The playwright and Jesuit priest Bill Cain is a good talker - he'd have to be, as he's written lines for William Shakespeare (called "Shag") in his witty and moving Equivocation, currently enjoying an outstanding production at the Arden Theatre.
Quick summary: It's 1605. James VI of Scotland has just become James I of England. Strife is the order of the day: a new government, ambitious advisers, religious hatreds, political prisoners, torture, backroom machinations, public dissatisfaction, revolutionary unrest, terrorist attacks, sexual shenanigans at the highest levels, moral equivocation everywhere. Sound familiar?
The play takes up the foiled Gunpowder Plot, when a group of men tried to blow up Parliament, an event still marked every Nov. 5 as Guy Fawkes Day. When Robert Cecil, a superbly Machiavellian wheeler-dealer for James, asks Shag/Shakespeare to write a play about the plot, the Bard is in a bad spot, especially as it becomes clearer and clearer that the play Cecil wants is a total fiction.
When Cain and I spoke on the phone recently, here's what I found out:
Talk about the premise of "Equivocation," which seems to be that history is fiction concocted for a political purpose - equivocation, not truth.
If somebody is writing with a political agenda and that agenda is clear, then you have a way of interpreting it. But Shakespeare presents history as a pageant, and you in the audience are asked to watch it, but not urged to participation or to take sides. It doesn't matter if Richard III is a killer, as long as he's entertaining.
This is why Shakespeare didn't sign his plays; in our world, we don't want people who are anonymous, we want people who can take stands and engage in history, and so Shakespeare is a little dangerous for us: He was writing to make money for himself and to protect himself. He was the royal playwright for decades and he never once spoke truth to power. And yet, if you combine Twelfth Night and King Lear, you pretty much have all of truth in 10 acts.
I was struck by the maleness on stage, all those hairy-chested men of the acting company, and then Judith, Shag's perhaps-genius daughter, trapped in history, who reminds us of the imagined Judith in Virginia Woolf's feminist essay "A Room of One's Own," in which she is his sister; your nearly silent Judith, usually carrying laundry, turns up at the end, and, surprisingly, walks away with the play.
When you're dealing with Shakespeare, you're dealing with an all-male world. Judith emerged from the writing of the play scene by scene. The men are living in the sealed world of theater, while Judith lives in reality.
Would you talk about the similarities between "Equivocation" and some of your other work?
Stand-Up Tragedy came out of teaching on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, but what it has in common with Equivocation is its theatricality. When I write for the theater, I try to write pieces that will give actors the chance to show the unbelievable depth and width of what they can be as human beings. Both plays ask actors to take on the burden of what it is to be a person. I think that's what an actor does: The actor's body becomes the audience's soul for the length of the performance.
You're working on a play about Lincoln. How does that reveal your view of writing about history?
Lincoln is a very complicated guy. Not that I don't have huge reverence for him, but here's the puzzle: His son became the ultimate fat-cat banker, and, as Lincoln called in federal troops to fight for freedom, his son called in federal troops to shoot down striking workers. How did that happen in one generation? That's what I try to explore in the play. We think of him as the suffering man, and yet . . .
There seems always to be an "and yet . . .," which makes "Equivocation" so relevant; I keep hoping the relevance will disappear. Your political stance, which questions the easy received wisdom, is a constant in your work.
But I am hopeful: We've made enormous progress. I think truth is on our side.
Was Shag's tight spot influenced at all by your experience with censorship of your 1990s TV series, "Nothing Sacred"? What are your feelings about the church meddling in art?
The show was based on 20 years of working in a parish, and it was the Catholic League, which does not represent the [Catholic] Church, that brought about the pressure on the network. We had a lot of support by Catholics who were watching it. Our second episode was pulled because it was about AIDS. Finally, we were canceled - probably because of the episode about priests and sexual abuse.
What is the relation between being a priest and a playwright?
I'm a Jesuit. Our commission from our founder was not so much to bring people into the church, but to go into the world and find the presence of God in the world. The motto is "Finding God in all things." As it turned out, the place where I found God in the world was in theater and storytelling and film and television. They come together with harmony.
Toby Zinman writes about theater for The Inquirer.
Through Dec. 13 at Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St.