Hartford Stage. directed by Doug Hughes. Based on The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortura, by David Kertzer
The title really does capture the idea. “He’s mine.” “No, he’s mine.” “Mine, I tell you!” “We’ll see about that; you haven’t won yet.” “Oh, but I will. Nya, nya, nya.” Thus the back-and-forth between Marianna Mortara, the mother of the boy Edgardo, kidnapped by the henchmen of Pope Pius IX, and the Pope (“Pio Nono” to his friends — and captives). It seems that Edgardo when still an infant and in danger of dying, having been born into a Jewish family in the ghetto in Bologna, a Catholic serving maid secretly baptized him and went on to boast of the fact. News of this reaches the Pope, who determines that the boy must be “rescued.” The tug-of-war over the body and soul commences, to the ultimate victory of the Pope, who saves Edgardo so well that Edgardo becomes a priest, preaches widely across Europe, tries unsuccessfully to convert his mother on her deathbed, and finally dies, an old man, in Belgium only weeks before the Nazis descend and round up all Belgian Jews to be shipped off to concentration camps.
Uhry makes this tawdry story the stuff of a truly undistinguished play, utterly innocent of ideas. We have here what might have made an acceptable melodrama, had Uhry not tried to disguise the fact by making “Nono” the after-the-fact narrator who manipulates truth and falsehood to his own advantage by playing certain key scenes from his own and then from Marianna and her husband’s point of view, then pronouncing Marianna’s version mere wishful thinking. This pretense of subjective truth is clearly a sham, however; the real center of the play is the figure of Nono, come from the grave (it seems) to tell us the true story of his triumph. This is of course the pontiff who declared himself unable to err on questions of faith or morals — and what is the case of Edgardo if not such a case? Uhry takes care to make his central character both odious and oddly fascinating. He is, finally, a creature of Uhry’s audience and its need to be able both to deplore the shameful kidnapping of a guileless Jewish lad, who has (as we, in 2002, would surely insist) as much right to the religion of his family and their Old Testament predecessors as the Pope and all his followers to theirs, and simultaneously to be drawn into a perverse retelling of the shameful story by the principal antagonist, who insists on his inside track on truth and describes the great sacrifices he, and Edgardo, for that matter, have gone through in order to do what God, in a special revelation to him, has told him is the only right thing. (Oh, and if the dramatized version of Kertzer’s history of the events of the story doesn’t satisfy us, we can always buy a copy of Kertzer’s book, on sale in the lobby.)
Where, and how, can this play be placed in our consciousness of current events? For the last year we have been bombarded (literally, indeed, on September 11, 2001) by the news of the world in crisis: Israel and the Palestinians in mortal combat; the ouster of the Taliban from Afghanistan and the evident escape of Osama bin Laden; the destruction of the World Trade Towers and part of the Pentagon (and of the White House or the Capitol, too, were it not for the actions of some brave passengers on board the fourth airliner); and the increasing revelations of sexual abuse of young children and adolescents, mainly male, by members of the Roman Catholic clergy. The story of Edgardo offers an opportunity seldom equaled to grapple with the social, moral, ethical, philosophical, and religious issues — of truth, of absolute belief, of a dozen other things — transparently evident and urging themselves on us. What does Uhry do, in the face of this opportunity? He dodges it at almost every point. Only in the next-to-last scene do we have a confrontation between Marianna and the Pope — in which we find out what we already believe and know: that the Pope thinks his way of thinking is the only way, the one true faith — and that Marianna is equally convinced that hers is the one. Neither can be swayed by the other. Stalemate? Well, perhaps. The way out for us is through the door marked “Diversity.” “All religions are welcome here.” The alternative is what happened in Belgium in 1940. Well, isn’t it fortunate we are beyond all that and now know we should just live and let live? Case closed.
Yesterday twelve Jewish civilians were killed by Palestinian gunmen in Hebron. The mindless cycle of violence goes on, as George Bush waits patiently, but with “zero tolerance,” for Saddam Hussein to make just one false move and thereby bring down the wrath of God (that’s what it’s called by the righteous) on all of Iraq. Shortly after the canonization of Joan of Lorraine in 1920 (I think), Shaw saw the occasion to re-tell the story in a dramatization that brought the profoundest skepticism and radical analysis to bear on a subject treated mostly in an idealizing or sentimental vein up to that time. Uhry is not up to anything like this penetrating treatment of a major, pressing concern. I saw some friends at the theatre last night, and we had a bit of a sparring exchange over what was, in effect, the issue of a dramatist’s obligations and opportunities. I said I thought Uhry had settled for writing a “B” play, having turned his back on all the pressing issues of the day. I was accused, only partly in play, of being an arrogant critic. (“Carping” was the word that came to mind.) I came home thinking that Uhry had wasted my time and my mind, despite some very good acting. I applauded the acting at the end, but kept my mental reservations intact about the lack of depth of the play itself. To paraphrase a famous Dorothy Parker comment, Uhry ran the gamut of issues from A to B.