RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCES IN THE THEATER
by Harvey Perr
published October 31, 2008
now playing Off Broadway at the New York Theater Workshop
through November 30
The theater has always been my church and its most dedicated artists my religious teachers. And Peter Brook has long been one of
the sturdiest and most vivid of those theater scholars; his tenure follows, in a sense, my years as one of his acolytes. From the sight of
Geoffrey Holder dancing across the stage to Harold Arlen and Truman Capote’s “Smellin’ of Vanilla” in House of Flowers (you never know where or when a religious experience may take place), through the
ground-breaking A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Beckett-like King Lear (two of the three best productions of Shakespeare in my memory), to the savage Marat/Sade and the throbbing La Tragedie de Carmen and the
kaleidoscopic Mahabharata and the brutally essential The
Ik and, long ago but never far away, my one and only encounter with the legendary Lunt and Fontanne, Friedrich Duerrenmatt’s The Visit, with its devastating series of unforgettable images (and especially that one of a desolate and
abandoned Lunt left crouching at a train station, vomiting in despair, after his fellow citizens have kept him from leaving town, thereby
sealing his fate). When one artist gives you that much in a single lifetime, you pay attention. You can, if you feel it necessary,
genuflect. That’s all. It’s as simple as that.
Rarely, however, have I been as transfixed, or, in peculiarly chilly fashion, as moved by a piece of theater as I have by Brook’s
The Grand Inquisitor, by the starkness of his design, by the resonant stillness he creates, by
the warmly fluid reading of the title role by a mesmerizing Bruce Myers, by the rigor and the simplicity and the austerity and, above all,
the centeredness of these fifty-five minutes of “mystery, magic, and authority.” This is an adaptation, translated by Marie-Helene
Estienne, of a chapter from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, but it has nothing to do with
the sprawling and nearly intoxicating saga of the Karamazovs, but rather with the parable of the Spanish Inquisition, told by the
intellectual Ivan to the saintly Alyosha (asking what would be done with Jesus if he should return to earth), which is at the heart of, and
which ultimately permeates, the novel. It is no major revelation that we have, in our unquenchable quest for love, created a symbol of love
so vast that it is always beyond our reach. But there is, in telling it again, and by making us complicit in the inquisitor’s decision to
kill the embodiment of that symbol, a sense of how religion cajoles and seduces us into its most profound secret corners and, at the same
time, subtly destroys our faith in everything it teaches.
Originally intended as part of a trilogy on religious intolerance, along with Tierno
Bokor and The Death of Krishna, it is altogether possible that The Grand Inquisitor might have had greater dramatic impact as part of a bigger theatrical statement,
but, on its own severely limited terms, it is all that theater should be. It puts us right in the middle of one of the great philosophical
enigmas of all time, and asks us to be not merely skeptical but, in some unspoken way, to surrender to one’s deeper feelings about belief
in the unknown. You might call it a religious experience about the lack of religious feeling.
You might call it a religious experience precisely because it eschews fake religious feeling.
For me, its claim on our spiritual side is only part of its value; it provides, for one viewer at least, a religious experience
because Peter Brook, with priceless assistance from Bruce Myers, has taken us along on his great journey, a journey that always begins and
ends on an empty space (more often than not in a theater), shared by an artist with his audience.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com