Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune - - Next spring [March], the University of Minnesota will stage "The Pope and the Witch," by Italian radical playwright Dario Fo.
The play "features a paranoid, drug-addled pope, a witch in a nun's habit and a chaotic comedy of errors," according to a Star Tribune report. It depicts "the Vatican as corrupt," according to the Pioneer Press.
Apparently the comic genius of it all is lost on Archbishop Harry Flynn of the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. He has asked the U to consider withdrawing the play. But earlier this month, university President Robert Bruininks and the regents said the show must go on.
So here's a preview of what we'll see next March, courtesy of Minnesota's flagship institution of higher learning.
"The pope is in crisis," explains the University of Minnesota's website. "100,000 poor, starving orphans from Third World countries are arriving in St. Peter's Square in what he believes is a plot by fanatical birth control activists to embarrass him and the church." Overwrought, the pope has a "crucifixion stroke," which freezes his arms in an outstretched position.
A witch cures the pope using hypnosis and a tractionlike device on which he is mounted as if in flight. The Vatican, we discover, is connected to a vast heroin-smuggling enterprise. As the play ends, the pope issues an encyclical announcing that he, like the witch, now supports drug legalization, and no longer sees "a condom as the devil's raincoat."
In case you missed the point, the U's website spells it out: "[I]t is easy for a rich church to rage against abortion when millions are born into poverty, and become victims of the drug trade, from which people under the Vatican's protection can fill their pockets."
The U often trumpets its rejection of "racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice, intolerance and harassment," as Bruininks put it in a letter to a critic of "The Pope and the Witch." But Fo's play depicts the leaders of the Catholic Church as grotesque criminal caricatures. So how did the play get by the "prejudice" monitors?
A higher principle is at work, it seems. The U can't be a "rigid censor," spokesman Daniel Wolter told the Star Tribune. "Academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas are the hallmarks of higher education," he said. Universities must be places where "very unpopular" views can be expressed, Bruininks proclaimed in his letter.
Such courage. What we see here is a dramatic example of academicians doing what some of them love best. That would be striking a pose, appearing to take a risky, moral stand (where there is no risk) to defend "art" -- in this case, Fo's sophomoric humor and tendentious politicizing -- from attack by bourgeois philistines.
You can almost hear the thrill in director Robert Rosen's bold "director's statement" about "The Pope and the Witch": "I chose this play because it's political." Rosen anticipates a backlash of unknown proportions, he told the Minnesota Daily. It's as if he is inviting reactionary forces -- perhaps dark figures a la "The Da Vinci Code" -- to persecute him for the sake of his oh-so-daring art.
Please excuse the yawn. We live in a world where Danish cartoonists are in hiding, Russian dissenters are gunned down or poisoned, and even naming your god can invite a gruesome death in some countries. In such a world, it's hard to be impressed with the guts it takes to dress witches as nuns at an American university.
Beating up on the pope is neither risky nor unpopular. In fact, you can face down the Catholic Church's "power structure" and not risk a scratch. To wit: Archdiocese spokesman Dennis McGrath has assured the U that the archdiocese has no plans to organize protests or call Catholics into action against it. "We have a great deal of admiration for the university, its arts and activities," McGrath said. "'There's not going to be any continued rancor that grows out of this."
Will the U follow "The Pope and the Witch" with a principled defense of truly unpopular views -- say, a sequel: "Mohammed and the Witch"?
Don't hold your breath. StarTribune - - Check out the over 150 comments on Ms. Kersten's StarTribune blog and contribute your own two cents (after you have commented on Stella Borealis).
I've read the published script of "The Pope and the Witch."
Robert Rosen says that he chose the play because it was "political." I say he chose the play because it was cheap and a method to get his name in the papers. The University's Theater Department sure doesn't get much publicity in this town. It used to be nationally known and respected.
Rosen probably got the rights to it along with many other plays that nobody wants to perform. The Pope and the Witch has been performed probably less than ten times in over ten years.
Qualified directors apparently, and I, don't find TP&TW the least bit funny. It is full of dated references to political personages such as Panama's Manuel Noriega and clerics such as France's schismatic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. There probably aren't 50 people at the U of MN who could name the reason for their being mentioned.
The only way that the slightest laugh could be created by performing this play would be by having accomplished physical comedians reminiscent of the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges. But they could make the telephone book seem hysterically funny. One line of the entire play seemed to create a smile when I read it. And it was because of an obscure reference few non-Catholics would catch.
Because there are no lines in this piece of trash that a real comedian would be able to use.
That being the case, then, Rosen just wants to trash the Catholic Church and pretend that he is being brave. Already the Archdiocese has surrendered.
But this is not a case of Catholic faith or morals as determined by the Church's leadership. This is a brutal attack on the average Mary Grace and John Paul in the pew.
If Rosen thinks that average Catholics won't be having to more to say and do about this, well, maybe it will be time for me to burn my U of MN Diploma. For a start. I'd like to get my name in the newspapers too!