by John Stoltenberg
Sex and guilt were linked in superstition before institutional Christianity came on the scene, but thanks to the medieval Catholic Church they got hooked up with theology too. It was in the runup to the church’s crackpot Inquisition that three senses of the word possession—as carnal, religious, and demonic—got all mushed together. And western civilization has not since quite got them sorted.
This approximately is the historical and contemporary backdrop for John Shand’s Guilt, a dazzlingly literary play in verse based on the true story of Urbain Grandier, a womanizing 17th-century French Catholic priest who was burned at the stake for sorcery.
Now having its world premiere in a penetrating Scena Theatre production directed by Artistic Director Robert McNamara, Guilt is rich with scintillating ideas and alive with vivid language. According to the author, Guilt “explores the overlays and collisions between sexual and spiritual rapture: how one might fuel the other, and how one might be misconstrued as the other.” The work also functions as an epic morality play about misplaced guilt, “reckoning” overreaction, and mistaken retribution.
Subtitled “an opera without music,” Shand’s script is rife with poetic arias that fuse ecstasy, eroticism, and doctrine. And sometimes flat-out lechery, as when we meet the vain Grandier (Oscar Ceville) admiring himself in a mirror:
Grandier: What purpose lay in lavishing such looks
as might threaten one’s humility,
if not to snare the weaker sex?
And, after all, by bedding them, do I
not let them touch the very ladder to our Lord?
So in a sense my seed anoints:
a sort of sacrament.
The local Magistrate De Brou (Ron Litman) brings his lovely 18-year-old daughter Brigitte (Danielle Davy) to Grandier for innocent lute lessons. Left alone with her, Grandier sets about seducing her.
Meanwhile, he preaches a sermon extolling chastity in the unwed. Upon hearing his overheated homily, Jeanne (Nanna Ingvarsson), a sexually frustrated hunchbacked prioress, delivers a hilarious lyrical aside about her own prurient interest in him.
Jeanne: I could eat his voice, and chew on every word;
eat his voice and devour his lips;
roll his voice around in my mouth,
roll it around with my tongue;
chew every word a hundred times…
The historical Grandier was a propagandist against clerical celibacy, which pissed off the ecclesiastical power structure, and Guilt touches on some of his arguments. But the character is presented more as horndog than polemicist. And Brigitte his virgin conquest is depicted as quite coyly willing. Not yet having declared herself desirous of him, Brigitte delivers a passage purple with passion to Grandier in the confessional booth:
Brigitte: I’ve gazed upon a man – a passer-by, no more –
my eyes keen blades of lust;
I’ve felt his fingers in my hair
as he whispers words of love.
His fiery breath has kissed my ear,
as his arms, like rings of molten steel,
encircled and entrapped me.
I’ve lain sleepless through the nights,
the bed drenched in my sweat
as the ghost of his mouth –
as real as sin – found out my own,
and convulsed me with desire.
I’ve felt myself melt when exposed
to the furnace of his perfect mind.
I’ve seen myself harbour him
Amid his storms of passion.
I have wept at the glimpse of ecstasy;
I have ached with such longing for his lips –
Grandier: Yes, I think I get the gist.
Brigitte alludes of course to Grandier, he happily gets the hint—and there follows a classic scene of coital disappointment.
Brigitte: Is that all?
Pain, tears and violent violation
from a man who sheds abruptly
all wisdom, knowledge, beauty,
to become a heaving mass?
A few months later Brigitte lets Grandier know she’s pregnant, and he reacts like a misogynist dickhead.
Grandier: Wretched girl. She has ever been a trial….
And now, to be with child! The slut!
I’ve been abused at every turn.
Brigitte’s father, De Brou, browbeats her too.
De Brou: You stupid girl! You hussy! How dare you shame me in this way!
Topping things off, the unchivalrous Grandier, confronted by De Brou, totally denies having had sex with Brigitte.
Grandier: It was not I, but a great black dog that tupped her.
Let us pause to take stock of where guilt might fairly and accurately be apportioned at this point. Perhaps the Church bears some, for enforcing celibacy on priests (presumably so there will be no heirs to its earthly treasures). But realistically, seen from the point of view of any audience member even dimly aware of how patriarchy operates, Grandier and DeBrou are due for a load of guilt by the ton.
All of which makes the plot twists that follow both fascinating and effed up.
Jeanne, still carrying a torch for Grandier—who, we learn, “has defiled half the women in the town”—schemes to recruit him as confessor in her priory, but he scoffs at her offer. Outraged by his “oceanic arrogance” and bestirred by revenge, Jeanne declares, “If I can’t have him no one shall.”
Under increasing scrutiny for being “the man who preached ‘Be chaste’ while fucking women left and right,” Grandier goes grandiose:
Grandier: Though hordes of De Brous
seek to bring me down,
they’ll not succeed without the Church;
and the Church will never see besmirched
its own good name.
Grandier got that wrong though. The powers of the church come down upon him hard, first in the guise of a Jesuit exorcist, Surin (John Geoffrion), who reframes Grandier’s offense as witchcraft requiring a public exorcism. As he tells Jeanne and Brigitte,
Surin: Grandier is a sorcerer, and you are all under his spell. Under his spell he has seen fit to have you possessed by devils. Devils!
Grandier is imprisoned and tortured. Brigitte and Jeanne are put through excruciating exorcisms. And steadily the play’s framing of Grandier shifts such that he becomes its centrally sympathetic character: “Surely I’ve done nothing so wrong to warrant this?” he pleads.
Surin will have none of it:
Surin: His trial must be a lesson to the world that we shall win this war against a foe that would destroy our God, our faith, our way of life. His death must give the people hope that we’ll prevail, while sowing the fear of God within their hearts of what befalls any who transgress.
Before Grandier is gruesomely burned alive, he mansplains an exoneration of himself:
Grandier: What if I did no more than lavish love where there was need?…
If I am guilty of any sin, it is the sin of love. Of loving too deeply the fairer sex. Of longing to satisfy their longings. Besides, the fault was not all mine. Often these women flung themselves at me, unable to contain their desires. Who could say “No!” when they threw off their clothes? Who could say “no” to their hungry tongues and honeyed thighs?
And Brigitte has a dramatic change of heart.
Brigitte: Until I saw the flames I thought –
I thought I hated him enough
to want to watch him die.
But hate melted to a swirling pool
of pity shored with desolation,
aching and throbbing, aching and throbbing
in my ears and in my breast;
tearing and tearing and tearing at me
with the thought I’ve killed the man I loved.
I have helped to fuel
the fire with an innocent man.
The play wants to sweep us into recognition that in the end Brigitte, as she tells us, is guilty too. Like a #MeToo victim with accuser’s remorse. This dramatic twist requires audience amnesia about how Grandier treated Brigitte earlier in the play when in classic blame-the-victim mode he rejects her as a slut for getting pregnant by him. For me that was too much a stretch, and I left the theater far more impressed with the playwright’s powers of poetic expression than with his powers of moral discernment.
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one 10-minute intermission.
Guilt plays through February 4, 2018, at Scena Theatre performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. 20002, For tickets, buy them at the door or purchase them online.