Probably the most outrageous show at this year’s Summerworks Festival is The Ecstasy of Mother Teresa, Or Agnes Bojaxhiu Superstar, by Toronto’s Ecce Homo Theatre. Ecce Homo is the very queer theatre company that brought us last year’s Summerworks smash hit The Pastor Phelps Project.
The Ecstasy of Mother Teresa has nudity, comedy, sumptuous costumes and stage design, a dancing leper choir, satire about religion, oppression, and sexuality. But I spoke to playwright Alistair Newton about why queers should be interested in the play.
Rob Salerno: You’ve described this trilogy as a series of works profiling 20th-century figures that live in a world without irony. Is there something particularly queer about irony? Why is irony important to you?
Alistair Newton: Irony is the great consolation of oppressed/repressed people, it’s the trump card that allows one to resist credulity, expose frauds, and see through the false claims of demagogues who refuse to examine themselves. I think irony is extensively queer and history is replete with queers who have wielded irony as a sledgehammer to smash the trumped up, the narrow-minded, and the self-important. Someone once said “Irony is the revenge of slaves” and I whole heartedly agree. Irony is the progenitor of camp which is something I simply couldn’t live without.
RS: I think a lot of people would be taken aback by the apparent comparison of Mother Teresa to the subjects of your previous plays, Fred Phelps and Leni Riefenstahl. Do you think “Mother T” is as deserving of scorn as those two?
AN: Yes I do: she’s sort of the opposite end of the fundamentalist spectrum from the Calvinist hellfire of the Westboro Baptists. Anyone can look at Pastor Fred and see a frothing religious maniac, but I would argue that Mother T is the most beloved woman in history so the question becomes much more difficult when you realize that most of her Catholic dogma was equally extreme. The key link between the three figures is a near-total lack of irony about themselves. Fred was a hero for black civil rights and a hideous homophobic lunatic, and Leni Riefenstahl used her genius as a filmmaker to prop up the Third Reich while saying things like “If I had been Russian, I would have made films for Stalin.”
I do have to point out (as it’s been misrepresented in a couple of reviews) that the piece is meant as a dialectic between the flawed, doubting, human woman Agnes Bojaxhiu (Mother T’s given name) and the strident, zealot Mother Teresa. My aim is far higher than simply shitting on Mother T (though that’s in there too…). The mind bending irony of a woman who could express such extreme private doubts about the teaching of her religion and travel the world in the name of those very teachings trying to have divorce made illegal and equating contraception and abortion with murder is fascinating to me. I’m also interested in the political consequences of Mother T’s preaching; it’s naturally unsurprising that a Catholic fundamentalist would rail against abortion but I’m interested in the political ramifications of such statements. Also, when Mother T says that suffering is good for mankind she’s towing the Vatican party line – that much is obvious – but what is the end result of that kind of preaching in her work as a Missionary in third world countries?
RS: Since the majority of the text of the show is found writing – works spoken or written by the actual historical characters in the play – what’s your research process like? How did you find all of this material about Mother Teresa?
AN: Extensive! Each time I write a show using this method (a drama professor from U of T called it “Archival Theatre,” which I’ve appropriated with her blessing) there is a shelf of books to go along with it. The cabaret form is such a jigsaw puzzle that every scene must be very carefully chosen and an equal amount of care and thought must be put into how each scene works together to construct a thesis; it’s as much about juxtaposing images and text as it is about building a central thesis.
The original impetus for the piece came from a book by Christopher Hitchens called The Missionary Position but I read seven different biographies raging from the 2×4 polemic, to the groveling hagiography, to rare attempts at actually being fare and balanced. I also consulted books on the history of Saint-making and general Catholic history. The testimonials that make up the beginning scene of the show are drawn from many sources and represent people from all over the world and from every station in life. All of the text spoken by Agnes in the play is taken from Mother T’s actual private journals which were published after her death and reveal her crisis of faith.
RS: Even though the show has a strong argument running through it, it’s also hilarious and at times emotionally challenging. How do you balance the “essay” aspects of the show with its more theatrical components?
AN: My maxim in these cases is to always balance politics with entertainment…with an ever-so-slight edge to the latter. I feel that the method of presentation is just as important as the content being expressed. Every element of the show from the music, to the production design, to the staging and choreography has to do many jobs at once: I hold myself and my team to a very high standard of conceptual rigor so every choice has been considered and every image meticulously constructed (it may seem otherwise — what with all the song and dance — but I promise I don’t believe in spectacle for spectacle sake. Whenever I’m accused of this I always laugh because I know the insanely spectacular things I cut out of the show. So I suppose the way I seek to achieve balance to be certain that the theatrics are always pulling double or triple duty; always entertaining and always furthering the argument.