Honoring John Paul II Through Theater

Playwright Leonie Caldecott Discusses "The Quality of Mercy"

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By Andrea Kirk Assaf

ROME, APRIL 30, 2011 (Zenit.org).- During the days leading up to Divine Mercy Sunday and the beatification of John Paul II, a new play debuted in Oxford, England, to honor the life, wisdom, and spirituality of the Polish thespian and Pontiff.

"The Quality of Mercy," written by Leonie Caldecott, is a fictional story of a week in the lives of a group of young people gathered together in the Abruzzi mountains in April, 2005, on a hiking pilgrimage to the shrine of Manoppello, home to a venerated image of the Holy Face.

Along the way they are accompanied by a guide named Charlie, the anglicized name for Karol, who mysteriously sees into their souls and penetrates the diverse problems the young hikers are harboring.

The work, the second drama with a religious theme written by Caldecott, contains stylistic influences of the mystery plays of the Middle Ages, and references to Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" are interwoven throughout.

ZENIT spoke to Leonie Caldecott in Rome about her use of theater as a medium of the new evangelization and the many gifts of John Paul II.

ZENIT: How do you remember and honor the legacy of John Paul II through your plays?

Caldecott: A couple of years ago we formed a little theater group in our parish, the Oxford Oratory, and I wrote a play to celebrate the coming of the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. While I was working on the play I was looking at some of the writings of John Paul II, specifically on the theater and more generally, his letter to artists. I realized that doing this kind of thing was really responding to his call to artists to use their gifts and abilities to express the Gospel message to the modern world. The play turned into a massive project involving most of the parish with 60 people in the cast -- aged four to 84 -- with the parish priest playing the role of Louis Martin, Thérèse's father.

Once we had done that we were exhausted, but we were also really struck by how powerful a medium it was for transmitting the message of Thérèse and her mission, not just about her life but about her mission, her charism, the way she impacted upon people. We actually melded together two plots -- a modern plot of a young couple in trouble and the plot of her life, which was interwoven into their story. She herself was guiding, as it were, the modern people through the meaning of her life, as it would be relevant to them, that is to say the meaning of true love, the meaning of complete pouring out of self for God and for neighbor.

I saw that the young people who had the biggest roles, either playing the characters in her life or the contemporary characters, really responded to the message. They said they'd understood her message much better after they'd done it that way because obviously they played in it.

ZENIT: Was the play, then, more powerful for the actors rather than the audience who was receiving it?

Caldecott: Yes, and we had good audiences too because it was performed in our church, so it was done just like a mystery play. It was called Divine Comedy, a Theresian Mystery Play. There was participatory nature to the play as it was in the church -- we used all the different parts of the church to signify different dimensions of reality: we took the Blessed Sacrament out of the tabernacle but the sanctuary area was heaven so that the audience would know that anyone coming down from the sanctuary area was coming from heaven.

So, for instance, the younger brothers and sisters of Thérèse appeared to beckon their mother when she died, they received her into heaven. Our Lady came down from the sanctuary to heal Thérèse during the miracle of the Virgin of the Smile. We wove in the mysteries of the rosary as well because the relics came on the feast of the Holy Rosary.

So it was very exciting working with all of that though quite complicated technically, as there are three masses a day in that church during the week. We only used it during the weekdays but still the masses had to be put at the side altars. It was really a big impact on the parish, and I think that, with the relics coming immediately afterward, there were huge graces. We were just incredibly honored and lucky to have all of that happen in the parish.

Everyone wanted to keep up the impetus of this experience somehow, and there is a wonderful youth group at the Oratory led by the parish priest, Father Daniel Seeward, and they are all very keen on theater, all very talented musically or dramatically. We began to think of doing another one and I wanted to do one connected with the road to Emmaus because I've always been fascinated by that story, about what's not told -- what did our Lord tell the disciples along the way? Obviously he spoke about the Scriptures and the prophecies, and we need to understand our own lives in the light of salvation history, because if we can understand our lives -- with all our trials and tribulations -- in the light of Christ, then of course our lives are transformed.

And then I received a CD of some music that had been composed to accompany the words of John Paul II in his English speaking addresses. That was created by Benedict Nichols, the very talented nephew of a friend of mine. I was transfixed by the drama of the composition and it immediately gave rise to a dramatic scenario in my head.

We had already chosen John Paul II as the patron of our theater group because he himself was so interested in the theater, he wrote plays and directed plays and as archbishop of Krakow he encouraged mystery plays to be performed. It seemed absolutely natural that he would come into the heart of this play in some way. So I began with the idea of a journey, a pilgrimage, a hike, and I situated it in the last week of John Paul's life, Easter week of 2005 coming up to the Feast of Divine Mercy. Then suddenly the theme of mercy exploded in my mind as the central theme of the play -- of course it's about mercy!

It seemed like a very complicated project to undertake as I was beginning to create characters and the problems they would be grappling with in their lives. I wanted the characters, through their own experiences, to highlight the particular kinds of things he was concerned with as a priest and then as a Pontiff -- so theology of the body had to loom large, life issues, respect for the weak and the aging, the dignity of the human person, how vocations come about, the meaning of suffering … also the role of women.

One of the first things that was said on British television after John Paul II died was the expression of a reservation about his attitudes toward women, they thought he was very traditional and old-fashioned. Having studied "Mulieris Dignitatum" and the Pope's "Letter to Women" and all his writings on that issue, I felt that they hadn't been well understood, in my country in particular.

Larger than that theme is also the theme of "male and female He created them" -- the extraordinary mystery of the nature of humanity that is composed of male and female, the interaction between the two, and the nuptial mystery that is at the heart of the Church and what the Mass means. Of course that seemed like a lot to take on and work with so I was just drawing a breath to tell everyone, "Perhaps we should take another six months to develop this," when the Vatican announced John Paul's beatification!

ZENIT: And you took that as a sign?

Caldecott: I felt we can't not do it now -- we had the Catholic chaplaincy booked, the cast ready for their scripts … so I had to go into fast motion and produce the script. Basically, if it had depended on me it wouldn't have happened. I just had to pray to John Paul very seriously, saying, "You are our patron, our inspiration for this play in particular. You know how to write plays, you've written a number of plays, so you are just going to have to help me write this because I don't have the ability to do it in this time."

All I can say is that I think he did help me, and the weakest bits are the parts where I listened less well.

ZENIT: What message is this play trying to convey?

Caldecott: I needed to convey a presence -- that's another crucial theme in John Paul's thought, the presence of God in one's life and seeing the face of Christ in other faces, knowing that they are made in the image of God and that Christ is working in them whether they know it or not.

ZENIT: And that's why you have your characters destined to see the Santo Volto, the Holy Face, at Manoppello?

Caldecott: Around the same time that the beatification was announced some friends of ours sent us a book about Manoppello and I realized that this was definitely their destination, in the Abruzzi mountains near Rome. The face of Christ, then, is at the heart of the play.

In the last scene, when they finally arrive in Manoppello after terrible trials and tribulations when it seems that everything is falling apart for them, there is the Face of Christ and they have Mass. So they've heard the word of Christ on their walk, both by reading the Gospels and by being with one another, working out their problems in dialogue.

The dialogue is with a mysterious figure named Charlie, a young, athletic man with a special charism. He engages each of them in turn in a dialogue about their lives, about their concerns, and through that dialogue he brings them into a place where they can actually have hope for something better; Hope that nothing is impossible to God. He brings out in them the virtues that they need.

The other aspect of the play is allegorical. As far as I understand, the sort of theater that John Paul II was involved in was rhapsodic, the theater of the word. He used allegorical motifs but it was something very real, nothing formal about the allegory but rather the allegorical forces -- the virtues -- that are represented on stage are actually real in the souls of the pilgrims.

The audience can see the interaction but the characters can't. There is a movement, a dance, in our play set to Ben Nichols' music that interweaves with the story and the pilgrims' dialogues. We place huge emphasis on faith, hope, and charity, so they are the three graces interacting with each other and with the cast, sometimes being rejected and ignored and sometimes being received.

ZENIT: Is this a new form of sacred theater?

Caldecott: Yes, I have no idea how it's going to come off, we'll just have to see what it's like when we do it. I have a feeling that this whole thing is going to be a massive spiritual exercise for the cast, for me, for the production team as we go through that time. It's going to mature and get refined in the time leading up to the performance. It is actually a spiritual exercise, it's doing theater as a spiritual exercise, not just to perform. It's plowing a furrow with lives, imagined lives that relate to the lives that young people experience themselves or those around them.

By playing a role and interacting with other actors in a context where, in the end, it is going to be Christ-driven and you are guided by a great pastoral soul, in itself enables a kind of interior development. From what I can tell from John Paul's writings, that is the kind of thing he had in mind -- development for the cast, but also for the audience.

The audience will be almost integral to the action because we are performing in a big space this time, not a small church, and there will be even more a sense of not just watching something but getting engaged in it. At the end of the play we all listen to the homily of the missing chaplain, the guide who was supposed to lead them, and all is explained.

ZENIT: But the mysterious guide Charlie suddenly disappears when John Paul II dies in Rome …

Caldecott: Charlie disappears on Saturday evening around 9:40 p.m., just after having brought together a young couple in trouble. He tells the girl, "I have to go now," and she asks why. He replies, "I am going to fetch help for you and you mustn't be afraid."

But before he goes he asks her to close her eyes and tell him the story of what happened to her and why it happened the way it did. She then gives a monologue which expresses true love, which is at once a deep appreciation of who this young man is and what she saw in him and at the same time her desire to leave him free and not to coerce him in any way, so it's a speech of renunciation.

This girl has played Portia in "The Merchant of Venice" at school so at the heart of the play is that speech, "the quality of mercy is not strained…" which gave us the title of the play.

ZENIT: Your characters are rather well-formed Catholics for their ages, yet still face all the same social problems as their secular peers.

Caldecott: Yes, they are up against the culture of death, like anyone else today.

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On the Net:

Oxford Oratory: www.oxfordoratory.org.uk