Equivocation, Jesuit Style

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There's a weird contradiction among some of America's critical elite: they complain about the dumbing-down of culture, then complain when presented with a complex and intelligent work of art.

I've just seen a remarkable play called Equivocation, written by Bill Cain, a Jesuit priest. I also had a chance to interview the playwright, and had a revealing moment about equivocation and the question of abortion.

But first the play, which is first-rate in every way.

Charles Isherwood of the New York Times said this about the play: "‘Mr. Cain aims to write a political allegory in Jacobean drag; a playful comedy amply stocked with audience-flattering in-jokes; a backstage tale of conflict amid Shakespeare's unruly company of actors; and an emotionally engaging family drama in which Shakespeare's daughter Judith (Charlotte Parry) is portrayed as the neglected child who never earned the love Shakespeare lavished on the twin son who died."

Isherwood claims that the play suffers because of this "overweening ambition," but I found it thrilling precisely because Cain has so many balls in the air. (Further, the play is not "amply stocked" with in-jokes; there are a few, and they are funny.) The second part could be trimmed a little, but that's a minor problem. Equivocation is the most thought-provoking and exciting play I've seen in years.

My hope is that they turn it into a movie. It gets so complicated, but not in a bad way, that repeated viewings would be rewarded.

The plot, if it can be simplified, is this: it is the early 17th Century, and William Shakespeare ("Shag" to his friends here) has been commissioned by King James to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot, an attempt in 1605 to blow up parliament and overthrow the monarchy. The theory is that the plot was hatched by Catholics revolting agains that anti-Catholic King James.

After that things get complicated. Years prior to 1605 a priest named Robert Southwell had written a treatise on "equivocation," or the moral justification for not telling the total truth while not lying.

"A dishonest man will not ask an honest question," the priest Robert Catesby tells Shakespeare at one point. "Answer the question underlying the question." In other words, if it is the 1600s in anti-Catholic England and you are hiding a priest in your house, and revealing that would get the priest killed, what do you say when a British soldier comes to the house?

Equivocate -- which in this case means telling the truth by answering the "question under the question." You are not being asked if someone is in your house. You are being asked to be an accomplice in the state murder of a dissident.

Since then, the term "equivocation" has come to mean the opposite -- i.e., avoiding the truth. Indeed one character, unhappy with the 1605 version of equivocation, says "we may have to change the meaning of that word at some point."

There are many switchbacks and surprises in Equivocation, and the writing is stellar. You can tell that as a Jesuit, Bill Cain was probably educated to within an inch of his life. (The play was described as an attempted "Niagara Falls of cleverness" in the Washington Post, and reviewer Peter Marks, but this reveals the shortcomings of Marks's education. Or maybe I got it because I went to Jesuit school.)

The actors are uniformly great: Anthony Heald as Shag, Jonathan Haugen, John Tufts, Richard Elmore, Gregory Lininton, and Christine Albright. Watching them do this very intricate and physical show for over two hours, I was reminded what I learned when I was in high school and saw my brother play 22 roles in the play How I Got That Story. Actors are athletes.

Yet now we come to my conversation with Equivocation playwright Bill Cain. Like most Jesuits, Fr. Cain is liberal. He came of age during the Civil Rights era, and it was decisive in his decision to become a priest. This is evident in Equivocation, which posits that the Gunpowder Plot may not have ben a plot at all, or even existed, but was made up by the British government to give them an excuse to oppress minority dissent.

Yes, Fr. Cain uses this as metaphor for President Bush and the Iraq War, yet he does so in a way that is not crude and heavy-handed -- unlike a lot of liberal artists, Cain has a mind of subtlety and nuance.

Still, something very interesting happened when I interviewed Fr. Cain. He was talking about how he was deeply affected by the Civil Rights movement, and I brought up the correlation between that era, and its defense of those who had been marginalized and placed outside the protection of the law, the the current pro-life movement. I mentioned Father Richard John Neuhaus, who had marched with Martin Luther King and called the battle for racial justice and the battle for unborn persons "the same fight."

When presented with this truth, Fr. Cain...equivocated.

And I mean that in the modern sense of telling an untruth, not the 1605 sense of telling the truth by lying.  He said that the Civil Rights movement was unique and not like the pro-life movement at all. In fact, they are almost exactly the same. In Equivocation, Shags winds up telling the truth by equivocating in the old sense. He writes his play not about the Gunpowder Plot, but about the corruption of the monarchy. He calls it "MacBeth."

It's a play not irrelevant to the abortion genocide today, seeing how it explores how murderous liars in power can't wash the blood off their hands.

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