'Glory Of The World' Is More Wacky Birthday Party Than Traditional Play
The Glory of the World is a new play that celebrates author and Catholic monk Thomas Merton — but it isn't really about Merton. "Everybody is far more complicated than that one simple line about being a great mystic, a great Buddhist, a great activist, whatever," says playwright Charles Mee. And that's exactly what Mee's characters discuss.
The play is directed by Les Waters of the Actor's Theatre in Louisville, Ky., near where Merton lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Every morning on his walk to work, Waters says, "I passed this plaque that says, 'On this site, Thomas Merton had a spiritual revelation.' And it was an extraordinary thing to see on a plaque."
He got curious, started reading about Merton and got in touch with Charles Mee to see if he might want to do something for the monk's 100th birthday in 2015. Mee grew up in a Catholic home with all of Merton's books on the shelves, and nuns and priests in the family. He said yes, but with a caveat.
"I said, 'Well, you know, Les, I'm an ex-Catholic so I couldn't write anything nice about him,' " Mee recalls. " 'And probably what I would do would get you thrown out of Louisville.' And Les said, 'That's OK.' "
What the pair came up with is less a traditional play than kind of a wacky birthday party for Merton. It features 17 actors, all men, and Merton never actually appears. Louisville Courier-Journalcritic Elizabeth Kramer reviewed the play and says at times the action resembles the film comedy Animal House.
"There's crazy parts where men start dancing a slow dance and then they kiss each other and make out," she says. "And then, later on, there's this huge fight, where ... one man brings out his fist, another brings out his knife, another comes onstage with a chainsaw."
But these raucous moments are bracketed by silence — a lot of it. At the beginning and end of the play, an actor sits onstage without speaking as his thoughts are projected on a screen. In Louisville, director Les Waters played that role.
"You can feel waves going in the house behind you," Waters says, "waves of indignation, waves of tension, waves of people thinking, 'What is going on?' "
But critic Elizabeth Kramer says when that silence returns at the end of the play, the audience's perceptions have shifted.
"It gave the middle of the play a stronger sense of itself; of the argumentation that takes place, of the passions that people have about this man, Merton, and how they define him," she says. "And it also gives you, as an audience member, just some time to reflect on your own as you're sitting in silence, but still drinking in what is happening on the stage as this one man sits in silence."
Playgoer and former Episcopal monk Roy Cockrum agrees. Before becoming a monk, Cockrum spent 20 years as a professional actor and stage manager.
"I understood it; I understood what it meant," he says. "It made sense to me. I was known as Brother Roy for a number of years and wore a black habit and traveled all over the world doing spiritual retreats and silent retreats."
Cockrum saw The Glory of the World when it premiered at the Louisville Humana Festival last year. "And when the houselights started coming up after the curtain call," he recalls, "I leaned over to my friend that I was sitting with and I said, 'If ever I'm going to be a commercial producer, this is going to be it.' "
Cockrum wasn't just daydreaming. In 2014, he won the $259 million Powerball lottery and set up a foundation to create and support new theater works. He used some of that money to bring the entire Louisville production — actors and sets — to New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music, where he hopes audiences will respond to the contradictions, chaos and silence in Mee's play.
Cockrum says, "It's that complex diversity of the human condition that is, in fact, the glory of the world."
The play opens Saturday in New York.
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