James Anesta ’14 Explores Portrayals of Afterlife in Pop Culture

James Anesta '14
James Anesta '14

No one could doubt that James Anesta ’14 is dedicated to theater. In addition to appearing in a number of productions over his time at Hamilton, he took the time last summer to write his own play, “Hell the Musical,” which he will be staging in the fall with the help of a Smallen Grant.

As if writing a play were not enough, Anesta will also be directing it, and he is using an Emerson Foundation grant this summer to gain some scope as director. In his project, “Portrayals of the Afterlife in Popular Culture,” he is exploring different artistic representations of Heaven and Hell, hoping to find where his own work fits into the larger genre and obtain a new perspective for directing.  Anesta is working with Visiting Associate Professor of Religious Studies Brent Plate.

Anesta has always been interested in ideas of heaven and hell. In discussing the afterlife, he asserted, “It is the biggest question in my opinion. Odds are, we all go to the same place when we die. Everyone dies.” This interest drove him to explore the afterlife in different forms of art and media and eventually to write “Hell the Musical.” He explained, “Religious ideas are such a great source for creative writing, but it’s still kind of taboo. That was one of my ideas in writing the show in the first place, to break that barrier.” Anesta still finds himself frustrated by the difficulty of truly understanding what people believe about the afterlife. He stated, “The hardest thing for me is knowing that there’s a separation between what people write and put into art and what people actually believe.”

To gain a wider understanding of conceptions of the afterlife, Anesta is looking at a combination of films, plays, books and visual art. He is interested in how perceptions of heaven and hell have developed over time, beginning with works such as the Bible, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Dante’s The Inferno, and moving into modern writing and art. He’s found that some perceptions have remained relatively consistent. For instance, he observed that the importance of personal responsibility and accountability has been present in everything. The biggest change he’s tracked is a shift from public religion to a personal one. Anesta remarked, “The afterlife has gone from a physical place to something that comes from inside.”

Depictions of hell and Lucifer, in particular, have changed. Anesta explained, “Hell has always been a place of torment, but what that torment is changing. Now it’s much more self-imposed.” While Lucifer takes a prominent role in traditional representations of hell, in modern art, he is absent from most serious interpretations and instead is generally more important in comedic works. Anesta will incorporate some of the ideas he finds about hell and Lucifer into directing his play next fall. He commented, “If anything, this is a test run for a style of directing: researching what other people think about the themes in your show and incorporating what works.” As he moves into new projects next year, his Emerson project will help him continue to develop his directing style.

Anesta is a graduate of Bishop Hendricken High School, R.I.

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