The following piece is the promised reflection on the play “HolyHolyHoly” by William Duncan. It is a “religious” critique, for want of a better word. I think the play tries to make a major statement about the place of the sacred in our lives. I disagree with it, and I offer these reflections in response.
“The play’s the thing … wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
Thus does Shakespeare, through the dramatist efforts of his character Hamlet, acknowledge the furtive power of “the play” to communicate ideas and opinions.
Hamlet is in a bind. Enjoined by the spectral visitations of his recently deceased father to avenge his “most foul” murder, Prince Hamlet promises he will do it, but does not. “Conscience,” he says, justifying his inaction, “doth make cowards of us all.” He plots instead to “out” the murderer, his uncle, by putting on a play for the court, written and directed by himself, that depicts “someone” pouring poison in the king’s ear as he naps in the garden. Like Billy Budd, Hamlet is full of rage but cannot speak. He uses the play to vent the feelings he cannot express in thoughts and words.
Not all playwrights have Hamlet’s problem, but they all use their plays instead of speaking directly. It’s the nature of the medium. They are trying to convince the audience of something they cannot or choose not to express conventionally. Plays communicate through the display of narrative interaction. The display evokes feelings in the audience who experience the attitudes even without necessarily hearing an argument; it communicates by sympathetic effect. Once the play is over, reality re-enters and the listener ratifies or rejects the imaginary world the author had wrought along with the attitudes that were embedded there. But in any case the point has been made.
William Duncan’s play, HolyHolyHoly, offers to lift the curtain on the “inside story” of the lives, loves and motivations of three Roman Catholic ex-priests (a pedophile among them) ordained in the 1960’s. Its “voyeur” appeal is undeniable; and many in the audience, perplexed by the scandals affecting the Church and unfamiliar with Catholic clerical culture, will doubtless find it riveting. For others it will be entertaining and nostalgic: Duncan’s dialog captures the era and his deftly portrayed characters interact with compelling energy. But still other people like myself who actually were ordained priests in that era and went through the very transitions related in the play, do not find it riveting or entertaining. For me the characters are composite caricatures of people I know and the play presents one person’s view of religion skewed by an intransigent Catholicism that, as the play opens, had just then fatally embarked on its current course toward terminal disintegration. The play uses the power of sympathetic effect to evoke an attitude about religion that is, in my opinion, shallow and shortsighted.
The narrative is almost entirely psychological; nothing much happens except the progressive self-revelation of the characters disclosed through time. As we watch this long evolution unfold (from high school in 1955, to 2030 in a “euthanasia clinic”), a realization begins to dawn for the reader: men who had been formed from the time they were boys in Catholicism’s obdurate absolutism, despite its discreditation and their own rejection of it, are locked into it emotionally, morally, spiritually … and they cannot escape.
The principal character’s name, not surprisingly, is Will. His leadership in the social activism of the sixties gives the narrative its shape and direction. What Will reveals without saying it directly is that whatever was “sacred” in life had been so absolutely and irrevocably identified with Roman Catholic “truths,” that with their passing the sense of the sacred disappeared for him altogether. The very word “sacred” is no longer a legitimate word. Will is still encased in the exoskeleton of the “one true Church,” but the problem is he no longer believes in it. When the Church went down, for Will “the sacred” went down with it.
Will is eternally nostalgic for what he no longer has and knows he absolutely does not want. But the play goes further. Will argues that not only do some people end up in this pathetic state, which is true enough, but that this is just the way life is — it’s the human condition — end of story. We are all locked into our illusory beliefs — the “fog” — and besides illusion there is nothing. We stay in the fog because we can’t bear to live in the open air. To say anything else is “bullshit.”
But is it fair to say that the author is intentionally trying to make that point? It is only a play, after all; plays don’t have to be carrying on an argument by other means. Duncan may not be arguing for nihilism at all. It could be that he is simply holding Will up for our compassionate consideration as an example of the sorry state that some people find themselves in. It doesn’t matter. Let’s leave Duncan out of it. The characters have declared where they stand and must answer for themselves. “Will” is the character who is espousing ideas and attitudes that I find false and misleading, and it is what Will says and does that I challenge.
The two characters who are foils for Will’s declamations are also ordained priests. There is Avery, who remains a priest but becomes an Episcopalian. He is described as an academic “nerd” for whom religion is an intellectual pastime. Avery conspicuously opts out of the social justice struggles of the sixties; he’s also a repentant “one-time” pedophile and recovering alcoholic.
And then there’s Zeke, the comic relief, a nice guy who loves people, not entirely “with it,” but funny and benevolent. Zeke was forced out of the priesthood when it was discovered that he had married clandestinely; he is the totally innocent victim, devoid of doctrinal issues, sacrificed to the absurdity of mandatory celibacy and the Church’s obsession with its traditions. These characters contrast with Will for whom religion was “warfare.”
Avery’s nerdiness comes to be associated in the ‘90s with a “new theology” labeled “metaphor” about which he has written a book. Will informs us that it is “bullshit.” He attacks it as mere deception — he might have said “sleight-of-hand” — a sleazy attempt to maintain religious feelings in the complete absence of “truths,” like the Resurrection, once held as literal historical fact but now considered myth by many experts in scripture.
In my reading of the play, it is significant that Will’s most heated confrontation is not with some traditional Catholic who is insisting that Church doctrine is literally true, but with Avery on the issue of metaphor. It’s not immediately clear how a metaphoric interpretation can be called “deception” unless the accuser is a dogmatic fundamentalist who feels that it dilutes the “real truth.” Metaphor means that doctrine is not a literal fact, and Will the atheist, one would presume, should have no trouble with that at all. So what’s his problem? That people “have no right” to feelings that come from taking religion as poetry? Why is “metaphor” more of a problem for Will than belief?
We have to remember Will is a cyclopean “soldier” whose one-eyed stare is still fixed inerrantly on what he was vowed to defend: the Roman Catholic Church and its infallible absolutes — the only “sacred” thing in the universe. You’re not allowed to have religious “feelings” unless they are based on those absolutes. Now that those absolutes are gone, you can’t have those feelings … period.
I ask: what might have been said about “metaphor” if it were being defended by someone other than the unsavory Avery using words that Duncan put in his mouth? Might it have been explained that, inspirational value aside, first and foremost metaphor clarifies the objective truth-content of religious doctrine: supernatural “facts” do not exist and miraculous events never happened. “Religion,” therefore, is not the quid pro quo “salvation” business the Church taught us it was. Religion is not about earning life in another world after death, but how to live with justice and joy in this one. The “resurrection” is a prime example. A different Avery might have said:
“The religious question, Will, is not whether Jesus rose from the dead. For thousands of years before Jesus, god-men (and women) who died and rose were a prominent feature of the religions of the Mediterranean world. It doesn’t need to be said that none of them died and rose. The question is not whether the claims made for Jesus are any more factual but where that constant human drumbeat comes from. Religion is not created by some miraculous event, or some great story-teller, it arises from the unquenchable thirst for life in the heart of man. That is the undeniable datum, the source of what drives us. Life is the miracle, the sacred “fact” that will not go away. It is the only “fact” — it’s always been the only fact — the rest is all projection, and “God” is the personal human face we put on it; we really don’t know what it is. All we know is that Life is precious to us, sacred. Life is to die for. That’s why fighting injustice is more than a sport, or someone’s personal hobby. Death is abhorrent to the very marrow of the living matter of which we are made. We are inclined to trust our thirst for life … we hardly have a choice.
If Jesus did not rise, so what? How are we going to deal with it? Say “bullshit” and die? Humankind faced the dilemma of death long before religions were invented to resolve it. Christianity was just another attempt to answer this life-death contradiction that we carry like a plague in our gut. Our religions … all of them, from the beginning of time and from all over the globe … came from people just like us caught between the poles of this fatal counterpoint and they didn’t know how else to cope with it … and now it’s our turn. What do you propose will help us trust life? Metaphor is not trying to keep a lie alive, it’s acknowledging that “resurrection” is an ancient symbol that encourages us to trust life so we don’t tear ourselves to pieces. Religion is not science, it is poetry. If you try to make it science, then It is “bullshit.” Whether we live forever or not, life is precious, sacred, and religion is its poetry. That’s what metaphor means.”
“Metaphor” would turn religious dogma from being the false locus of the sacred into a “search engine” — a poetic guide — for finding the sacred “out there” in the world and in people and in the depths of living, evolving matter. What’s at stake is our sense of the sacred which the Church expropriated, exploited and then used to control us. “Metaphor” would make the Church subordinate to the sacred, its servant, not its proprietor. … None of this is given expression.
To reduce the hierarchy’s dogmatic authority justifications to metaphor would break its control over the minds of men. I believe Will senses exactly that: metaphor would vaporize dogma, and his subconscious Catholic atavism will not allow it. Like all of us Will believed what they told him; there is nothing sacred but Catholic truth — for Will, “the fog” — everything else is profane. Once the fog is gone, there is no sacred; to use Dogma as “guide” to a sacred universe is a contradiction in terms. There is nothing sacred “out there” to find, and therefore no need for a guide to find it. There is no possibility that this natural world and its living, evolving matter is sacred, evoking a response that engages our awe, care, service … and trust. Saying so makes him mad, and “mad” is what Will does best.
As they enter retirement age Will’s acknowledged “eternal anger” is described adoringly by his estranged but still loving wife Brenda as his need to “be eternally at war.” Sorry. I don’t buy it. There are plenty of reasons for Will to be angry, but for me this “warrior” stuff reeks of Hollywood. I see it as a dramatic turn that correlates with the superficial religious bearing of the play, and I select it for criticism for that reason.
Hollywood’s muscular “theology” says that the “warrior’s” anger is innate, primordial. It gives him a genetic superiority over others which also makes him incapable of partnering with a woman. Brenda had to leave Will but … she understands. An American audience will recognize the familiar features of every heroic leading man from the old westerns to the current superheroes. These men are too involved with their own incredible machismo to share life with a woman. We have all been conditioned to the genre: there is no domestic life in Valhalla and fighting injustice is not for women and children. The celibate mystique was part of the same male warrior ethos, and historically, may even have been a factor in its creation. Will may think he’s a warrior, and Brenda may know he needs to hear it — but it’s adolescent crap.
In the Hollywood version of life, the pursuit of justice is not a universal responsibility, it belongs only to the warriors, the guardians. And courage is not a virtue achievable by all, developed by shouldering responsibility and struggling to overcome fear. Courage, for Hollywood, comes only from being a warrior by birth, born with a full measure of divine testosterone. The brave are fearless by nature. You either have it or you don’t. And … do I hear hissing in the background … those who need “religion” don’t?
Then, the “surprise” ending will be no surprise to anyone who watches TCM with any degree of regularity. In 2030 while his two friends are dying from self-administered and Church–permitted (sic!) euthanasia, at the very last minute Will takes Brenda’s hand, dumps the death pill in the trash and lives! … (Yay!!). Note that true to Hollywood form, he “gets the girl” at the very end of the movie … because she is a trophy, not a partner. It is announced by Flora our personal Greek chorus that Will finally found the answer to life. Curtain falls. End of play. Yikes! Burbank studios may be lining up for options even as we speak.
Here’s my take: the play exploits past commitments, friends and serious current concerns for their “entertainment value,” which is entirely acceptable, but Will’s narrative also conforms to the fatuous standards and stunted values of the entertainment industry — the “fog” that keeps us shopping — which isn’t. But it is entirely consistent with Will’s persona: a man who has decided that there is nothing sacred.
If there is nothing sacred, nothing “out there” to stand in awe at and serve, the only thing left is yourself, your image in the eyes of others. It would explain Will’s relationship to the adoring Brenda. Brenda does not represent something sacred “out there” for Will to stand in awe at and allow himself to be expanded by. No, for Will Brenda is the mirror, the still pool in which his adorable “warrior” image is reflected. Note that it’s only when she re-assumes that role that their estrangement ends.
Similarly, Will never gets past Catholicism’s veneer to the sense of the sacred universe that underlays it all. His creepy attachment to his chalice at the end of his life is not explicable otherwise. When those externals stopped being “holy” he was blindsided; Will doesn’t like being fooled.
No one does. There is good dose of “Will” in all of us. Will was made a fool of by historical forces, too big to blame, that made fools and victims of us all, including those teachers who fed us the “bullshit,” and the supervisors who made sure we ate it. Will cannot let it go. As with Melville’s classic anti-hero: Ahab can never forget what that whale did to him. Nothing must get in the way of its destruction! … that’s why Will found “metaphor” so threatening!
The Church is, in fact, withering. But no one is destroying it; the Church is destroying itself. Starting in the era depicted in the opening scene of the play, the Church went on a narcissistic orgy that has shamed and humiliated us all. It revealed to the world the self-centeredness of its vision and the irrationality of its intransigence: on sexual issues, simultaneously inflexible and degenerate, in politics, despite its “social doctrine,” as always, in bed with wealth and power — all the result of a seriously flawed understanding of man and “God” and itself — earning a long-overdue catastrophic loss of credibility. Like Joyce’s Finnegan, whose avatar shamed himself in a public park, the Catholic Church committed moral suicide and we find ourselves in mourning at its wake. To one degree or another we are all like Will. We are the children of a Church that told itself it was “divine.” It preferred the morbid adoration of its own self-image to the muddling business of bringing justice and joy to the living present. We can all identify with his anger. The redeeming value here is that the play holds up a mirror for us — all of us, including the Church — to see what we have, or could have, become … and be glad to be moving on.
Plays, and lives, and eras end; but LIFE does not. Finnegan himself, remember, when his body was splashed with whiskey by those celebrating his passing, sat up in his casket … demanded a drink … and joined the revelers!