Can anyone rescue America from the never ending campaign for our souls? With the Supreme Court debating the public display of the Ten Commandments and Hillary’s efforts to avoid being cast as pro-abortion in ’08, the rhetoric of religious belief seems set to polarize voters far into the future. Given the righteous posturing by secular and sacred interests alike, is there anywhere to turn for a perspective that doesn’t throw the holy baby out with the extremist bathwater?
Try the theater listings.
Provocative arguments about the role of faith in our private and public lives are dominating our typically secular stages right now, courtesy of playwrights and performers from Catholic backgrounds. Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s period parable about a nun struggling to take action against a priest she believes is a sexual predator, has recently transferred to Broadway after its much lauded run at Manhattan Theatre Club. Downtown, the Public Theater has offered two episodes of Divine Law & Order this season: the LAByrinth’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and the recent staging of Jean-Claude Carrière’s The Controversy of Valladolid. While Guirgis imagines Christ’s traitorous disciple on trial in a purgatorial courtroom, Carrière dramatizes an actual deliberation held in Spain in 1550, in which factions of the Church debate whether the indigenous peoples of the New World are human beings. And underground at the new Dodger Stages, the musical Altar Boyz, a sly satire on boybands, believes in getting right with God by busting a few good moves in tight corduroys.
What to make of this current run of plays with an explicitly theological bent? Not surprisingly, the subject of sexual abuse in the Church has been at the center of several productions already, including Michael Murphy’s damning docudrama about Cardinal Bernard Law, Sin (A Cardinal Deposed), and Martin Moran’s 2004 Obie-winning solo show The Tricky Part.
Moran, whose play (and forthcoming memoir) wrestles with the 30-year impact of his molestation by a counselor from a Catholic boys’ camp, compares an individual’s need for purgation with the larger cultural dynamic. “In terms of sex abuse, you store so much in your body. But it rises and rises until it reaches your head. I feel the same way about the body politic, and even the body of the Mother Church right now. On a lot of levels, we’re finally starting to pull all this stuff apart and look at it.”
But there’s a larger inquiry at work, suggesting that the abuse scandal is symptomatic of a religious vision that denies the humanity of the very souls it purports to cherish. Each of these playwrights seeks a kind of catharsis from the extremism of an ossified institution that has seemed more invested in protecting its own authority than in acknowledging a profound need for reform. These writers aren’t disavowing spirituality—only the self-justifying uses to which it has been put.
While John Patrick Shanley makes no secret of the fact that one of his relatives was a victim of Father John Geoghan, the playwright insists that Doubt, set in 1964, was written to “find relief from the zeitgeist.” Maybe, but the entrenched ethos that defined Shanley’s 1960s Bronx childhood, so vividly rendered in Doubt, still characterizes much of the Church’s approach to morality today. “I was basically raised in the 19th century,” he says. “My father was born in rural Ireland. My mother remembers the  armistice fires in Brooklyn. I was educated by nuns who were in touch with people who’d seen Lincoln. The rhythms of the Bible were in everyone’s language.” It’s a worldview personified by Sister Aloysius, a parochial-school principal played—withheld might be more accurate—by the superb Cherry Jones. From her diatribe against the “heretical” Christmas song “Frosty the Snowman,” which “espouses a pagan belief in magic,” to her final, wrenching lines, Jones pulls the audience from comic reassurance (aren’t crotchety nuns funny!) into a fierce gray zone where moral action feels like “a step away from God.”
For Shanley, the end of certainty marks the beginning of wisdom. “There’s a perception in our culture that a person who has doubt is weak, has no ability to act in an effective way. I don’t think anything can be further from the truth. The thing that sets most influential thinkers over the centuries apart is their willingness to acknowledge they weren’t sure.”
On the other hand, Shanley argues, to insist on simplistic categories of good and evil requires an enemy against whom you can define yourself. It’s an approach the playwright sees in no less than the pope himself. “He was formed in the Cold War, in an ‘us versus them’ mentality. He’s the Retro-pope.” A papacy defined by nostalgia for the Cold War? “I think it’s a nostalgia for Hitler,” says Shanley, who hopes there’ll be “a redefinition of what it means to be on the left and on the right. . . . The two sides will have to see what they have in common. Otherwise there’s no way out.”
In very different terms, Guirgis also questions Catholicism’s wrathful rhetoric, as seen in the pope’s recent assessment of gay marriage as part of “a new ideology of evil.” The courtroom on view in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot purports to judge the maligned disciple by a jury of his eternal peers, although it is really the faith’s obsessions with condemnation and sin that are on trial. But don’t get the idea Guirgis is letting anyone off the hook—his nonpartisan Jesus loves Donald Rumsfeld and Osama bin Laden as much as he does Nelson Mandela.
Like Shanley, Guirgis hopes to spark some self-reflection—yes, in the Public’s liberal audience. “All of us get comfortable with who we are, with the whole concept of good and evil. Evil can be a name we put on things to affirm ourselves. There’s a line that Jesus says, If you hate who I love, you do not know me at all. As they say, Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
He credits his “theological dramaturg,” Reverend James Martin, a Jesuit priest, for leading him through the maze of Catholic mysteries. “Father Jim said the truth is that when we’re children, we are taught a childish faith. When we become adults, we have a chance to develop an adult faith. But most of us just accept a childish version and don’t go any further.”
Despite its irreverent depiction of saints trash-talking and finger-snapping their way through the hereafter—this ain’t your grandmother’s Gospel—Guirgis’s play is startlingly devout, and attracting unlikely supporters. The Catholic League’s William Donohue, who led the crusade against Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi in 1998, says he’s been advised that Last Days raises “a lot of interesting questions.” (On the other hand, don’t get Donohue started about Valladolid, whose historical accuracy he deems “bullshit,” an expression of “inveterate anti-Catholic sentiment. The idea that the Church was responsible for the violence done to the Indians is ridiculous. Listen, the Indians did a damn good job of raping each other.”)
Argument has a way of losing sight of the human factor, and even theater isn’t immune to this temptation. Despite their stylistic and thematic range, all of the recent shows dealing with the Church are constructed as arguments (yes, even Altar Boyz). But theater is allergic to abstraction. Ask it to tell rather than show, to debate rather than dramatize, and the stage gets so heavy it sinks into the orchestra pit.
If Doubt is the most theatrically successful of the bunch, it’s because Shanley finds a way to make the theological deeply personal. The play’s struggle—and release—ultimately takes place in the riven heart of Sister Aloysius. Luckily for audiences, theater thrives on “the tricky part”: that paradoxical space where the desire for the safety of belief and the reality of uncertainty are revealed as two sides of the same human experience.