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On Theater and Religion; or, Disappointing Mother

The Summer Play Festival of 2005 was a watershed career moment for me. I landed my first agent, my first professional production, and got to share my production week with such remarkably talented and accomplished playwrights it makes me blush to recall their names and think I was included among them for one hot spell in July.

But none of that is what I remember most clearly about the experience. What is etched is my mind, in spite of the opportunities gained, was the critical response to the play. No, not from the Ish or Big Ben. After the lights went down and the applause ended, I turned towards my opening night date: her face was stone cold and disapproving. I didn’t need to ask my mother what she thought about the play.1

I remember walking down Ninth Avenue in the rain to one of those thoroughly mediocre Italian restaurants on Ninth Avenue, crying, not because Mom had said anything harsh or cruel, but because the rain had not erased the stamp of disapproval above her brow. After the soggy linguine and semi-stale bread, I summoned the courage to ask her what bothered her about the play, neither of us pretending otherwise. “I didn’t like how it portrayed Christianity,” she said.

Part of me can chalk it up to the cost of being a writer. If that’s the extent to which I offend my mother, well then, at least I still get invited home for Christmas (something which would certainly be rescinded if I attempted to dramatize her, God help me). But here’s the thing: Christianity is not just the religion of my mother; it’s also the religion I currently practice and hold dear. I belong to a circle of Christian friends and family members who hold an array of theological positions—from gay Episcopal priests to natural family-planning Catholics—and I have to tell you that they are all, whatever their theology, supremely thoughtful and caring people trying to figure out how to know God and to love their neighbors as themselves. The Christians in my plays, on the other hand, are all, without fail, hypocrites, homophobes, drunks, liars, ignoramuses, adulterers, and worse.

My brother-in-law, who is, like me, a Christian and who, unlike me, has a PhD from Harvard put it this way: “Catherine, I think you’re a fine writer but why do the Christians in your plays always have to be such yokels?” It’s a good question. Whether religious or not, we all belong to tribes of one sort or the other—Christian, Jew, Muslim, Gay, Feminist, African American, Asian American, Latino, New Englander, Midwesterner, Southerner, Southern Latino Gay Feminist—and by definition belonging to a tribe means being held accountable by that tribe, whether we like it or not. When Lisa Cholodenko’s latest film, The Kids are Alright, was brought to task by her community for portraying a gay woman having an affair with a man, I remember fiercely debating the issue with my friends, arguing that the task of the artist is not to create role models but to explore the full range of human experience—in that case, human sexuality. I’m sure I called it “the artistic imperative,” or something similarly pretentious.

When I take a deep breath, however, and think about my mom, I get the other point of view, I do. It would be great to see gay women portrayed as, you know, gay, rather than harboring secret heterosexual fantasies. I’d also like to see an African American film that isn’t about incest and abuse win major awards. And yes, it’d be nice to see more often a representative of Christendom portrayed as an agent of love and justice, rather than a hypocritical homophobe. Just please don’t ask me to write it. I don’t entirely know why I’m more attracted to the sinners than the saints. For a while I thought it was about dramatic meat; sinners have a lot more internal and external conflict. But upon further reflection, I think that might be a lie I tell myself. Take the story of our recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, who brought civil war and tyranny in Liberia to its knees by organizing a peace movement of Christian and Muslim women focused on prayer, non-violent protest, and a boycott inspired by Lysistrata. Her story has a hell of a lot more drama than my little plays with ambiguous endings, and yet, the idea of writing a play based on her story, or any story of justice clearly triumphing over oppression, doesn’t do much to inspire me creatively. Indeed, the prospect of dramatizing goodness generally holds little appeal.

The problem is: as my mother’s daughter, as a progressive Christian, as a strong believer in social justice, global consciousness, not to mention basic human decency, I really think it should. For one thing, the whole idea fills me with acres of insecurity. The dangers of making such a story too sentimental, too predictable, or God forbid, too pat, are legion. In this post-modern age, how can one get away with dramatizing brazen bravery or selfless valor without setting the whole thing in a fantastical world full of boy wizards or hobbits? The American theater seems particularly inhospitable to such ventures. I can’t remember the last time I saw a new play, outside of docudramas, in which a basically good protagonist chose a good fight to fight and won it, although it certainly happens in the movies and television with varying degrees of success. The television show Friday Night Lights comes to mind, a series that managed a weekly dose of poignancy and triumph remarkably saccharine-free (Clear Eyes, Full Heart, anyone?).

Catherine Trieschmann sits at a table.
Catherine Trieschmann. Photo by South Coast Repertory.

..the idea of writing a play based on her story, or any story of justice clearly triumphing over oppression, doesn’t do much to inspire me creatively. Indeed, the prospect of dramatizing goodness generally holds little appeal.

Perhaps the challenge of the endeavor alone should tempt me to give the thing a whirl, but there’s something else holding me back, and it’s the issue of aesthetic taste. It’s no small thing, I’m afraid. As much as I enjoyed Friday Night Lights, the first time I saw Jerusalem, I left the theater shaking. I went back the next day to figure out what it was that had sent me shaking. (The third time, I went purely for Mark Rylance—can you blame me?) Jerusalem may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for me, the play encapsulated a nearly perfect aesthetic experience. It has a clear literary lineage reaching back to the great English poets and Shakespeare, yet the characters are coarse and contemporary. The act of storytelling itself, the power and shiftiness of myth, constitutes much of the play’s action. A clear line of mysticism shoots through the play, which ends on a note of Dionysian ritual that would make Euripides proud. But mainly, it is the extraordinary marriage of character and actor, Johnny “Rooster” Byron embodied by Mark Rylance, teller of tall tales, drug dealer, dare devil, prince of misrule, and mystic, that brings me to my knees. Johnny Byron is about as far away from a Nobel Peace prize winner as one can get, yet I can’t get enough of him. In real life, I’m pretty sure I would be one of the members of the estate signing the petition to get rid of the drug dealing squatter in the woods, but in art, I want nothing more than to be one of the kids in the woods following Mark Rylance’s mad piper.

The experience of watching Jerusalem confirmed something in me I’ve suspected for some time. In life, I may be a progressive Christian, but when it comes to the theater, I’m a complete pagan. In life, I want to align myself with the peacemakers. I want to educate myself about the injustices in the world and address them in whatever ways I can. But when I go to the theater, I want something more than an ennobling education. I want to be knocked on the side of my head with the mysteries of the universe; I want to explore the wild and the wooly terrains of myself that I keep a lid on in polite society; I want to fuck strangers and fear God and poke my eyes out with a needle. This is a really hard concept to explain to my mother.


1 Hey Mom, I know you'll probably read this, because Aunt Mary is on Facebook now, and she forwards you things I write, and it may make you feel like I'm portraying you in a negative light, like you haven't been supportive of my art, when of course, you've been magnificently supportive in a myriad of ways—like driving across three states to take care of my children while I travel for work, for example Yes, you were disapproving this one time, and I wrote an essay about it and put it online, but I hope you know how grateful I am for who you are and all you've taught me anyway. I love you, Mom!

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Enjoyed this, Cathy, despite time it took to get around to it. Just read your interview with Adam as well--I'm no stalker either:) Hope to see HTWB soon here in NYC.

I think there is an artistic imperative to present what is true of the people in your story, with the understanding they do not represent all who may be categorized similarly. However, I think there is a human imperative to ask, how does my character or my story add nuance to already existing dialogues? Yes, you must write what is in you, and then, consider, how does what you write live in the world. For instance, I am drawn to the way Eminem walks an ugly line of misogyny and homophobia and yet leaves room to point out hypocrisy--this, however often comes across as ironic and there are probably millions of listeners who only hear the words at face value and inhale the misogyny and homophobia. Then there's the complexity of Eminem as an Elvis figure, is he popular because he's a good rapper or because he's a good white rapper (both/and). My question is, how do any of us, as artists, as humans, take responsibility for what we put out in the world, with a thoughtfulness about systemic oppression and the possibility of transcendence. So it is not an either/or of sinners or saints, or any binary so much as what is the sum total, how do our words change the dialogue about beliefs or stereotypes, what do we illuminate about the human condition. Making art is a privilege, a freedom, and with that I believe a mindfulness of others and an awareness of institutionalized oppression is crucial. Our job is to push beyond parameters, to write terrifying truths, to invoke love--and more, but we are also each other's keepers in the context of a larger field. I have room to embrace all sorts of binaries and evils I thank the Greeks for offering catharsis--whether it happens in the theater or beyond, to me that's the point: to grow, to step outside of what we've lived, to experience ourselves in the role of another and hold all the binaries.

Yes, good chat! I wish I could point to a contemporary dark dangerous mysterious bloody holy play that I really think worked. I do like playwright Erin Cressida Wilson's movies, Secretary, (yum!) and particularly Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, tragic but beautiful and balanced endings, because they are 100% true to the character's desires, which at heart, are the need for love and acceptance. We understand and empathize with what they do, even though society would see it as deviant. (my tastes and preferences are showing now, I'm sure). But for me, there were just too many ugly, angry, hopeless plays in the 1990's and early 2000's, I felt burned and wanted to walk away for a while (okay, I'll name someone: Neil LaBute, but a whole lot of others, too). I suppose you could say the LaBute beauty trilogy is truthful, and truth is redemptive...but ending at the truth of an purposefully hurtful deed without at least hinting at confession and forgiveness is just open wounds. Like stopping at the cross. You gotta get to the ascension. That probably means a lot of different things to different people. Death can be redemptive, i.e., The Scottish Play, but can be an easy way out. Justice is redemptive, like the films Fargo or Pulp Fiction. A good performance in and of itself can be redemptive, if it makes you understand a sinner, care for him, want him to be saved. I wish I had seen Pinter's Homecoming with Ian McShane. And that's a pretty darn ambiguous play otherwise. I wanted to fly to NYC just to see that production. Now I'm just thinking out loud. But I think I know what you're talking about, and I struggle with it, too.

A further thought, Emily (and forgive me b/c I'm just thinking aloud here)...but I think what I'm interested in wrestling with is a sort-of redemptive storytelling that doesn't end in conventionality (i.e. marriage or similar). How can redemption be unexpected and weird and scary, which I kinda think it can be, too..."Dark" isn't the greatest adjective. What does redemption look like when it's dangerous and mysterious and bloody and yet also holy, like the crucifixion story itself?

Emily, I think my tastes may just run darker than your's : )...however, Sarah Ruhl is an inspiring writer, and Man from Nebraska is a terrific play--a very honest examination of doubt and love...I wish you had seen Jerusalem, too!

Hoho, examples, you say? Well, how about Sarah Ruhl's "In The Next Room," because it takes on really sinful taboo subjects, infidelity and women's sexual pleasure and desire and need and dissatisfaction, and then ends with an affirmation of marriage; and Tracy Lett's "Man from from Nebraska" who goes through real crisis of faith, through drugs and nihilism, and then comes back home to his wife. I don't think the redemption in those two plays are "easy." You really have to put your characters through hell, to hope to earn a heavenly ending. (Gosh, I now I really, really, really wish I saw Jerusalem!)

Thank you for your very thoughtful comments, Emily and Michael! I agree with you, Emily, in that I'm not interested in a theatre that is solely a sensual ride by any means, but I think I'm still wrestling with how I'd like to represent redemption/transcendence on-stage, or to even find new play models that inspire me in the journey that aren't saccharine or easy. My hero for writing about the transcendent is Flannery O'Connor (of course), although I'd argue that she is as enamored by the "sinner" as I am!
Maybe you have other suggestions?

Wow! First, Catherine, thank you for writing such a thought provoking, honest, and potentially risky article. Your statement "I want to be knocked on the side of my head with the mysteries of the universe" absolutely yes! And I must concur that the play 'Jerusalem' and Mark Rylance's performance did just that. I don't know about redemption but the final moments of the play, when I saw and heard what was going to happen, and then indeed did happen, propelled me into the euphoria of experiencing transcendence. Much of 'why' that occurred for many who saw the production, you beautifully capture in your comments. Certainly the character is Dionysian, evoking the wild, dangerous, and erotic - which is of course the polar opposite to the light of Christ [or Appollo in more easily accepted mythic lingo]. Personally I have always been most drawn to, moved by, and transported by plays that contend with - on some level - the issue, theme of transcendence and / or redemption [and it does not need to be housed within a Christian motif]. The conflict and dance between Saint and Sinner has been going on for centuries, and as a species I think we're fascinated with the various stories that convey the on going struggle between these two brothers [or sisters]. Certainly Emily's observations give witness to the poignant necessity of discovering the new possible in ways that are theatrically potent as well as socially and personally relevant.

I had to think about this a few days after I read it, because while I love and relate to your personal story (I wrote a fictionalized play about Madalyn Murray O'Hair meeting Mother Teresa which certainly got some bizarre polarized responses)...I think people come to the theatre for the truth of the ride, not just a sensual thrill. We must show sin, yes, but by the end of the experience, we want a revelation, a transcendence, a redemption. The truth and balance of goodness seems to be out of fashion. It’s okay to go mad, but we have to come back and tell the visions we saw, to our Christian and Muslim and Jewish and Buddhist and Atheist friends, to our Libertarian and Republican and Democratic and Socialist friends, in a way that speaks truth to them all. If we do that, then maybe we’ve written something really important.

About Jerusalem:

"In real life, I’m pretty sure I would be one of the members of the estate signing the petition to get rid of the drug dealing squatter in the woods, but in art, I want nothing more than to be one of the kids in the woods following Mark Rylance’s mad piper."

Yes, yes! Oh yes! I would be there right along with you. I loved that production and I adored Mark Rylance's work in it.

Thanks so much for this. As someone who puts a bunch of energy into performance and civic practice, your final paragraph acts as a great, needed reminder...And Taylor, well said.

You're right, Taylor. There's probably something of a false binary in the sinner/saint opposition. The folks trying to kick Mark Rylance out are hypocrites--the worst kind of sinners! P.S. I love that we just call him Mark Rylance instead of the character name.

I wonder if it's time we start redefining what sinners and saints are. There's a difference between an imperfect person and a sinner and sadly religion often gets that confused. To me the Mark Rylance character in Jerusalem is a saint and those who are trying to kick him out of his home are the sinners. If this is true - you and I are more attracted to the Saints than we're lead to believe. Great article. It makes me want to love more people regardless of their follie.

Well said. I'm in the atheist tribe myself and can definitely relate. I think you should tackle your insecurities and see what you come up with. The person who follows the piper in their heart but signs the petition in their life sounds pretty meaty to me.

I have always wondered about that, Catherine. But as I reflect on it -- and on the fact that my own work might be described in similar terms, though you'd have to replace "Christian" with "secular humanist" -- it occurs to me that the psychology of what we do is perhaps more complex than we often acknowledge. Why do we create these characters and the worlds they inhabit? What are we doing for ourselves, psychologically or therapeutically? Writing is an exploration of the unconscious (or the soul), and I don't often know why I'm doing what I'm doing until long after I've done it. I write, in fact, to discover... but there's no guarantee I'm going to like what I find when I do.

Thanks for sharing, Catherine. And I hope -- and bet -- your mother's quite proud of you, as she should be.

Thanks for this. Well written. I too have struggled with confusion over my fascination of religious belief and its portrayal in my writing, inconsistent with my personal religious (or in my case irreligious) belief. I am an atheist born out of a respect for what we've discovered through naturalistic explanation, and am a critic of most religious thinking as being unfriendly to science, yet my recent plays have characters that portray a sympathy to people struggling to make their Christianity operate as an extension of their desire to love and forgive. I create critics in my head, composed of the atheist friends and thinkers I respect, admonishing me for being accommodating towards religion and harboring an enemy to my worldview. I don't fully understand it. I just try to quiet the critics and keep using my writing to tell the truth that needs to get out. I look forward to reading your work and I hope I get to see one of your plays in the near future. Be well.

Really appreciated this post, Catherine. Congratulations on your fine plays and best wishes with your musings and future scripts. Your Aunt Mary is my friend, a creative woman who's so proud of you. Thanks for wrestling so honestly with the South, religion and the art of theatre!