Christopher Durang Explores the Afterlife, Including His Own
By DINITIA SMITH, The New York Times, November 26, 2005
In Christopher Durang's farcical new play, "Miss Witherspoon," the middle-aged woman of the title commits suicide as a delayed reaction to the Skylab space station's falling to earth. She wakes up in the bardo, the place where a soul awaits reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism. The character Veronica (Kristine Nielsen) does not want to be reincarnated: "Why can't I just be left alone to fester and brood in my bodiless spirit state?"
But, says Maryamma (Mahira Kakkar), Veronica's chipper guide to the afterlife, "All souls must keep reincarnating until they reach true wisdom."
This Buddhist eschatology might seem odd coming from Mr. Durang, the author of "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You," the 1981 satire about a demonic Catholic school nun. ("Now, I thought I had explained what happens after death to you already," Sister Mary tells someone dying of a brain tumor. "There is heaven, hell and purgatory. What is the problem?")
However, as Mr. Durang explained recently, he has undergone a spiritual evolution since he was an angry 28-year-old and wrote "Sister Mary Ignatius" (a play that Archbishop John May of St. Louis called "a vile diatribe").
"Miss Witherspoon," now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, comes from a run at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J. That is not far from Bucks County, where Mr. Durang, 56, lives in bourgeois comfort in an 18th-century stone house with his partner of nearly 20 years, John Augustine, an actor and writer, and their Dalmatian, Chief. Among the antiques in the living room is a photograph of an angelic-looking Christopher, hands folded in prayer, a throwback to the days when he was a good Catholic child.
Like many other members of the baby boom generation, Mr. Durang has searched widely for faith, sampling mainstream traditionalism, agnosticism, New Age philosophy, self-help programs and Eastern mysticism along the way.
Nonetheless, with his rosy cheeks, snaggle tooth and vivid blue eyes, he still looks like a Catholic choirboy, though his hair is gray now. Like many people raised in a religious atmosphere, he has never shaken off its influence. He attended a high school run by Benedictine monks, and even wanted to be a monk himself.
"I didn't have a teacher like Sister Mary Ignatius," Mr. Durang said. "But I believed everything my teachers and many in my family said."
It was before Vatican II and the liberalization of church doctrine. "You weren't meant to eat meat on Friday in deference to Christ, who died on Friday. If you did, you went to hell," Mr. Durang remembered. "That way, Hitler would be in hell alongside someone who ate meat on Friday. I thought there was no justice there."
For Mr. Durang, there is always the memory of the silent pain that permeated his childhood home in Montclair, N.J. His father was an architect and an alcoholic. After Christopher's birth, his mother had three stillborn babies, the first when Christopher was 3. "I remember the day they came home, and nothing after that for two years," he said. "My mother told me later she went through a year of not knowing I was alive."
He said he believed that his father did not want more children, but that his mother insisted. In Mr. Durang's autobiographical 1985 play, "The Marriage of Bette and Boo," a woman gives birth to four stillborn babies. The obstetrician drops each one on the floor. "I don't believe that God punishes people for specific things," Matt, her living son, says. "He punishes people in general for no reason."
His parents divorced when he was 19 and, with guilt, he testified against his father in court. His mother suffered a slow death from cancer in 1979.
During the Vietnam War, Mr. Durang attended Harvard. He opposed the war and was disillusioned by the Catholic response. "I thought the Catholic Church at Harvard would be liberal, but it wasn't," he said. "I thought Christ meant for us to be pacifist."
He also realized he was gay then, he said, and that deepened his depression.
At the Yale School of Drama, he wrote, with Albert Innaurato, "The Idiots Karamazov," in which Meryl Streep played the translator Constance Garnett. With another classmate, Wendy Wasserstein, he wrote "When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth." In 1978, he made it to Broadway with "A History of the American Film," which won him a Tony nomination for best book of a musical.
It wasn't until the late 80's, though, that Mr. Durang's worldview began to shift. He met Mr. Augustine, who had a small role with him in the film "The Secret of My Success."
"I was drawn to his sunny nature," Mr. Durang said of Mr. Augustine. "It opened up positive feelings, possibilities, intuitions. I began to have intuitions that turned out to be right. I thought, 'What is intuition but nonlinear knowledge?' It seemed like a possible entrance into spirituality."
He thought, he said, "there may be a force in the universe that offers guidance."
The couple moved to the country. Mr. Durang was attracted to New Age philosophy and to Transcendentalism, to nature as a path to spirituality.
"I never graduated to being an atheist," he said. "I only graduated to being an agnostic. My biggest problem with organized religion is that God has been imagined as a human being with emotions. I feel if you let go of that, then it's possible to see God as a force, to connect to him or her spiritually."
Mr. Durang also began attending meetings of Al-Anon, for friends and relatives of alcoholics. He liked its 12-step program, adapted from Alcoholics Anonymous, with its assumption of a higher power. "I started to believe there was something intuitively right about it," he said.
Mr. Durang said he had always viewed the afterlife as "prolonged general anesthesia" (as his character Veronica describes the view of some Jews). Still, "I found my mind wandering to reincarnation," he said. "But then, what if you don't want to come back?"
His turning 56, the age at which his mother died, has lately caused him intense anxiety.
"The other day I was very upset by all these hurricanes," he said. "I said, 'If this weather thing keeps up, I don't want to come back in a hundred years.' "
Mr. Augustine interjected, "He thinks ahead."
At the conclusion of "Miss Witherspoon," Veronica finally agrees to be reincarnated, but asks to go back in time. She becomes an abused child who asks her teacher for help, and also a baby mauled by a dog who now cries out, "Get the damn dog outta here!"
"In order to survive, we must find a way to break through the centuries of stressing tribal differences, and evolve to finding tribal and human similarities," Veronica says from her highchair.
In the end, Mr. Durang said, "one can effect a certain outcome by one's choice." "Miss Witherspoon," he said, is "a fable, half-fantasy. I'm intrigued by three-quarters of it. But I don't entirely believe it."