Jane Clark Scharl’s one-act play Sonnez les Matines has just been published by Wiseblood Books. It is with some trepidation that I venture to say anything about drama. I don’t know that I’ve ever studied drama properly. What I mean is that I’ve always studied it as literature. Judging by the paucity of drama I’ve engaged with in the eleven years of post-secondary literary education I’ve received, there would seem to be something like a consensus that drama isn’t exactly literature. The question of where drama fits into the scheme of the arts is even more complicated in the age of film and television (and perhaps I should add role-playing games).
Back in October, I was in Dallas for the Catholic Imagination Conference, where I attended a performance of a staged reading of Heroes of the Fourth Turning, the much discussed 2019 play by Will Arbery. In a staged reading of a play, each character’s lines are read (theatrically) by a different actor and the stage directions are read by a narrator. That word, narrator, is key. This way of presenting drama is the closest one can get, short of reading it privately, to experiencing drama as fiction, the genre which is defined by the presence of a narrator. (And note that reading stage directions as if they were narration is distinct from players who can address the audience or who are self-conscious as characters in a drama.) I enjoyed the play and the way it was presented, which was the first time I’ve attended a staged reading.
But something odd occurred to me watching Heroes of the Fourth Turning, and again while reading Scharl’s play: I felt like I was reading a dialogue. That is to say that had there been scenery and props on stage and the characters moved about, I’m not sure what it would have added to the piece. This is not a criticism of either play. I’m trying to get at the strange nature of the closet drama. To be clear: Scharl’s play, like Arbery’s or any closet drama, does not have to be a closet drama: you could perfectly well act it out, build scenery and props. I’m glad when the fullest realization of such dramas happens. Still, I think these sorts of plays are closet dramas at heart, and that’s good. But why? What does the closet drama uniquely have to offer?
I think of the closet drama as occupying one end of a theatrical spectrum. At this end, drama feels like a philosophical dialogue. It is more potent than a straight dialogue because the playwright has at her disposal extradiegetic resources, and the characters are vividly individual—the more so if, as with Scharl’s play, they are historical figures. At the other end of the spectrum are the mystery and morality plays of the medieval period. I have read many of these, mainly in English and Spanish, and while I appreciate the language of some of them, it is almost painful to read them because one gets such a strong sense of the missing audience of burghers and peasants such performances were meant to entertain and edify. It’s a bit like reading a TV screenplay. And in the middle of my spectrum there is, say, Shakespeare, our typical idea of drama, in which one might admire the language but the action must be significant.
We don’t have morality and mystery and miracle plays anymore—though one could argue something of their essence has gone into certain genres of so-called genre fiction, particularly fantasy and mystery. And the drama in the middle—Shakespeare & Co.—we don’t have anymore because we have film and television, which we might admire for the spoken lines, but must admire for its presentation of the action (including, of course, the comportment of the actors as they speak their lines—speech also is action) if we are to admire it at all.
But the closet drama we still have, and it’s a good thing, because I think it may be the best form in which to contain philosophical dialogue. The novel may contain philosophical dialogue, too, and one which does may be called a ‘novel of ideas.’ But in a novel there is a huge amount of forward momentum and a vast quantity of world in the backdrop, both of which impinge upon dialogue. Dialogue in a novel must serve the total story first, the characters only second, and the ideas last of all. There are no such constraints in a closet drama.
Scharl’s Sonnez les Matines retains something of the symbolic aura of mystery plays by dint of its calendrical setting: the eve of Ash Wednesday, otherwise known as Mardi Gras. Such a moment suggests the paradoxical relation between body and spirit, and the historical setting of the play in the 1520s augments that suggestion if we think of the Reformation as a great recalculation of body’s relation to spirit. There are three characters, young men whose names I trust are known to all: François Rabelais, Ignatius Loyola, and Jean Cauvin (Calvin).
There is something of the old morality play in the way each man reacts to the dramatic situation, which is the discovery of a murdered prostitute. It transpires that each man in different ways had some connection with the woman, Manon. And each, in his reaction to this stark reminder of the nature of embodiment, reveals a basic disposition, as they argue through the night over what to do about their discovery. You could say each is spokesman for a literary mode: Cauvin for tragedy, Loyola for heroic epic or romance, and Rabelais for comedy.
Does a dialogue have a winner? If it does, who has won this dialogue by the time the bells of matins ring in Paris? It was not my impression that this drama was trying to balance the three voices equally. Each comes into its own, but Rabelais gets the first word as well as the last. And poetically, it is he who attains to virtuosity. Each man speaks in his own verse form. Rabelais’s is the couplet. This is an excellent form for his bawdy jesting, but in modern English the closeness of rhymes in couplets makes it very difficult for the form to divest itself of humor and irony. Yet if Rabelais’s comedic—which means, among other things, earthy—vision is to prevail, it must do so within the form associated with him and not by adopting another verse form.
I would say Rabelais wins, and the fact that he does so is the preeminent achievement of the drama—an achievement which would not have been possible without the technique of matching each character to a prosody and picking the right prosody—especially for Rabelais. At the end, his verse ascends to a higher register and attains to profounder thought than either of the other characters has voiced, without losing its wit and its playfulness. I believe he is able to do this because he alone of these three, at the youthful moment of their lives that the play reveals, not only understands but truly believes that all creation, from the muck to the firmament, is a theater for God’s glory.
Jonathan Geltner lives in Ann Arbor MI with his wife and two sons. His translation of Paul Claudel’s Five Great Odes is available from Angelico Press and a novel, Absolute Music, is available from Slant. If you enjoy his posts at Close Reading, check out his new Substack, Romance and Apocalypse, for more frequent and in-depth essays on the places where literature and other arts meet religious ideas and experience.