- Play title: Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.
- Author: Christopher Durang
- First performed: 1979
- Page count: 36
This one-act play is a comedy by American playwright Christopher Durang. There are a total of six characters, namely the titular Sister Mary Ignatius along with a seven-year-old boy named Thomas and four adults: Gary, Diane, Philomena, and Aloysius. The setting for the events is Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow School where Sister Mary Ignatius has long been a teacher and is currently giving a lecture on Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. Thomas is the epitome of an excellent student and supplies word-perfect answers to the nun’s questions on Catholic teachings, especially the ten commandments. The four adults are former students of Sister Mary Ignatius’ and they visit the school unexpectedly. The middle-aged nun’s rigid Catholic views and authoritarian attitude lead to friction when she learns of her old students’ current lives. It seems they have not turned out to be good Catholics and the nun expresses her scorn in politically incorrect terms. Durang uses church dogma as his material to create many wonderfully comic scenes. The former students eventually challenge Sister Mary Ignatius due to her teachings. Her unexpected response leads to a climactic scene which is humorous, shocking, and absurd all at once.
Ways to access the text: reading.
It is possible to read the play script online via the Open Library. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find other sources.
Why read Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You?
Much of the humour in the play requires that a reader have at least some familiarity with Catholic dogmas. Durang taps into a particular vein of humour as he shows how a church that expects total obedience to its teachings sometimes changes those same teachings. The examples given in the play include topics like Limbo, eating meat on Fridays, and the existence or not of a certain saint. When Sister Mary Ignatius discusses these topics then her own conclusions are quite amusing as they expose the difficulties of steadfast belief, even for those in the church. When tackling the core issue of papal infallibility, Sister Mary Ignatius says that the Pope is only infallible when “he speaks ‘ex cathedra,’ which is Latin for ‘out of the cathedral’” (1). Her translation is flawed and therefore funny as it sounds as if the Pope is only infallible when he speaks outside of his domain and not as ‘ex cathedra’ is usually translated – ‘from the chair/throne’ which denotes the Pope’s seat of authority. Maybe Durang had in mind that the Pope was also speaking ‘out of’ something else! Catholic dogma has admittedly been flogged for laughs many times, but Durang’s play is well crafted, witty, and overall, quite effective.
The stereotypical nun.
Sister Mary Ignatius is a wonderful creation because she embodies what many consider to be the stereotype of the stern, Catholic nun. She first appears in an “old fashioned nun’s habit” (1) signalling her inability to adapt even to the modest updates in nuns’ ever-conservative fashions. Durang cleverly presents two women, the nun as a child depicted through her own memories and then the resulting adult who stands before her audience. The little girl from a huge Catholic family of twenty-six children grows up to dislike children, has a penchant for graphic descriptions of Christ’s suffering on the cross, and a general intolerance of anyone who complains about anything because it will never compare to Our Lord’s suffering. The playwright presents a woman who has a knack of controlling situations to her own satisfaction, something that others should evidently bear in mind. It seems that an authority figure in a child’s eyes remains ever so, even when the child has become an adult.
Beyond Nuns & Therapy.
Durang’s play about a Catholic nun may reasonably be viewed as a dated work. Not only have nuns become a rare sight in general but teaching nuns even more so. Also, derision of the Catholic Church on the grounds of its dogmas or indeed numerous other issues have become commonplace. Therefore, one needs some encouragement to read a play published more than forty years ago, a play which seems like little more than a precursor to a style of humour with which we are now overly familiar, even jaded. Luckily, there are two key motivators for potential readers, namely that the play is genuinely amusing and secondly, there is worthwhile satire beyond the lighter humour.
While most critics accept that Durang’s play is satirical, it is debatable what he hoped to achieve by deriding the Catholic church. M. H. Abrams writes that “satire can be described as the literary art of diminishing or derogating a subject by making it ridiculous and evoking towards it attitudes of amusement, contempt, scorn, or indignation. It differs from the comic in that comedy evokes laughter mainly as an end in itself, while satire derides; that is, it uses laughter as a weapon, and against a butt that exists outside the work itself” (275). The ‘butt’ in the case of Durang’s play is chiefly the Catholic Church. Yet, Abrams’ quote exposes the problem of too easily labelling Durang’s play a satire because the playwright does seem to aim at evoking laughter as an end in itself. Only by closely reading the play can one determine if Durang truly hopes to change the church itself, or influence its faithful congregation, or maybe the play is aimed at non-believers aka atheists. Also, Abrams’s definition seems too loose and fails to tell us what satirical derision aims to achieve. In such circumstances, it is helpful to look at a more exacting definition of satire. Terry Lindvall, in his book God Mocks, defines satire as having two recurring characteristics which are as follows:
“First, as satire is used to attack, it aims not just to slice and dice, but to correct and reform. I argue that the heart of true satire is recognition of a moral discrepancy between what is proclaimed and what is practiced, often with an attempt to remedy it. It ranges from moral outrage to mischievous exposing of the Emperor’s new clothes” (5).
“Second, satire employs wit and humor; it entertains. It is not always funny, but it appeals to a recognition of the ridiculous” (6).
Lindvall is writing specifically about religious satire and his definition is quite detailed, especially where he notes that such satire aims to correct and reform. Durang’s play is a satire of the Catholic church, but does it qualify as religious satire, that is, did the playwright actually hope that his work would influence (correct/reform) an institution renowned for its intransigence? Maybe this question is too simplistic and the ‘remedy’ that Lindvall writes of is to be found elsewhere than the church itself. This essay has the aims of giving an informed reading of how Durang’s play satirizes the Catholic Church and who/what precisely he wishes to influence, correct, or reform. The starting assumption is that Durang’s play does qualify as religious satire but that the church is not necessarily where we will witness a correction or reform.
The playwright also satirizes elements of modern society where many people have a strong disposition to find the root of all their problems in their childhood experiences and they then seek to allocate blame as a form of resolution. It is noteworthy that the figure of the psychiatrist is lampooned in the play and is just as hated by Diane Symonds as is Sister Mary Ignatius. One may plausibly conjecture that the psychiatrist prompted Diane to link her unhappiness to her Catholic upbringing. Diane’s need to confront her past, literally to confront Sister Mary Ignatius, also seems to align with possible psychiatric advice, but she sorely misinterprets it. Neither Diane, as a self-confessed murderer nor the unethical psychiatrist (sexual affair with a patient) comes out as the voice of objective reason in the play. Therefore, one may confidently state that Durang’s satire, while chiefly aimed at the Catholic church, also targets other authority figures like modern psychiatrists, and even critiques the purported victims of the church. Nevertheless, Durang exposes the faults of Catholic teachings and shows that people have a right to their anger and disillusionment. This indeed seems paradoxical. However, the somewhat hidden theme of Durang’s play is actually self-empowerment but this argument will become clearer upon investigating the play. Thus, even though the play is a little dated, it has not lost its value for readers because it looks at how individuals must tackle the world.
This essay is divided into sections, namely: Durang’s motivation, homosexuality, Sister Mary Ignatius’ childhood, dogma, the age of reason, theodicy and finally, a conclusion. Though Durang’s play is just one act, it provides ample subjects for discussion. Apart from the conclusion, each section looks at who/what Durang is satirizing and how he, to repeat Abrams’ words, “uses laughter as a weapon” (275). The first step is crucially to look at what may have been the playwright’s motivation to satirize the Catholic Church. One is more convinced of a strong intellectual intent behind the humour if one senses that there is a personal axe to grind, so to speak.
If Durang was motivated to spur a reform, then where would such a reform occur? Terry Lindvall writes that “At its best, Christian satire combines laughter and a vision of reform, in what scholar Ralph Wood once called a comedy of redemption (20). However, either can exist without the other. Satirical laughter without the hope of correction can devolve into mere sneering and scoffing” (7). The key target of Durang’s satire is Catholic dogma which by its very nature is practically written in stone so surely he cannot hope to influence such teachings. This reminds one of the saying, “If the mountain will not come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain.” One may be equally sure that Durang was not hoping to move the unmovable. This observation simply allows one to discount at an appropriately early stage of the discussion any illusion of Durang influencing or even hoping to influence Catholic dogma. Unfortunately, this returns one to the idea that he only wished to elicit laughter at the church’s expense. Yet, Durang’s motivation for writing the play may shed light on his aims. In a New York Times article from 1981, Durang told the interviewer Carol Lawson that he understood that some people would be offended by his play, but he said, ”I didn’t write this play to throw water in the face of those who believe. My purpose wasn’t to make people angry, but to get off my chest how I look at things” (7). The interviewer noted that Durang “looks at things as a self-proclaimed ‘ex-Catholic’” (7). Therefore, he is clearly not a zealous Catholic hoping to reform the church but he does hold a sharpened axe in his hands. The purpose of Durang’s play is probably most easily deduced from the following quote from the same interview.
“Even when I was a teenager and still a believer, I saw things about the church that I disapproved of,” he said. ”For instance, when I was about 15, my mother befriended a woman who had a brute of an alcoholic husband. She was 24 years old and had five children. She went to the local parish priest and asked if she could use birth control in case her husband raped her. The priest said no. After that, her husband did force himself on her, and she had another child. The whole issue of birth control just makes me crazy” (7).
Maybe Durang was sincere in saying that he did not want to offend the faithful but it is obviously the minds of the congregation and not the clergy that may be swayed, and it is upon such minds that Durang’s play may be influential. Logically, the play is not deliberately aimed at atheists as few would be sufficiently familiar with Catholic dogma to appreciate the humour and any laughter elicited from the audience would be just that, pure entertainment. Judging from the New York Times article quote, Durang’s point seems to be that the inflexible and often severe church teachings as extolled by Sister Mary Ignatius are teachings from which one may indeed extricate oneself. It is a telling point that the play’s character of Diane Symonds has, in truth, failed to leave the church behind and that is why she mistakenly seeks an admission of guilt from the nun whom she despises. It is with slightly hung-up ex-Catholics and lingering Catholics that Durang’s play will truly resonate and therefore they are his target audience. His personal motivation comes from the experience of witnessing how church dogma can be unrealistic, even cruel in real-life situations. The reform possible through religious satire is to expose the absurdity of some of the church rules, thus making people’s choices clearer. To reject something that does not work often requires that you first stop taking it seriously and laugh at it.
One may also look to Durang’s personal life for motivation to write a cutting satire of the Catholic church. Durang was an openly gay man, and the play’s character of Gary is significant as it is an accurate portrayal of how the Catholic church has consistently been unable to accept homosexuality. The only acceptable homosexual man in the eyes of the church is a celibate one and this is obviously a denial of any variance in human sexuality beyond heterosexuality. The Catholic church’s teaching on celibate, homosexual men entering the priesthood is more revealing as in this particular case the men are, though celibate, still considered to be “intrinsically disordered” due to their sexual orientation and therefore unfit to join the church. This stance was most recently repeated by the former Pope, Benedict XVI who retired in 2013. Durang rejected a church that would always seek to fix what they perceived to be a fault. One message of the play seems to be that you must abandon a faith that is unaccepting of you but that also means foregoing the option of later seeking an admission of guilt from the same church.
Sister Mary Ignatius’ prejudice against gay men is the source of several jokes. At an early point in the play, one audience member asks the nun, “what exactly went on in Sodom?” (8) to which there is the response of an irritated silence. Sister Mary Ignatius goes on to inform her listeners that “Modern day Sodoms are New York City, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Los Angeles …” (9). As previously discussed, the topic of homosexuality may have struck a more personal cord with Durang, and his satire is equally funny and cutting. One of the funnier lines in the play comes when the nun is asking her former pupils about their current lives and families.
“Aloysius: I have two boys.
Sister: I like boys (to Gary) And you?
Gary: I’m not married” (Durang 19).
When the nun subsequently asks Gary about birth control then his answer prompts her to guess that he is gay. He explains “I got seduced when I was in the seminary” (23) which in the context, adds insult to injury. Sister Mary Ignatius’ initial response to Gary is to say, “Okay. You do that thing that makes Jesus puke, don’t you?” (23). The nun’s unexpectedly colloquial expression reveals her own disgust but the line is funny because she attributes such an attitude to Jesus.
As a counterweight to the nun’s intolerant attitude, Durang cleverly draws an implicit comparison between Jesus and the character of Gary. The source of the comparison comes from Sister Mary Ignatius herself when she first responds with a simple ‘yes’ to the question – “Was Jesus effeminate?” (5). Later, she refers to Gary as “the little effeminate one” (25) who “might get better with shock treatments and aversion therapy” (25) which means a cure for his homosexuality. The only religious guidance that Gary receives from the nun is to live a celibate life. The similarity between Jesus and Gary is not simply that both may be described as effeminate and that the nun uses this word to denote homosexuality, but also in the idea of celibacy being appropriate for gay men. Sister Mary Ignatius says that “Christ was warm, loving, and not attracted to anybody” (8). The description of Christ as asexual is highly amusing and accurate to a surprising degree in terms of dogma. Ludwig Ott writes that “According to the testimony of Holy Writ, Christ possessed a truly human soul with the corresponding emotions” (174) and this means he experienced sadness, fear, anger, love, joy etc. Yet a crucial point is that “In Christ’s conception, concupiscence was completely removed, so that the powers of the senses were completely subject to the direction of reason” (Ott 203). In short, Christ never experienced feelings of lust. As Jesus is referred to as effeminate in the play (i.e., code for homosexual) then his lack of sexual desire means he led a perfectly celibate life. Sister Mary Ignatius finds fault only with Gary’s homosexual practices because in all other respects he is a good Catholic. Traditional Catholic teaching is that the sin and not the sinner is the problem, namely not homosexuality but the homosexual act. Yet, this is patently untrue as proven by the church’s rejection of celibate, gay men for the priesthood. The playwright seeks to mock a hypocritical church that prefers ‘fixing’ someone by condoning aversion therapy etc. or alternatively getting them to totally deny their sexuality through celibacy. Acceptance is not on the church’s menu of responses to homosexuality. Through the slightest intimation that Jesus himself was gay, Durang delivers a stinging rebuke to the institutional church. The playwright’s astute comparison of Jesus with a modern-day gay man is cutting satire. Sister Mary Ignatius dramatically murders Gary in the end, apparently sending him to heaven due to his recent confession. The implication is that Gary’s relationship with a man will otherwise lead to his eternal damnation. The impossible position of gay men seems quite clear, either as clerics or members of the church faithful.
Sister Mary Ignatius’ childhood.
When not mercilessly judging others, Sister Mary Ignatius speaks freely and fondly of her childhood. The nun obviously adheres to Friedrich Nietzsche’s maxim – “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Through the recounting of the future nun’s chaotic childhood home life, Durang explores the real-life problems of following Catholic teachings. Sister Mary Ignatius is one of twenty-six children in her family, an obvious caricature of the traditionally large Catholic family. She describes, with no apparent sense of irony, how her mother hated children and was a terrible cook but had little choice in the matter as she could not use birth control. The outcome for such a family seems appropriately dysfunctional and the nun says that “From my family 5 became priests, 7 became nuns, 3 became brothers, and the rest were institutionalized. My mother was also institutionalized shortly after she started thinking my father was Satan” (9). It is apparent that the institutional church and institutions for the insane attract similar candidates in Durang’s humorous opinion. One obvious shared factor in both types of institution is the rigid hierarchal and authoritarian structure which provides, along with a demand for obedience, a structured, reliable, and stable routine!
The nun’s childhood, defined by mayhem, was largely due to the church’s ban on contraception and the reliance on prayer to solve problems. It is also important to note that Catholic marriage was and still remains an inseparable bond. In Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Ludwig Ott outlines the rules in relation to Catholic marriage.
“The Council of Trent declared that the bond of marriage cannot be loosed on account of heresy, or of difficulties in living together, or of absence, with evil intent, of one marriage partner (D 975),: and that the Church does not err when she has taught and teaches that according to evangelic and apostolic doctrine, the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved on account of the adultery of one of the parties (D 977)” (463).
“The intrinsic reasons for the indissolubility of marriage are the assuring of the physical and moral education of the children, the protection of marital fidelity, the imitation of the indissoluble union of Christ with His Church, and the welfare of the family and society” (464).
The dogma of the Catholic church as quoted above is mocked by the real-life example of Sister Mary Ignatius’ childhood. The future nun had a mother who hated children and finally went insane and a father who invited strangers into his marital bedroom! Such childhood conditioning leads Sister Mary Ignatius to hold peculiar views on what is normal. For example, when she questions her former student, Aloysius, then she is most pleased to hear that he is married and does not use birth control but he unexpectedly adds, ‘I’m an alcoholic and recently I’ve started to hit my wife, and I keep thinking about suicide” (22). The nun’s response is hilarious, saying that “Within bounds, all those things are venial sins” (22). Durang depicts a nun who herself is the dysfunctional product of a household bound by the unreasonable and ultimately unhealthy demands of Catholic dogmas. Now a teaching nun, Sister Mary Ignatius merely perpetuates the wrong by holding other families to the same impossible standards. The key to Durang’s satire here is the link he deftly makes between an atrocious childhood and an abominable nun.
In order to fully appreciate the effectiveness of Durang’s satire of Catholic dogmas, one must look at actual church teachings. The book, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma by Ludwig Ott, is widely recognized as an authoritative and comprehensive overview of church teachings. Ott informs us that “By dogma in the strict sense is understood a truth immediately (formally) revealed by God which has been proposed by the Teaching Authority of the Church to be believed as such” (4). The seriousness of not following these prescribed teachings of the church is exposed in the fact that “If a baptized person deliberately denies or doubts a dogma properly so-called, he is guilty of the sin of heresy (CIC 1325, Par. 2), and automatically becomes subject to the punishment of excommunication (CIC 2314, Par. 1)” (Ott 5). While many Catholics ignore some of the key teachings of the church in the present day, Durang’s play dates from the 1970’s when adherence to the rules was more uniform and less questioned.
An interesting aspect of Durang’s play is how he depicts the church’s insistence on maintaining an influence over people, even those who appear to be self-confessed ex-Catholics. This is a reality rather than an imaginative exaggeration in the play. The reluctance of the church to abdicate the right to tell people how to live their lives is humorously shown in Sister Mary Ignatius’ condescension towards her former pupils. Ott quotes the exact teachings of the church from which we may find the source for this attitude:
“As the baptismal character which effects incorporation in the Church is indestructible, the baptized person, in spite of his ceasing to be a member of the Church, cannot cut himself off so completely from the Church, that every bond with the Church is dissolved. …
Thus, the Church claims jurisdiction over baptized persons who are separated from her.” (311).
This continuing claim of jurisdiction is evident in Sister Mary Ignatius’ critical comments about her former pupils’ lifestyles. In the hands of someone like Sister Mary Ignatius, dogma becomes little more than a tool of control.
Catholic dogma provides rich material for satire, but a crucial ingredient is that the dogma be expressed in an environment or in a manner that emphasizes the absurdly rigid nature of the teaching and/or the fantastical nature of the teaching. It is a most effective tactic of Durang’s to make an inflexible, intolerant, and comically obnoxious nun the mouthpiece of the church’s key teachings. When she quotes dogma, sometimes inaccurately, to an audience not versed in theology then the resulting humour is often abundant. Durang takes aim at many of the church’s key dogmas but Limbo is probably the best known. Sister Mary Ignatius tells her audience that Limbo is “where unbaptized babies were sent for eternity before the Ecumenical Council and Pope John XXIII” (2) but now these babies go straight to Purgatory. The problem with Limbo is that it was always a grey area but was held to be a formal teaching of the church. Ludwig Ott wrote in the 1950’s that “Theologians usually assume that there is a special place or state for children dying without baptism which they call Limbus puerorum (children’s Limbo). Pope Pius VI adopted this view against the Synod of Pistoia” (114). However, under Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 the concept of Limbo was officially dropped, and Sister Mary Ignatius’ comments show that this was already a controversial topic in the nineteen seventies. Of course, the idea that for two whole millennia all unbaptized children were denied salvation but everything changed with the stroke of a pen in 2007 is indeed comical. The nun’s wry humour about the change in dogma underlines how difficult such changes are for devoted members of the church, never mind ordinary observers.
Sister Mary Ignatius is not averse to making interesting additions to church teachings. She lectures her audience that, “you can expect to be in Purgatory from anywhere from 300 years to 700 billion years” (2). In fact, the church’s official line is that “As to the length of the purification process for the individual souls, nothing can be said in terms of years. Cf. D. 1143” (Ott 485). When one considers that this nun teaches junior school pupils, the idea of them trying to comprehend even the starting point of 300 years is quite amusing.
The nun is especially irritated when people confuse the Immaculate Conception with the Virgin Birth. The former means that the Blessed Mother was born without original sin. Whereas the Virgin Birth, in Sister Mary Ignatius’ words, means that Mary managed to get pregnant “without the prior unpleasantness of physical contact” (2). These are in fact church teachings. Pope Pius IX declared in a Papal Bull in 1854 that “The Most Holy Virgin Mary was, in the first moment of her conception … preserved free from all stain of original sin” (Ott 199). However, it is the Virgin Birth that is more impressive due to the level of incredulity it usually prompts in people. Ott informs us that “The Lateran Synod of the year 649, under Pope Martin I, stressed the threefold character of Mary’s virginity teaching of the ‘blessed ever-virginal and immaculate Mary’ that: ‘she conceived without seed, of the Holy Ghost, generated without injury (to her virginity), and her virginity continued unimpaired after the birth’ (D 256)” (203). In the pageant staged by the former pupils of Sister Mary Ignatius, Diane plays the Virgin Mary and recites the lines, “And I’m still a virgin / and he’s not the father.” (12). This particular teaching of the church has long been a source of ridicule. However, the sexless marriage of Mary and Joseph is official church teaching. Ott writes that based on readings of the Holy Scriptures, “up to a definite point in time the marriage was not consummated” (207) and he adds that “Among the Fathers many upheld the teaching of Mary’s virginity after the birth of Jesus” (207). The issue is further complicated by the marriage because “As Mary was living in lawful wedlock with Joseph, the latter was the legal father of Jesus. Luke 3, 23: “The son of Joseph, as it was supposed.” Cf. Luke 2,23. 48.” (Ott 204). Therefore, we have a child who is not his legal father’s child, born to a woman who insists that she is still a virgin and Durang capitalizes on the obvious humour of this story.
Sin is a central theme in the play. To categorize sins as venial or mortal is to use the old-style vocabulary of the Catholic Church. Sister Mary Ignatius tells her listeners that venial sins can be worked out in Purgatory, but “mortal sin, on the other hand, is the most serious kind of sin you can do – murder, sex outside of marriage, hijacking a plane, masturbation – and if you die with any of these sins on your soul, even just one, you will go straight to hell and burn for all of eternity” (5). Apparently, in the eyes of God, masturbation and murder deserve the same punishment which of course excites laughter due to the glaring inequity. The church does class masturbation as a grave sin but opinion is divided as to its classification as a mortal sin, however, many children in Catholic schools were advised it was, thus leading to the topic’s prominence. In terms of actual Church teaching on going to hell, Ott states that “The 2nd General Council of Lyons (1274) and the Council of Florence (1438-45) declared: the souls of those who die in original sin as well as those who die in actual mortal sin go immediately into Hell, but their punishment is very different. D464, 693” (113). The difference in the punishments is between being deprived of the company of God versus the eternal flames of hell. The playwright generates great humour by having Sister Mary Ignatius juxtapose wildly different acts which she classifies as all equally grave sins and thus all deserving of Hell fire! If the church’s gradation of sins becomes ridiculous then one’s natural instinct is to reject such a system, a perfectly reasonable reaction.
The age of reason.
Thomas, who is Sister Mary Ignatius’ star pupil, is already seven years of age and has therefore reached the “age of reason” (3) when “God will hold him responsible for his sins” (3). The age of reason is used here as defined by canon law, i.e., church law, but the phrase will also prompt a reader to think of the Age of Reason also known as the Enlightenment or possibly Thomas Paine’s book, The Age of Reason. The latter two refer to the importance of human reasoning and a move away from biblical revelations (the chief source of Catholic dogmas) and the historical move to separate church and state. While Sister Mary Ignatius is referring to the canon law definition, the other unavoidable meanings of ‘the age of reason’ serve to satirize her teaching. For instance, a child of seven in a Catholic school would be asked to take transubstantiation as a fact, based on faith, even though his/her logical mind and observations would find no reason to believe that bread and wine transformed into the body and blood of Christ. It is ironic that Thomas is most likely named after St. Thomas the Apostle, aka ‘doubting Thomas’ who disbelieved Christ’s resurrection until he saw the wounds.
Thomas is special chiefly because of his ability to learn by rote and then perfectly repeat Catholic catechism. We do not expect much critical thinking from a child, and this seems to make him the perfect Catholic. Durang repeatedly makes the observation that in Catholic schools, children at a very impressionable age are burdened with all the rules and regulations of the church even though they cannot possibly understand the lifelong implications. Thomas simply does his best to please his teacher and he is also motivated by the seemingly endless supply of cookies given for correct answers. The inability of a child to understand the world of adults is amusingly highlighted when Sister Mary Ignatius asks Thomas – “would you like to keep your pretty soprano voice forever?” (7) to which he naively replies, yes, and the nun says “well, we’ll see what we can do about it” (7). Sister Mary Ignatius previously referenced the castrati of church choirs which was a practice that persisted until the late 19th century and therefore we understand her thoughts even though the child does not. We also learn that people used to enter their religious vocations when they were little more than children, for example, Mary Jean Mahoney who “became a nun after graduating from 12th grade” (12). Durang’s comparison is a little crude but nonetheless amusing because a little boy who unknowingly agrees to his own castration is like the little girl who enters the convent (a life of celibacy) at an age when she cannot possibly understand such a commitment.
The playwright does not abandon the theme of immaturity and naivety but proceeds to expose Sister Mary Ignatius herself as somewhat gullible despite her hardened personality. For instance, when the former pupils arrive in full garb for a nativity play, she blurts out “Oh dear God” and immediately kneels until they explain that they are just former pupils, but she comments that they “look so real” (11). During the mock pageant, the camel says – the people must have “the faith of the dumb animals” (16) to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. While Durang’s intent is to portray believers in a derogatory manner, he is aiming especially at those in religious orders who hold steadfastly to some of the most incredible Catholic dogmas. The playwright undermines our estimation of Sister Mary Ignatius as an intelligent woman but this makes her position as a teaching nun more problematic. At the end of the play when Sister Mary Ignatius hands the gun to Thomas, it seems to metaphorically express the dilemma of the church investing huge power and authority in those ill equipped to wield it.
Unlike with Thomas the star pupil, Sister Mary Ignatius tells former pupil Diane Symonds – “You’re fresh as paint, and you’re nasty” (25). The character of Diane Symonds adds considerably to the complexity of Durang’s play. Diane once believed in Catholic teachings but she later rejected the church and turned to a psychiatrist for help. What Sister Mary Ignatius as a nun and the psychiatrist have in common is that both are generally accepted as authoritative figures who provide advice on how to live a fulfilling life. However, such figures, on account of their enormous influence, are often held responsible for not solving a person’s problems to an acceptable level. Indeed, the core message of Durang’s play seems to be that divesting oneself of total control over one’s own life by over-reliance on the church or psychiatry is a major error. While Diane makes valid points in her argument with Sister Mary Ignatius, the young woman’s desire to murder the nun subsequent to receiving a confession of fault, along with the previous murder of the psychiatrist, show that Diane cannot possibly be the voice of reason in the play. In this way, Durang extends the satire beyond an attack on the church to include the desire of a modern generation to find someone, anyone, to take the blame for a difficult life. This does not negate the damage done by Sister Mary Ignatius and the psychiatrist, but rather draws one’s attention to what is an appropriate solution.
The dilemma of who is responsible for the bad in life is first introduced by an audience question to Sister Mary Ignatius. The question is quite simple – “If God is all powerful, why does he allow evil in the world?” (5) but the nun quite tellingly skips the question. Obviously, this is a weighty philosophical question and one which cannot easily be answered in a short comedic play. Yet, Durang creates some mischief by making the nun silent on this core issue. In truth, the church and theologians have complex and detailed responses to this issue of God and evil. Richard Swinburne, in his book Providence and the Problem of Evil writes that “in our modern world, most theists need a theodicy, an account of reasons why God might allow evil to occur. Without a theodicy, evil counts against the existence of God” (2). This is precisely the issue for Diane Symonds whose mother died a painful death from breast cancer and Diane herself was a victim of rape and was later taken advantage of sexually by her psychiatrist leading to two abortions. As a result, Diane has stopped believing in God and treats Sister Mary Ignatius as a malignant fraud because life has been exceptionally cruel. Durang homes in on an interesting point here, namely that someone may too easily interpret the dreadful things that occur in life as being punishments from God because the church itself is obsessed with confession and punishment. This is a logical link considering the many rules and associated punishments to which the church subscribes. The Catholic church’s teachings may be compared to traditional cautionary tales. In 1907, Hilaire Belloc expressly wrote Cautionary Tales for Children to deride such a tradition of scaring children into becoming obedient subjects and one of his own tales has the self-explanatory and very amusing title of “Matilda, Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death” (21). Swinburne writes the following on this issue of presuming bad events are a punishment from God:
“One of the most frequent ways in which people express their protest against the world’s ills is by saying that what happens to them or to someone else is not ‘fair.’ Lying behind this remark is often the feeling that God would only be justified in causing some ill as a punishment for wrongdoing” (242).
The paradox is that to believe that God is punishing you is to believe that God exists in the first place. Diane seems to alternate between a belief that God directed/allowed the bad things to happen in her life and therefore God exists, and contradictorily, that the bad events prove that God does not exist. It is possible to look dispassionately at the bad things that happened to Diane and classify them under two separate headings. Firstly, her mother’s illness and subsequent death can be classed as natural evils which as Swinburne writes, “Natural evil thus includes all the trail of suffering which disease and accidents unpreventable by man bring in their train” (10). Then there is the crime of rape which Diane fell victim to, along with her seduction by her psychiatrist when she was in a vulnerable state and under his care. These actions of two separate men fall under the category of moral evil. Swinburne gives an extensive definition of moral evil as follows:
“I understand ‘moral evil’ as including all bad states caused deliberately by humans doing what they believe to be bad, and especially wrong (or allowed to occur by humans negligently failing to do what they believe to be good, and especially what they believe to be obligatory) and also the bad states constituted by such deliberate actions or negligent failure” (10).
As Diane felt that her mother was allowed to suffer unnecessarily by Catholic medics then there is an element of presumed moral evil in such medical practices which the church condones. The gap between secular and Christian beliefs on this point is huge. In terms of church teaching, there are clear theological arguments as to why such suffering is allowed by an all-powerful God. Firstly, in regard to moral evils, Swinburne quotes the “traditional free-will defence” (17) as follows:
“This claims that many of the bad states which God allows to occur are ones which humans freely choose to inflict on each other, that it is a good thing that humans have such freedom, and the bad states—e.g., the pains and other sufferings which humans inflict on each other—are the price which is paid for that freedom” (17).
This explanation, satisfactory or otherwise, does seem to cover the actions of Diane’s rapist and her psychiatrist. On the other hand, the issue of natural evil is more difficult to explain to the satisfaction of an atheist or even a believer. Durang references The Book of Job in the play which is one of the most famous biblical examples of a man being allowed to suffer excessively by God. There is a very extensive and complex theological argument explaining why God allows natural evils and part of that argument is that no human suffering is eternal as death always ends a person’s suffering (true, but not very consoling) and a second point is that God often allows evils to occur for the sake of some greater good. Swinburne makes a point which concurs with Catholic teaching and answers the key question posed by Diane in the play – why does God allow evil in the world? Swinburne writes that:
“Humans only have a really good character if it is the sort of character which responds readily to suffering (in others and in oneself) in the right way. Natural evil provides the opportunity not merely to be heroic, but to make ourselves naturally heroic” (Swinburne 175).
Given the length of the above explanation, one can appreciate why Sister Mary Ignatius cleverly skips the question about God and evil. The information required to adequately answer Diane’s question is far from simple. In light of the answer to such a difficult question based on Swinburne’s writings, one can see that the church has a long established and robust defence. In the play, Diane is making the regressive step of trying to allocate blame to a flawed representative of a God that she probably no longer genuinely believes in. Therefore, Durang is signalling that this is a negative and ultimately dead-end road.
This essay began with a definition of satire in general and then more specifically, of religious satire. Durang deceptively appears to aim his satire at the church merely to evoke laughter but as has been shown, he references key issues/problems within the church. One could argue that Durang sought to reform the Catholic church indirectly by means of influencing its congregation. However, there is no need to complicate assumptions about Durang’s aim when it seems clear that lingering Catholics and indeed ex-Catholics like himself are the true target audiences of the play. Durang utilizes multiple routes of attack on the church: from exposing the fantastical nature of dogma as well as its dramatic consequences when applied to real-life situations, along with discrediting those who spread the word, like Sister Mary Ignatius. The reform or remedy that Durang brings is simply that of laughter. He shows that the church teachings are often ridiculous and unworkable and this derision robs such teachings of their power and facilitates doubting or even ex-Catholics to finally unhook themselves mentally from such teachings. Though this appears incredibly simple, the fracturing of the bonds of faith established through childhood indoctrination is anything but. As the church claims lifelong jurisdiction over all baptized persons, it is necessary for an individual to exercise free will and move away from an unmovable force, reminding one again of Mohammed and the mountain. The mammoth influence of the Catholic church will always loom on the psychological horizon of lapsed Catholics but to return to the church, even to accuse it, is a diminishment of the independent individual.
Durang criticizes psychiatry by making Diane’s psychiatrist comparable to Sister Mary Ignatius. The therapy that Diane receives reveals her obsession with her former teacher. We are familiar with the common therapeutic advice of facing one’s fears, of confronting one’s past, and such healing techniques require figurative and sometimes literal actions. Durang, who spoke in interviews of receiving therapy himself is not critiquing psychiatry or psychology per se. The crux of Diane’s problem is the abdication of too much personal power, of replacing a morally rigid nun with an alternative authority figure, a psychiatrist, but still ultimately seeking approval of some sort. Diane Symonds’ chief goal is to get Sister Mary Ignatius to take full responsibility for Diane’s own ill preparedness for the tribulations of life. Diane says to the nun – “I want you to admit that everything’s your fault, and then I’m going to kill you” (30). For Sister Mary Ignatius to make such a confession of guilt would contradict church teaching on theodicy and also run counter to her own steadfast beliefs. Durang’s satire relies upon the church’s own belief that it is always right and therefore anyone seeking an admission of fault from such an institution is foolhardy. In the end, Durang comedically depicts a gun-toting nun who dispatches an obstreperous former pupil before taking a nap. If any of us is to avoid being eternally and unfavourably compared to Mary Jean Mahoney, or Thomas, then we need, simply, to take control of our own lives. Maybe the best summation of Durang’s play comes in the following advice taken from the bible – “And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet” (Matthew 10:14).
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed., Heinle & Heinle, 1999.
Belloc, Hilaire. Cautionary Tales for Children. The Camelot Press Limited, 1907.
Durang, Christopher. Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, The Actor’s Nightmare. Nelson Doubleday, 1981.
Lawson, Carol. “Durang Explains It All For You-Satirically.” The New York Times, 8 December 1981, p. C7.
Lindvall, Terry. God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert. New York University Press, 2015.
Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Translated by Patrick Lynch, Tan Books and Publishers, 1974.
Swinburne, Richard. Providence and the Problem of Evil. Clarendon Press, 1998.