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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Glory Be

The Glory of the World. Photo: Bill Brymer

When it premiered last spring at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Charles Mee's The Glory of the Worldcoming to the BAM Harvey Theater from January 16 through February 6—quickly became one of the most debated productions in the decades-long history of the Humana Festival of New American plays. The play had been commissioned to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who spent most of his career writing and meditating in the secluded confines of the Abbey at Gethsemani just south of Louisville. At the heart of heated discussions: How accurately had Merton’s legacy been portrayed?

Merton, author of some 70 volumes of poetry and essays (and the best-selling autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain) is revered around the world—just a few months ago, in a speech to the US Congress, Pope Francis singled Merton out as a “great American.” But he’s especially beloved in Kentucky, where the Thomas Merton Center is housed at Bellarmine University (and where a recent campaign has emerged to name a new Ohio River bridge after him).

Because of the enduring strength of Merton’s legacy, Actors Theater Artistic Director Les Waters was not surprised by the energetic reaction to the play. “He’s iconic here,” Waters said in an interview a few months after the production’s initial run. “As I read his works and listened to people talk about him, I realized that he is claimed in different ways. In a way, because he doesn’t exist anymore, he has become, in a sense, a sort of blank that people fill in. People would really go at it on who he was and what he stood for.”

And, said Waters, at a certain point the creative team—Mee and our literary office—realized that Merton’s contested legacy offered a fascinating approach to a man so complex that he is “claimed” by Buddhists and Catholics, beatniks and Communists, social justice and anti-war activists, and mystical theologians.

Photo: Bill Brymer

Waters is not a fan of conventional biographical plays. First, he said, because they tend to enforce a rigid, authoritative view of the subject they’re depicting—an approach that doesn’t fit a figure like Merton. And second, because, “As a director I’m interested in both the topic of the story and the form it takes.”

Just before rehearsals, Waters recalled, he’d been reading a book about John Cage. “Something he said really struck me—that his work is less like an object and more like the weather. What we do in Glory is really what we do in every play. We say, ‘Enter a king in a thunderstorm.’ But there’s no king and there’s no thunderstorm. We’re doing the same thing in Glory. The piece has a kind of ferocious logic to it. It’s not the logic of words. It’s the logic of images and disruptions. It’s a piece that opens imaginative doors, invites an audience to come through, and then withholds everything an audience expects.”

If it’s through form—and acts of withholding— that the play invites audiences to enter imaginatively into Merton’s meditative process, there’s still plenty of exuberant theatrical giving on stage. Charles Mee’s script lays out in a series of surreal birthday party tableaus where Merton’s ideas (and the contesting claims about Merton) percolate though uneasy depictions of love, cruelty, innocence, pretense, mercy—and the looming specter of violence. Rather than solemn philosophical discourse, Mee’s characters sound like witty social media caricatures, whose ideas are embodied in name-dropped pop culture celebrities. And the bubbling verbal wit is complemented by richly muscular explorations of the physical rhetoric of the human body in scenes tender, ironic, cruel, and violent.

In these revels, the play builds a rich web of textual and visual allusions to Merton’s works and influences (especially his reflections on Ionesco in the essay “Rain and the Rhinoceros”). And though the play isn’t biographical, it offers plenty of details (including hints of a romance) that add flesh to this towering intellectual and spiritual figure.

And through the “fierce logic” of these tableaus the play grapples with the substance of Merton’s ideas. In severe, unsparing ironies we see Merton’s critique of a society bent on anaesthetizing itself against solitude by plunging into what he once described as the “warm collective stupor” of unending amusement.

Marty Rosen is a freelance writer who covers theater for LEO (Louisville Eccentric Observer).

The Glory of the World comes to the BAM Harvey Theater January 16—February 6, and great tickets are still available.

Reprinted from Dec 2015 BAMbill.

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