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A Former Monk Wins the Lottery—and Produces a Play on Thomas Merton

Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 01/06/16

From The New York Times:

It sounds like the setup for some kind of droll joke: A lottery winner and a rhinoceros arrive at the birthday party for a dead mystic. Art, and a blowout brawl, ensues.

An unusual stew of ingredients, some onstage and some off, has resulted in this strange spectacle’s move from Kentucky to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which, beginning Saturday, Jan. 16, will present “The Glory of the World,” a new play by Charles Mee that takes a silence-and-strife-filled look at the life of Thomas Merton, the 20th-century American Catholic thinker who “remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people,” as Pope Francis put it in an unexpected shout-out during his address to Congress in September.

The production is being financed by one of the newest and more unexpected patrons of American theater: Roy Cockrum of Knoxville, a onetime Episcopal monk who bought a Powerball ticket at his local supermarket in 2014 and won $259 million.

The back story of “The Glory of the World,” in some ways, includes Mr. Mee’s childhood, in a Catholic home where the living room shelves were lined with dozens of books by Merton. It also involves Mr. Cockrum’s time as a monk, when, while living under a vow of poverty, he decided that if he were ever to have money, he would use it to fund theater.

The play itself is a little unconventional. Okay, a lot unconventional:

The play [is] set at a 100th birthday party for Merton, at which the celebrants quarrel over how to describe a multifaceted man who was a Trappist monk, a prolific writer, a champion of nonviolence and a friend to Eastern religions before dying at 53 of an accidental electrocution in Thailand.

The play begins and ends in silence.

…The silence can be, intentionally, unsettling; at the start of the play, an actor (often Mr. Waters) walks onstage and sits, with his back to the audience. The length of the silence is “either interminable, or shockingly short,” Mr. Waters said, depending on your tolerance.

“It makes some people in an audience uncomfortable, because it denies something that you think is going to happen in a theater piece — something is being withdrawn, and it throws you off balance,” he added. “Sometimes the tension is very palpable. There was one night in Louisville when I heard very distinctly a woman’s voice, ‘Is this all it’s going to be?’”

Short answer: no. Read the rest. 

Reviews in Kentucky were positive.  “The whole thing is a scream sandwiched between two whispers,” wrote one critic.  “The Glory of the World is purely provocative in the best sense in that it forces us to ponder big questions through highly entertaining, visceral spectacle. It is hugely entertaining but also lingers in memory.”

Photo: Brooklyn Academy of Music

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