Wednesday night in Oxford, England, Leonie Caldecott watched her play, The Quality of Mercy, debut on stage (all while working the sound!), as part of England’s sharing in Pope John Paul II’s beatification celebration.
Yes, they found some oxygen there for something other than the royal nuptials!
Caldecott’s play finds young Brits in Rome in 2005, as Pope John Paul II is nearing the end of his earthly stay. The script explains: “The Quality of Mercy draws on the principal themes that concerned this most pastoral of popes: the meaning of our humanity, the nature of freedom, and the universal search for unconditional love.” I talked to Leonie — she and her husband, by the way, edit the beautiful Second Spring, as well as the British version of the blessed monthly Catholic magazine Magnificat — about the play shortly after dress rehearsal.
Lopez: How did you come to write and get The Quality of Mercy on stage?
Caldecott: I wanted to write a play about the Emmaus experience, and was working with a very talented group of kids from my parish, the Oxford Oratory, and our parish priest, who is very keen on drama, around this theme. Then JPII started to feature in the play, partly because I was listening to a CD of music by a talented young British composer, Benedict Nichols, around the English-speaking addresses of JPII, and it inspired me to put him at the centre of the play. I was going to take longer to write it, but then the Holy Father announced his beatification — so we had to get our skates on.
Lopez: What’s at the heart of the play?
Caldecott: The charism of JPII. I have always been fascinated by accounts of his long hikes in the mountains with young people, and I found myself asking, what would Father Wojtyla say to a group of young people from Britain with all the problems and conundrums that face them at the beginning of this new millennium? How would his charism manifest itself to them?
Lopez: How does the play make clear the meaning of our humanity?
Caldecott: I guess partly from the actual demeanor of the Wojtyla character, who presents himself simply as “Charlie” and offers to guide the young people through the Abruzzi mountains to a shrine called Manoppello. In his interactions with the six pilgrims, he encourages them to live their humanity to the full, in the light of Christ. Most of all he gets them to see the full dignity of their humanity, and the importance of according that dignity to others.
Lopez: Freedom is a big theme in your play. It’s important, isn’t it, to see John Paul II’s connection to freedom as more than an issue of the Cold War and nations?
Caldecott: Yes. We have to be free to respond to God’s call to each of us, we have to be free to love one another in a Christ-like way. To develop the fullness of the identity Christ gives us. That in fact is the foundation for healthy political change — the rolling back of the Cold War in Europe will not actually benefit the former Iron Curtain countries unless they have a moral core, and this can’t be manufactured artificially, in isolation from well-functioning individuals and families and local communities. . .
Lopez: Can one play really capture the universal search for unconditional love? Can one pope embody it?
Caldecott: Of course not (to the former)! But I have tried to give six examples of the search, each with his own strengths and vulnerabilities. One pope may not embody it, but a pope can certainly contribute massively to it, if he has the quality of humanity that JPII had. And a second pope can complement that, as Pope Benedict is doing. Deus Caritas Est is a stunning document in this connection: Utterly Benedict’s, and yet to some extent the fruit of the collaboration between him and his predecessor. We are so, so lucky to have had two such men in recent pontificates, back to back.
Lopez: Is mercy key to understanding John Paul II?
Caldecott: Yes, it is at the heart of his pontificate. George Weigel described Dives in Misericordia as expressing the pastoral heart of JPII — and this is the foundation of the play. I am convinced that document is the key to solving all the moral and social problems we are facing now — which is why I put the theme of mercy at the heart of the play. which ends in the early hours of Divine Mercy Sunday in 2005, just after Pope John Paul died.
Lopez: Besides John Paul II, are the cast of characters in your play real people?
Caldecott: No, they are fictional characters. I have used situations I have known about, to some extent, but I have changed a lot as well, letting the characters have a life of their own. I did start out with some concerns I wanted to address, such as the Theology of the Body, but in the end, if the characters are to carry conviction, they have to be more than ciphers for a “problem” or “issue”: They have to live and breathe in their uniqueness and complexity as believable characters.
Lopez: How do you fund something like this?
Caldecott: On a wing and a prayer. We are still fundraising for this production, and though we have had an initial donation, we still need to raise more, as ticket sales won’t cover even the minimal budget we are functioning on. However, it was important to get the project off the ground at this time, to celebrate the Beatification well, so we have had to trust that God will make up our deficit, if we carry out our task with good will and to the highest standard that we can.
Lopez: Are you a JPII worshipper? Is that why you have this play and are not worried his canonization was rushed?
Caldecott: I am a worshipper of Jesus Christ — as he was. He was a better and worthier and greater worshipper than I could ever be, and this is why he inspires me. Pope Benedict XVI is no fool, and if he has hastened this Beatification, I trust his judgment. He has his reasons — I have a sense of what some of those might be — but overall, the Church needs this particular Beatus now: You could say that he is a modern patron saint for Hope against the forces of darkness. If you read Msgr. Oder’s book (he is the postulator) it is clear that while things have been undertaken at a smart pace, the process has been every bit as thorough as it should be.
Lopez: This isn’t meant to be a one-hit-wonder: You hope to do many more plays, establishing a bit of a theatrical apostolate in Oxford. What are your plans? Who are you working with? Who do you hope to work with?
Caldecott: We have established a little company (Divine Comedy Productions) attached to the Oxford Oratory. This is our second production (the first marked the visit of the relics of St. Therese to our church in 2009). It is staged this time at the Catholic Chaplaincy in Oxford, with kind permission and encouragement from the Jesuit fathers and others at the chaplaincy. It is my hope that this work will continue to grow and flourish: There are a number of very bright and talented young people involved, some of whom will go on to write their own material and direct it. This production, and the last one, were directed by my eldest daughter Tessa, who is a theology graduate with a particular interest in theater
Lopez: Do you know of anything like it?
Caldecott: There are some other interesting theatrical initiatives, both in the U.K. and in the U.S. and elsewhere, working along similar lines or in related ways. I am thinking for example of Fr. Peter John Cameron’s work in New York, and something called the Bard School in London. But no one so far as I know is doing something of exactly this nature to highlight the significance of the Beatification.
Lopez: What’s so special about theater?
Caldecott: It is in many ways the Queen of the Arts. It combines the other arts — especially when you add music and dance. Also it is an incarnational art, in that you sit in a real room with real people playing in real time. In his Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul makes many references to this medium that he himself loved to work with when he was young.
Lopez: How much is this theatrical work inspired by Karol Wojtyla’s own young life in the theater?
Caldecott: Quite a bit. I have not read everything that he wrote yet, but what I have seen, and what I know of the “Rhapsodic Theatre” fascinates me. I am passionately interested in a theatre that presents the “interior” picture as well as the exterior one, that takes the inner life of the soul seriously, that takes salvation history seriously as a template that is still alive and relevant today. Obviously the cultural conditions under which I am writing are very different from Wojtyla’s in the ’40s and ’50s in Poland. But I believe one can adapt the fundamental premises for these conditions. Or at least, it’s a worthwhile experiment to undertake!
Lopez: Is there a future for The Quality of Mercy beyond this weekend?
Caldecott: I hope so!
Lopez: You’re quite active for a woman in the Catholic Church. Maureen Dowd, among others, might be surprised. And yet quite orthodox. Does that catch people off guard, as odd? Does it have anything to do with the legacy of John Paul II?
Caldecott: I try not to think about how I impact on people — it would stifle the creativity and the spontaneity, which is crucial to what I do. But yes, I do feel the desire to give expression to faith, to communicate, is a very “new feminist” thing. In theatre especially you are involved in nurturing other people’s talents and potential, as much as expressing your own vision. I feel pretty maternal about this cast in particular, having worked with them for a few years, and being in awe of their commitment and spirit.
Lopez: Have there been any lasting, concrete results from the papal visit to your part of the world last year?
Caldecott: I would say yes. He made a wonderful impression, which has lasted and which has helped a fairly anti-religious culture take the Catholic Church more seriously. But it’s interesting: He is not a communicator in the style of his predecessor. Yet he has the same sense of the importance of “presence” in creating the conditions for an interesting dialogue with the culture. In his quiet way, he has the same open, spontaneous, and sincere spirit that his Polish forerunner had. They have very complementary charisms, as men and as pontiffs. And again: If the quiet, thoughtful German pope is hastening to raise his brother to the altars, he has a very good reason. It was the least we could do to try, in our own country, to contribute to a knowledge of the interior man, Wojtyla, insofar as we had the human resources to do so. It is the interior man who is being beatified, not because he was a pope, but because in every fiber of his being he was — and still is! — a man of God.
The Quality of Mercy continues to play at the Catholic Chaplaincy, Rose Place, Oxford on the 28th and 29th of April at 8 P.M. Details on secondspring.co.uk.