Friday, April 1, 2011

Bruce Myers as the Grand Inquisitor.
Fyodor Dostoevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor" - the most famous chapter of perhaps his greatest novel (and perhaps the greatest novel), The Brothers Karamazov - is one of those rare narratives which truly operate as strange loops; the story becomes what it is not before our very eyes.  It's told by the skeptical, intellectual Ivan - the "middle" Karamazov - to his younger brother, the mystic Alyosha, in a seeming attempt to shake the novice monk free of his naïve faith.  (Of course it does nothing of the kind.)

The parable - in which Christ himself materializes in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition, only to be imprisoned by the Grand Inquisitor and sentenced to death by fire - is designed to reveal the cynical (though utterly logical) calculations behind the most horrifying episode in the history of the Catholic Church. Which it certainly does, with a lucidity that over the years has lost none of its chilling power.  The Grand Inquisitor - a pale wraith of "four score and ten" - observes his imprisoned savior with something close to legalistic contempt.  You have no right to interrupt us, he admonishes Christ (who has been a dazzling distraction from the usual program of auto-da-fés), and begins to explain how the Church has assumed the burden that God himself abandoned some fifteen centuries before.

That explanation hinges on the troubling duality of free will: Christ refused to declare himself definitively while on earth, to allow men to believe in him of their own accord. Yet the ministers He left behind had no such luxury; they were inevitably forced to abandon that stance to maintain the faith.  The Church is therefore committing its horrific crimes, the Grand Inquisitor argues, as an inevitable consequence of the Savior's absence; and he's willing to sacrifice Christ himself to the flames to preserve the central "mystery" of Christian faith.

The Inquisitor's logic, self-serving as it may be, is impeccable; but Christ's answer is not an argument at all, but rather a simple, transcendent gesture: he kisses the Inquisitor on the lips, and then silently departs. As Ivan puts it in his famous final line, "The kiss glowed in his heart, but the old man held to his idea."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the skeptical Ivan, rather than Alyosha, who is destabilized by the conclusion of his tale; by that mysterious finish he is laughing "feverishly," in fact, and is only calmed when his brother, in imitation of Christ, kisses him on the lips, too.  "That's plagiarism!" Ivan laughs.  "But . . . thank you." It's an exquisitely subtle reminder that our horror of the Grand Inquisitor can only make sense within the template of the mystery he claims he is dedicated to serving - which, of course, requires our forgiving him.

An El Greco portrait of a cardinal of the period.
Judging from the production that's closing this weekend at ArtsEmerson, however, Peter Brook (and adapter Marie-Hélène Estienne) don't really see the story in quite that way.  Their "Grand Inquisitor" is critique through and through, sans much in the way of mystery.  Which isn't an entirely bad thing - only, as with Brook's Beckett (on view in the companion touring production Fragments), we intuit it isn't the whole thing; Brook has once again inexplicably thinned out his source.

Yet it's true that in the accomplished British actor Bruce Myers, Brook has found a convincing embodiment of the Grand Inquisitor indeed - with his sunken, flickering eyes, his pale tapering fingers, and wearily fluid delivery, Myers suggests almost without trying the craft and coolly mature intellect moving behind the Grand Inquisitor's various intellectual gambits. And after a seemingly disastrous opening night, in which he struggled repeatedly with his lines, Myers seemed fairly confident in his text in the performance I caught (although he often referred to a script on a lectern before him). He was also clad in a dark, tailored suit that might have been by Armani - a wittily secular touch, I thought, and very far from the "rough, monkish cassock" described in The Brothers K. In a later talkback, however, Myers revealed it was the first time he had donned the suit in performance; usually he wore a cassock much like that described by Dostoevsky (which he had brought with him on stage, but left on a chair).

This struck me as an intriguing metaphor that might be developed more fully; Myers quipped that his suit had been designed for a production in which he played George Soros, of all people, and it did wittily disengage the Grand Inquisitor's arguments from the limiting template of the Spanish Inquisition - and thus allowed us to appreciate their timelessness. For similar excuses along the lines of "the-ends-justify-the-means" have been made for the excesses of almost every autocrat who ever lived. They're being used even now in the name of the free market, to excuse child labor in the Third World. They'll always be with us.

And yet in the case of the Grand Inquisitor, they're paired with a genuine religious mystery - the "kiss that glows in the heart" - that I think Brook and Myers have missed; the show, in short, is all Ivan and no Alyosha. When the lights finally dim, we may have heard all Bruce Myers's lines, but we haven't heard everything Dostoevsky had to say.

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