Holy Wars

Politics and religion make familiar bedfellows in a timely French play at the Public

As a barbed critique of how the West treats (and often mistreats) the "other," The Controversy of Valladolid presented an interesting dilemma for its own author. Raised a Catholic, Carrière is now an atheist who has spent years writing about Eastern cultures and religions. ("I've even married an Iranian woman!" he exclaims.) How does a playwright alienated from Western modes of faith mount a fair portrayal of Catholic myopia?

Carrière's solution was to embrace the enemy: "Sepulveda has the most interesting lines in the play, and he's much smarter than Las Casas, who is a man of passion. Both men are Christian, but Sepulveda is an educated philosopher who is trained in logic and reasoning. In fact, my favorite parts of the play are when Sepulveda talks. When I was writing it, I felt obliged to find the better arguments for him."

Even if audiences find Sepulveda's arguments morally repugnant (at one point, he compares Native Americans to the mentally handicapped), Carrière says that condemning him would be hypocritical. "We can't judge these characters. That's what I was telling the actors, 'Don't judge the characters you are playing; don't pretend you are superior to them and that you know more,' " Carrière says. "It's an easy mistake to make because we know much more today in terms of history, geography, and science. But we are not more intelligent. By acting as if we know more, we are behaving like Sepulveda was toward the Native Americans. We would be committing exactly what we're reproaching him for."

Carrière on Christianity: "It's a religion that isn't content just to let other people be."
photo: Leslie Van Stelten
Carrière on Christianity: "It's a religion that isn't content just to let other people be."

In other words, tolerance for the intolerant. Carrière's high-road approach stems in part from his immersion in Buddhism. "When I was working on my book with the Dalai Lama, I asked if it would help if I became a Buddhist. But he said no, that it was better if I remained outside the religion. What's interesting about Buddhism is that it's not so much a religion as it is a philosophy. It's a set of beliefs, not a faith. It doesn't have to convert others."

As evidenced by the play's surprise ending, Carrière remains fascinated with the Catholic church's ability to be on both sides of the metaphysical fence. "Usually when the church is involved in a matter, it's quite subtle," he says. "They are very bright. It's never just black-and-white for them." It seems that Carrière has found a worthy opponent in Christianity. In one scene, Las Casas tells the story of a native who had said to him, "I'm already feeling a little Christian because I've learned to lie a little." It's a perfect distillation of Carrière's ironic cynicism: When it comes to religion, nothing is sacred.

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