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Guare the Obscure


At the end of “Chaucer in Rome,” John Guare’s latest play that opened earlier this month Off-Broadway, my friend turned to me and said: “He gets more obscure with every play.” Then he commented on the one thing that may be the only obvious element in this nearly two-hour dark comedy: “He sure does have Catholic issues.”

For those who know Guare’s work, which includes “The House of Blue Leaves” and “Six Degrees of Separation,” obscurity is a given, and “Catholic issues” are a good bet. The challenge is trying to wade through the obscurity to understand what the playwright is saying about those Catholic issues. Or one can just accept that in a Guare play, we may never know.

Set in Rome during last year’s Holy Year, “Chaucer in Rome” centers around Matt, his girlfriend Sarah, and Pete, all American fellows at the American Academy there. (In real life the playwright’s wife, Adele Chatfield-Taylor, is president of this institution.) Along with a swirl of fanatic pilgrims who have come in this Jubilee Year seeking forgiveness, also in Rome are a Vatican priest, Fr. Shapiro, whose mother was Irish Catholic and father Jewish, and Pete’s parents who arrive from Queens, N.Y., having won the trip in a church raffle.

Matt, an artist, Sarah, a curator, and Pete, an academic studying the fingernails of the crucified Christ in Italian art, have no interest in religion other than finding it amusing. The pilgrims are at the other extreme: They come off as lunatics, desperately trying to visit four basilicas so they can say a few prayers and be forgiven for all their sins, which include murder, prostitution and other biggies. Fr. Shapiro, rattled from dealing with the 45 million pilgrims who have descended on Rome within the first seven months of the year, is delighted to find the unbelieving threesome. “It’s so refreshing to meet people who don’t give a rat’s ass about the Holy Year,” he tells them.

Matt has learned that a growth removed from his body is not melanoma, but if he is to avoid cancer in the future, he must give up the paints he has been using. He has been mixing toxins like carbon monoxide and asbestos into his paints to create toxic paintings. Saying these are the only paints he can create with, he wallows in self-pity, declaring his career is over. Pete and Sarah challenge him to find a new way of expression, but when Pete inadvertently leads him to it, the results are disastrous.

Pete, who has been trying to avoid his parents during their short visit, talks Matt and Sarah into posing as a priest and nun to trick his parents into a fake confessional to videotape them pouring out their sins. When Matt brings up the question of privacy, Pete dismisses it. “It’s the 21st century,” he says. “There’s no more privacy.” But Pete’s flippancy ends after he hears what his parents say. Disturbed, he tries to get the tape back from Matt and Sarah, but they are turned on by the experience, realizing they have a new form of expression -- videotaping Holy Year pilgrims, “toxic with sin,” confessing. They lure in a multitude of other unsuspecting souls.

For the playwright, issues of sin and redemption are deep-rooted. Born in 1938 into the pre-Vatican II world of Sunnyside in Queens, Guare has described his childhood as “100 percent Irish Catholic,” with 16 years of Catholic education before he attended Yale School of Drama. He has described his role as dramatist as “the Irish-Catholic high-comedy playwright, a bit removed from life, going about and observing it wittily.” For his efforts, his plays have won numerous theater awards, although some critics find them disorganized, unfocused and downright incomprehensible.

Guare has said that as a child he dreamed of going to Rome to see the pope. When he finally got there as an adult, he arrived on the very day Pope Paul VI flew to New York to address the United Nations. Guare picked up a newspaper in Rome and saw a picture of the pope riding down Queens Boulevard. Struck by the irony, he began thinking about the impact of Catholicism on his family and his childhood. Out of those reflections grew “The House of Blue Leaves,” a savage farce set in a Queens apartment on the day of a papal visit.

In that play, the son, Ronnie, wants to blow up the pope but succeeds only in blowing up two nuns. Ronnie and the papal trip to Queens find their way into “Chaucer in Rome” when Ronnie, now Pete’s father and called Ron, confesses to having seen his father kill his mother during Pope Paul’s visit to pray for peace.

As for the Catholic issues in “Chaucer in Rome,” Guare could be telling us that only lunatics believe in forgiveness, or at least in the Holy Year formulaic path to forgiveness. Or, based on Matt and Sarah’s success, he could be telling us it’s ridiculous to even think people need forgiveness. Or maybe Guare was just wittily observing life in Rome last year.

Forgive me, I don’t know.

Retta Blaney, a theater and religion writer in New York, is editor of the anthology Journalism Stories from the Real World.

National Catholic Reporter, June 29, 2001