In the atrium-shaped Court Theatre interior, the charismatic, sarcastic Professor Miriam Lewis, played by the engaging Hollis Resnik, introduces her Biblical Studies class—and the play, The Good Book—to the audience with an impassioned monologue. In the style of “that college teacher who changed your life,” she insists that the students eliminate all that they think they know about the Bible, then eloquently describes their quest: to illuminate the dark corridors of biblical mystery.
As soon becomes evident, even for the professor, this rejection of all emotional association with the Bible is impossible. The play, in exploring the influence of the Christian Bible in the United States, highlights its deep embedment in our society and our culture, and as a result, in our personality and unique search for meaning.
The playwrights Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, who were also behind Court’s award-winning An Iliad, proposed an idea for a play exploring the Bible’s history to the University of Chicago’s Court Theatre in 2012. After approving it, as part of a move to collaborate more closely with the UofC and its resources, the Court put the playwrights in contact with the Divinity School’s dean, Professor Margaret Mitchell.
The genesis of the performance in a scholarly setting in part mirrors the environment of the project’s creation. It was in Mitchell’s office in the Divinity School that the ideas in the project deepened and evolved through conversation between the scholar and the artists. The collaboration lasted over three years, with Peterson and O’Hare immersing themselves in the Divinity School’s intellectual and social sphere to gain a better understanding of the culture surrounding the study of religion. They sat in on classes, interviewed students, and spent time in the coffee shop.
Of the partnership, Mitchell says, “One of the things that…really excited me about the project all along was that they weren’t just looking for a high-level fact checker, they were looking for a kind of creative collaboration at a higher level of thinking.”
Soon after the Court Theatre’s approval of the project, the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry decided to support the experimental project with their Mellon Collaborative Fellowship for Arts Practice and Scholarship, which seeks, in part, to combine forces between scholars and artists. The Gray Center took on the financial responsibility for the meetings between the professor and the playwrights, allowing them to become a significant part of the script’s development.
Leslie Danzig, the curator at the Gray Center, and David Levin, the director of the Gray Center, pioneered the collaboration. “As part of our support we continually ask questions,” Danzig says of their role. “How is this potentially transformative for the faculty member and the artist? There are ways that we generously try to challenge everyone who’s involved to participate in the collaboration in unexpected ways. So there’s a kind of ethos there.”
The original idea for the project was born from O’Hare and Peterson’s personal fascination with the powerful text’s history and growth in society. Mitchell said that one of the first questions she posed to the playwrights, a question that arguably drove the three years of conversations between the three thinkers, was, “What is this Bible you’re talking about?”
O’Hare’s original interest in writing the work was fueled by frustration, struggle, and a desire to conquer a text that seemed to attack him. “I had been reading the Bible on my own for a while before the play commission came along. I wanted to know it as well as my enemies—those who were attempting to disenfranchise me as a gay atheist man and those who use the Bible against gay people and non-Christians.”
Though O’Hare’s relationship to the Bible has been complicated, he makes clear that the play is in no way an attack on the text or the people who find personal meaning in its pages, but rather an exploration of the mystery and danger of the book that can be so comforting for some and harmful for others. The play highlights the imperfection of the work and its interpretation, yet in the end the characters learn to develop their own personal truths from the text, bringing them both comfort and affirmation.
The play’s two main characters reflect a core belief of the work: people have unique and deeply personal relationships to the Bible, especially in America. Both characters give insight into different, albeit radical, approaches to religion and the importance of the Bible in their own personalities and histories. Mitchell believes that in large part, this importance placed on the Bible is related to our ideas about mortality and fundamental human nature. She attributes this to the fact that “the Bible itself is death-defying. There’s historical surprises and ironies that are trans-generational.”
A young redheaded Irish-Catholic teenager growing up during the Vietnam War, Conner, played by an energetic Alex Weisman, seeks to reconcile his self-discovery and place in the world with the rigid, ancient traditions of Roman Catholicism and his desire to become a priest. At one point he tries to recreate the shroud of the temple, but is frustrated by the historical distance. Miriam, the Biblical scholar, though a self-proclaimed atheist, cannot separate herself from her Lutheran upbringing and becomes increasingly aware of her intolerance of people of faith in her classroom.
The third storyline in the play is a biography of the Bible. It recounts its history through interspersed comedic skits highlighting the haphazard choice of scrolls, clumsy translations, and loss of text that all contributed to the collection of pages we call the Bible today. “The Bible really is a character that grows up and develops through the play,” Mitchell says. Indeed, she describes the central concept of the play as “the cyclone of Biblical effects,” which the two central characters struggle with and, in the end, conquer in their own way.
This third storyline serves as an interesting contrast to those of the two characters. With jaunty songs and jokes, the history of the Bible is presented as a musical about a series of random events. The tone is incompatible with the reverence and respect shown by Conner as he allows the words to rule his life and choices. Although it is not incompatible with Miriam’s understanding of the text’s history, it nonetheless contains moments of true lyricism and higher truth that do not fit into her treatment of the Bible as an analytical puzzle to be solved. This more spiritual part of the Bible confronts Miriam as she encounters the passing of her mother and her own death.
Both characters are endearing in their own way, and their relationships with themselves grow through the lens of their relationship to religion. The Bible itself functions as an intimidating object, acting as a mirror to reveal truths about the characters. The play is not about the book itself, but rather about the characters and their personal struggles, complicated and ameliorated by this text with a strange history.
Despite the serious content, including the prominent role of death, the play makes use of comic elements. Mitchell was pleased at the audience’s response to the comedy and felt it provided a different perspective on the seemingly grave study of religion. “I was loving how much people laughed, because it is a very funny play in a lot of ways, while also having a lot of deep pathos to it. Religion is funny. Internal to the religious tradition that I know and study is a tremendous amount of humor, some of which is gentle and some of which is biting and bitter; we who study religion laugh all the time.”
The playwrights were deliberate with the humor, O’Hare says. “Lisa and I both inject humor into everything we do. To me the human condition is unbearable without being able to laugh.” As the Bible evokes such strong feeling, laughter in the play was a way to dilute the passion and allow one to forget one’s history with the text. Mitchell argues that it makes the play and the topic more approachable: “People encounter their culture not just with either a solemn nod or a solemn shake of the head, but with bemusement and wonder and with frustration, a whole range of human emotions.”
The play laughs not only at religious fanaticism, but also at religious authority. Some of the funniest jokes in the play are directed toward pretentious academics, their lofty opinions of themselves, and their hypocrisy. In addition, this question of authority is portrayed as both amusing and fruitless, as different groups claim understanding of a book that is beyond understanding and beyond historical grasp.
The play also gives insight into a field that is not familiar to most audiences. Bible scholars are not often protagonists, and the Bible itself, especially its history, is not frequently examined analytically in art and public spaces. In that way, the play also serves to educate. However, as Mitchell emphasizes, “Court Theatre is not room 106 in Swift Hall. There’s a difference between art and scholarship, but the collaboration between the two that this project has represented I hope will both make theatergoers more interested and thought-provoked about the academic study of religion…People will talk about it, and that’s where the life of scholarship and the life of art join common cause.”
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. March 19-April 19. $35-$65. Discounts available for seniors and students. (773) 753-4472. courttheatre.org