was difficult for an audience to suspend disbelief at the absurd picture of a talking donkey in an Irish bar, it seems perfectly plausible, in the rustic setting, to have a man and a donkey trudging across the fields chatting to one another. Plausibility alone does not make for good drama, however, and there have been mutterings in the production suite. In the planned second series, Balaam’s ass will be stricken with a mysterious and seemingly incurable donkey disease, allowing for the introduction of a new character, a maverick young veterinary surgeon newly arrived in the countryside muck from the urban metropolis.

There is also talk of giving the talking donkey its own Saturday night television chat show, in which it will interrogate movers and shakers (Rolf Harris, Benedict Cumberbatch, Yoko Ono) on their knowledge of peasants and weather and Israelites and Moabites and Amorites and smiting with sticks.

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