How I walked into a dream and may have found a new way of life.
|What I Did on My Summer Vacation
Steven John Bosch
What did I do this summer? I handed a saint over to her mortal enemies to be
burned at the stake, eight consecutive times and on Memorial Day weekend too.
I was Brother Jean LeMaitré, O.P., (as depicted in the play St. Joan by George
Bernard Shaw) deputy to the Chief Inquisitor of the Holy Office, investigating heresy in France in the year 1431, I have come to the special court called in the city of Rouen by the Right Reverend Monsignor Gauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais, to try a 19 year old illiterate farm girl from an obscure village on heresy. If found guilty, and I mean to see that she is found guilty, she will be excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church and handed over for immediate execution to a squad of English soldiers from the army of 800 English soldiers commanded by the Earl of Warwick, who hold the city and de- mands her execution.
This is a very unusual girl, she has raised an army that has taken half of what is
only recently been called France away from the English who had been holding it for
decades. She has seen the indecisive Dauphan crowned King of France, and was cap- tured in the forest of Compiegne while on a military campaign to take Paris from the English and re-establish the French throne.
The English argue that she must be a witch for only diabolical influence can ex-
plain how a teenager could lead a demoralized army and defeat professional English soldiers.
She insists that she is advised by God through the Saints Margaret, Catherine
and the Archangel Michael. And when asked where her authority comes from, she answers it comes from her own conscience as instructed by the Church and directed by God, which she must accept as final, even over the Church’s admonitions that she has been beguiled by devils.
It is my job as inquisitor to change her mind. If she repents, she will be locked
away in a dungeon for the rest of her natural life. If she doesn’t confess then she must be burned alive in the square. And I am a good man in this story.
We are all good men: the judges, the advocates, the Bishop who convened the
court under the watchful eye of the English commander who wants this girl dead. Except for him, the Earl of Warwick, who fears neither God nor man, all of us court officers and advocates (all for one side, Joan has no one to speak for her except a Dominican friar who pleads with her to confess and accept the sentence of life imprisonment) tell ourselves and each other that we do not want to see this admittedly pious, if plainly wrong-headed girl, made to suffer, let alone die in such a terrible way. It is really terrible what happens to people who just doesn’t understand how life is lived in the real world, isn’t it?
Could the law now be forced to serve political expediency? The Inquisitor is simi-
lar to a judge and an expert in canon law regarding heresy and he is supposed to be a disinterested examiner. But Brother Jean is anything but disinterested. He sees that the indictment, compiled after a number of pre-trial examinations contains over 64 counts, which include, “dancing around fairy trees and praying at magic wells with the village children, and allegedly, stealing the Bishop of Bouvaix’s horse.” He patiently explains to the court that these charges are incompatible with a charge of heresy and might even result in the Maid’s acquittal. In a move that the Bush administration might envy, the judge amends the indictment: charging her with heresy as evidenced by her stubborn refusal to insist that her voices come from the devil and her insistence on wearing men’s
Yes, this play is as applicable today as when it was first produced in England. It is
an age-old story, and we are well reminded of the issues these characters are engaged with.
But let us get back to me and the people who spent several evenings and af-
ternoons in a rented performance space on the West Side of Manhattan doing their best to convince an audience that we were, at different times, courtiers, knight commanders and assorted mistresses, wives and mothers to the Dauphin during the Hundred Years War, soldiers in a field outside the City of Orleans, and in an ecclesiastical court in an occupied French city, Seems unreal: like a dream, doesn’t it? It felt surreal sometimes; sometimes if felt like a nightmare, other times like an ecstatic dream where you do things you never thought you could do.
I got into it like you do in a dream, someone comes up to you and makes an
astonishing suggestion. Sometime ago I joined a writing group in Great Neck Long Is-land. One of the members is a veteran producer-director of community theatre. He told me he was staging a play consisting of three acts from three separate plays about Joan of Arc and he was still looking for someone to play the Inquisitor from Shaw’s St. Joan. He had heard me read other writer’s work and thought I was pretty good. He asked me to attend auditions at a rehearsal studio in Manhattan.
I was hooked before I walked into the building. I have gone to the theatre
whenever I can, even If I wind up going by myself. People I’ve met at the Friday night meetings in New York probably remember me talking and talking to them about some film or play that moved me and I had to tell them every blessed thing about it. (If you now reading this are one of those patient souls, my thanks and apologies for keeping your so very long.)
We were a lean production; we had about 40 hours of rehearsal (an acting
company preparing to present Shaw or one of the other master playwrights on Broadway or regional theatre would have spent at least a month on rehearsal), Our costumes were largely improvised from what we could find and purchase from sidewalk vendors downtown.
Regarding training that would help me prepare for this role, I had none - zilch-
and the Inquisitor is on stage for nearly an hour, exhorting the other court officers, interrogating St. Joan, reading off the order of excommunication, and staying through the execution, not the first time he has done this, by any means, knowing that Joan is innocent but ignorant, and, as he says near the end of the play, “it is the ignorant who suffer.”
My greatest help in understanding something of my character the Inquisitor,
came from the Holy Thursday liturgy that was still with me when I first read the script. The Inquisitor, like Peter, would not have allowed our Lord to wash his feet before the Last Supper. God must be God if creation is real. There has to be order, a clear struc- ture and a complete acceptance of each person’s proper place.
The Inquisitor doesn’t see Joan as God’s rebuke to the men and systems that
have killed thousands of Englishmen and Frenchmen while a few scrambled for power.
For him, Joan condemns herself “every time she opens her mouth” by insisting that her voices are real when those in proper authority tell her they cannot be.
He cites the heresies that had caused damage to the Church and suffering for
many of its people. But he doesn’t remember the passage in the Gospel’s where Jesus tells his disciples, “you will know them by their fruit.” Under Joan’s leadership the French soldiers have not only become a fighting force, they attend mass and go to confession before battle. They give up drinking and whoring and press on to end the war.
My performance, was pretty good considering that I was supported completely
by a cast of wonderful professionals who gave me, the rankest of rank amateurs, nothing but encouragement.
Our director, realizing it was too late to get anyone else and probably thinking
he had to sink or swim with me or lose the production, worked with me. This means he desperately tried to teach me how to look and act like a human being on stage. He told me not to flail my hands around when I stand up in court to address the Presenter (the Prosecutor) and the observer from the Bishop of Winchester. Instead, hook your thumbs under your belt. Use your hands only when you have to make specific points. Like when the Inquisitor says, “ . . . A young man who obeys the command of our Lord and gives all his riches to the poor and puts on the garb of poverty, the life of austerity and the rule of humility and charity, may be the founder of a heresy that will wreck both Church and Empire if not stamped out (Slap hands together) ruthlessly (emphasis) in time.”*
In rehearsal I went from panic, to elation, and back to panic throughout, and
through some of the performances. It was only when, as the actor Bill Irwin put it, “I got over myself” did I learn enough to do the scene, which allowed everyone else to do their parts too. Our leading lady gave me additional motivation when she promised to run me through with the Earl of Warwick’s sword if I screwed up the climax of the play.
The author, George Bernard Shaw, helps the actor by working your charac-
ter’s emotions and motivations into the play’s dialogue. It is evidence of his brilliance as a dramatist that the characters never sound pedantic. The ideas drive the play’s action. The problem is that Shaw likes his characters to argue and counter-argue a lot. This means the actor has a lot of dialogue to learn. It all fits together, it advances all the way up through the action, but there is just a whole lot of it, especially for an inexperienced actor, to learn in a short time.
Here is where the producer who knows who he is dealing with solves the prob-
lem by finding a dramaturge to make surgical cuts in the scene without losing the spirit of the play. He also offered to cut the speeches further if I still have trouble learning all the lines.
This is another important point: the sweat I have put into the play and those
precious moments when I was actually doing it right were very important to me. It was the first time in some time that I felt I could actually do something right. I wouldn’t let go of this chance. I tried it again, and again until the blessed sentence came from the direc- tor’s mouth, “Keep doing what you are doing, it works.”
(Thank you, Lord! Thank you, Lord! Thank you, Lord!)
So where do I go now? I have my acting school registration card. I’ve com-
pleted my first class in acting technique. I have a lot to learn. I am encouraged when I find out that many of my favorites used acting coaches and classes far into their careers.
Maybe someone like me, who wants to make himself useful with the strengths
and weaknesses, might use them to help men understand thAnd wasn’t Jesus Himself a story teller. Did He act a little to get his point over when he told the story of the Good Samaritan? We know He didn’t fake those tears He shed at Lazarus’s tomb before he called him forth back into life.
Maybe I’m finding a call into the next part of my life?
*St. Joan Scene VI.
Bosch- What I did on my Summer Vacation