Holy Wars

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

A pan-European purveyor of acidic iconoclasm, Jean-Claude Carrière insists that deep down, he's just a bawdy jokester. "I have trouble taking anything seriously," the Paris-based dramatist and screenwriter says. "The most important thing for me is humor, and making people laugh." Granted, Carrière's comedy isn't usually of the guffaw-inducing variety. Whether skewering the bourgeoisie for Luis Buñuel, sexing up The Mahabharata for director Peter Brook, or more recently, putting Nicole Kidman through an existential wringer in his screenplay for Birth, Carrière radiates an impish (but philosophically charged) skepticism—the dramaturgical equivalent of a perpetually arched eyebrow.

This season, Carrière's irreverent wit can be experienced in full force in his stage play The Controversy of Valladolid (previews begin February 15 at the Public Theater). Set in 16th-century Spain at the height of Catholicism, the drama combines two of Carrière's most enduring obsessions: organized religion and the absurdity of human nature. "What interests me the most about religion is that it brings out the best and the worst in people," says the 73-year-old Carrière, who was in town recently to oversee rehearsals. "You get the whole spectrum of behavior. Christianity, in particular. It's a religion that isn't content just to let other people be; it must convert them."

Set entirely within the claustrophobic cloisters of a Spanish monastery, The Controversy of Valladolid (based on historical events surrounding the papal tribunal of 1550) concerns matters in Spain's far-flung colonies in America. As one character summarizes it: Are Native Americans human beings made in God's image, or are they another species, possibly creatures of the Devil? The play unfolds as a courtroom drama: Defending the rights of the natives is Bartoleme de Las Casas, a priest who has lived in the colonies and witnessed Western brutality firsthand. Arguing against him is Gines de Sepulveda, an Aristotelian scholar who claims that the natives are heathens destined to be enslaved by their Christian superiors.

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."

There's a sly perversity in the way Carrière uses the hyper-civilized language of the courtroom to evoke the unconscionable violence of the era. The murder and rape of Native Americans are justified with deadpan references to "God's wish" and "God's great mercy." Carrière says he tried to remain as historically accurate as possible, even though no official archives of the controversy exist: "The actual trial took place in secret. Sepulveda and Las Casas both wrote books and they also wrote letters to each other. Much of what they said during the trial ended up being written down."

As with Carrière's previous historical re-creations (in particular, his screenplay for Danton), The Controversy of Valladolid feels bracingly contemporary thanks to vernacular dialogue and strategically placed winks to the viewer. Indeed, audiences should have no trouble picking out modern-day parallels to Bush II—an imperialist government invoking God/Jesus to justify war, a foreign agenda driven by a lucrative natural resource (gold, in this case), and in one scene, an Ashcroft-esque official who blanches at the sight of a female breast.

Carrière points out that his play actually predates the most recent Iraq war—he originally wrote it for French TV in 1992. After learning that theater troupes in Spain and Mexico were performing it for local audiences, he revised and expanded it for the stage. (The new version debuted in Paris in 1999.) Carrière clearly welcomes comparisons to the current U.S. administration despite the anachronism: "When George Bush talks about receiving his orders from God, it's the same language used at this time in history. I think it can help us see that there is a continuity to politics." If Carrière could say something to the president? "I would say to him, 'Shut up, now. God isn't on your side!' "


Staging a historical play with such juicy topical resonance requires a delicate balance. "I don't think there's a case for making Sepulveda look like Donald Rumsfeld," says director David Jones. The Royal Shakespeare Company alumnus thinks it's important to take the period seriously, but also to remember that the play is not a political or history lesson: "Jean-Claude told us that we shouldn't be reverential to the material. There's the scene in the play where the Papal Legate says, 'Farce is also a part of life.' I think that's the key to the play." Jones remarks how Carrière keeps the play's tone in flux by juxtaposing absurdity with outright horror, sometimes in the same scene. In the climactic sequence, the court, following Sepulveda's suggestion, summons a Native American family to the stand. The officials proceed to subject father, mother, and baby to a humiliating series of physical "tests" to determine whether their responses constitute authentic human behavior. The shameless abuse on display is guaranteed to hit home for American viewers (Abu Ghraib; Camp X-Ray). For Carrière, the scene is foremost an intellectual exercise: "We've all seen Europeans discovering America in the movies. Here, we have Indians seeing Europe for the first time. I wanted to create the reverse of what is usually portrayed, to see the world through the other's eyes."

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."

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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