Saints, Sin and Erik Ehn

Mysticism ignites the plays—and theories—of a theatrical visionary

By Celia Wren

Erik Ehn has a weakness for impossibility.

A wind-in-a-sieve idealism wafts through his saints-plays project, designed to create a play for every haloed human known to Catholicism (there are over 10,000, if you count the beati). A rope-of-sand utopianism twists through his hopes for the RAT movement, the anti-organizational organization of alternative theatres he has conceived and championed. Clashing eras and realities commune in his wrenchingly lyrical scripts, which tend to contain impractical, phantasmagoric stage directions like "The wolf holds the moon in its teeth. The stars are burrs caught in the wolf's coat" or "Mary produces a sword and uses it to inject phenol into the priest's neck" or "Small hot air balloons, the shape of houses, float over the flames." And in the relentlessly secular, finance-haunted landscape of the contemporary American theatre, he draws on his Catholic heritage and convictions to argue for an artistic community based on hospitality and service, rather than sober-eyed economics. This is a playwright who once remarked, quite matter-of-factly, that St. Teresa of Avila's religious treatise The Way of Perfection "should be taught in every theatre administration class." The odds of catching a falling star, as John Donne put it, almost seem a little better.

It is perhaps the quixotic strand in his thinking that has won a cult following for this 46-year-old dramatist and visionary, whose explosively imaginative plays tend toward concentrated, almost symbolist poeticism; hallucinatory imagery anchored to a religious sensibility; an emphasis on transformation; and a certain elusiveness. Enthusiasts gush about Ehn, who has received an Alpert Award, a Whiting Award and other honors—and yet the plays themselves are staged none too often. Adventurous troupes like the Undermain Theatre of Dallas; the Sledgehammer Theatre of San Diego, Calif.; and San Francisco's Noh-focused Theatre of Yugen (where Ehn is artistic associate) have produced his work. In 2002 the Perishable Theatre in Providence, R.I., mounted his play My Baby, based on a workshop he'd conducted with local refugees (the company had previously produced his adaptation of The Sound and the Fury), and Los Angeles's Cornerstone Theater Company recently presented his Frankenstein-inspired fantasy Mary Shelley's Santa Claus. But larger institutions have tended to give his material short shrift.

"There are wonderful playwrights around the country who haven't had their shot yet, so to speak, and Erik is one of them," says Del Hamilton, the artistic director of Atlanta's 7 Stages, which has slated the latest Ehn opus, Maria Kizito, as the opening work of its 2004–05 season. The production should prove to be something of a landmark in the writer's career, if only because of the globe-hopping that was needed to research it. Maria Kizito may be less sisyphean than some of his other endeavors, but it's still uphill work, dealing as it does with an instance of horrific modern genocide that occurred 10 years ago.

Starting on April 6, 1994, the Central African country of Rwanda degenerated into a three-month orgy of killing that would eventually leave 800,000 people dead. In a bloodthirsty spree sparked by the death of the president, members of the country's Hutu tribe poured across the country, killing members of the Tutsi minority as well as any Hutu who dared act as the Tutsis' protectors. Men, women and children were shot, hacked to death with machetes, even murdered with farm equipment. Radio broadcasts by extremists egged the frenzy on, inciting ordinary citizens to turn against strangers and neighbors. And in the town of Sovu, the Catholic Hutu nun Maria Kizito helped organize the methodical slaughter of several thousand Tutsis who had sought shelter within her convent's walls. Kizito, who personally bought gasoline for use in burning refugees alive, later fled with another nun, Gertrude, to Belgium (Rwanda is a former Belgian colony), where both were put on trial under a Belgian law that allowed prosecution of crimes committed beyond the country's borders.

It was, in part, the international aspect of this legal precedent that inspired Ehn. "The idea that justice would be something that globalizes the world rather than economics is appealing," comments the playwright, an aquiline-featured man with a (currently) shaved head and a manner that's somehow both self-effacing and intense. He puts the matter another way in one of the dazzling, enigmatic remarks that give his conversation a slightly Delphic cast: "The story and the point of law were attractive to me in a most dispassionate sense," he says, "in the way a corpse is attractive in a Whitman poem."

Dispassionate or not, Kizito's saga attracted Ehn on a personal level, too. "Beside being vivid in a really ghastly way," he says, the story "implicated me as an American and as a Catholic, because [Maria and Gertrude's] position as people of faith raised questions about my own limits of faith and understanding. And America, of course, was involved because we stood by, with most of the world, as it was happening. We pretended it was happening out of sight, but it actually was happening very much in plain view."

Without recourse to a grant, Ehn took his customary God-will-provide approach to the journey's finances ("It all comes back around if you're listening to the right voice—that's my species of banking.") and made a pilgrimage to Rwanda. Here he shared a prayer retreat with a group of Jesuits, who took him to the sites of several massacres, including an area near Sovu that has been turned into a genocide memorial packed with corpses preserved in lime. [See sidebar.] Subsequently, he journeyed to Brussels to attend Maria Kizito's trial on war-crimes charges; the legal proceeding eventually ended with a 12-year prison sentence for the nun.

Ehn incorporated testimony from the trial, as well as witness accounts from a publication titled "Obstruction of Justice: The Nuns of Sovu," in Maria Kizito, which he sees as the first play in a trilogy he's writing for actress Laurie Carlos. In the play, the bleak war-crimes narratives veer in and out of segments from the Catholic liturgy, erupting periodically into high-voltage, sometimes telegraphically concentrated poetry and stark, eerie images. One stage direction in an early version of the script specifies that "Kizito bleeds from the mouth, makes mud with the blood, puts the mud on her own eyes, leans her head back, and plants a lit candle over each socket." And in a particularly harrowing scene, fire speaks with the refugee it is burning alive. "Electricity fills water. A scream fills a jaw," the flame observes patiently as it consumes its victim, who takes his turn describing the agony of death by fire: "Watch spring. Hear a snap. All my contents are in utter, all speech is vowels, every vowel pulled against itself."

If the dense language and almost surreal imagery are quintessential Ehn, so is the touch of formalism exhibited in the sampling from the Catholic Divine Office—other plays of his include songs or prayers, or boldly refashion fairy tales, or, in one case, turn quotations from Thomas á Kempis's Imitation of Christ into a periodic refrain. But more important, Maria Kizito's religious concerns fit in with Ehn's determination to deal with spiritual issues in general, and his Catholic heritage in particular, whether the rest of the theatrical community is on his religious wavelength or not.

The writer was pointed toward the faith by his mother, a convert to Catholicism, who, he says, "stayed Catholic just long enough to get me confirmed." Despite his parents' religious affiliations—his father was Methodist—religion, Ehn says, "was not very strong in my family—but my family wasn't very strong." They lived first in Dallas, where Ehn was born, and later moved to Brooklyn and the New York suburbs. "The suburbs were like swimming in a large morbid pool of rancid honey," he says, recalling the spiritual atmosphere of those days. "It was opulent and cloying, and I didn't realize how starving I was until years later. The place told me it was paradise so often that it took me several years to understand that it wasn't."

He went to Catholic and public schools, then augmented a Yale B.A. in English with an MFA from the Yale School of Drama. He spent several postgraduate years in New York City, holding a potpourri of jobs that included building elf houses for a Christmas display company in Queens; working for Facts On File; teaching high school; and acting as dean of studies at the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped, an organization run by Brother Rick Curry, S.J., a figure Ehn says was seminal to his artistic and spiritual development. The teaching posts would be the first of many: After moving to California in 1990, the playwright did serve for 18 months as the literary manager of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, but he has chiefly earned his living teaching at the college and graduate level. In fact, he has honed himself into something of a professorial powerhouse, though he probably doesn't realize this himself. He has taught at the University of Iowa, California Institute of the Arts and other institutions; he founded a playwriting workshop for the mentally ill in Santa Clara, Calif.; he turns up regularly at the "Pataphysics" workshops run by the New York theatre known as The Flea; and he is regularly cited in some theatre circles as one of the best teachers of playwriting around. Most recently, he has been a visiting fellow at Princeton, where—as the leader of a playwriting seminar taught partly around St. Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle and the writings of St. John of the Cross—he expressed the hope of supplementing his students' dramaturgical proficiency with some more-mystical ambitions. "Maybe I can open alternatives to the straightforward," the writer commented optimistically in an interview. "Open up possibilities of chaos."

If teaching was one seminal experience from Ehn's postgraduate New York years, another was his stint working at a soup kitchen, an encounter that firmed up his commitment to religion and sparked a particular concern with the theological principles of hospitality and service to others. Those principles have shaped his ideas about theatrical community and, more strikingly, molded his understanding of the writing process itself. Writing, for Ehn, means giving away, centrifugal rather than centripetal motion, a relinquishment of control centered on the self (surrendering to Divine Grace might be a more religiously flavored way of putting it). "I think that the aesthetic and ethical end of art is ultimately charitable," the artist explains. "Art is meant to be politically, financially and spiritually free." Comparing creativity to the kind of mystical ecstasy experienced by certain saints, he says, "There's everything you can do actively, everything you can do passively, and then, when you're absolutely centered, when everything has been burned away that is owned, conscious and artificial, when you're at the still point and united with your meaning, there's nowhere to look but out. You're at the center of everything, where you know what you mean to say and are not destroyed by it."

Radiating outward, Ehn's own vision transfixed the small group of artists who happened on his plays in the 1980s, around the time of the soup-kitchen episode. "Nobody was doing this kind of work," dramatist Mac Wellman says of Ehn's writing, which he first encountered when an acquaintance lent him the script of Angel Uh God, about a man who beats his son to death. "Its assumptions about reality are completely different from most realistic theatre. Yet on its own terms, it proposes to be realistic in a sense that is both earthly and spiritual and particular." Wellman was instrumental in getting Ehn's oeuvre to BACA Downtown, the Brooklyn arts venue then under the direction of Greta Gundersen.

BACA Downtown shut its doors in the early 1990s, and its final offering was a selection of Ehn's saints plays, remarkable pieces of "exploded biography" (as their author puts it) that range widely in length, historical specificity and crypticness. "A saint is a human mandala—a life in a ritual shape held up as a focus for contemplation," Ehn wrote in his provocative and slightly opaque preface to the anthology The Saint Plays (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000). He stresses again the metaphysical merits of transformation and letting go, rather than stasis, control and the complacency those states imply. "Figures slip death to be always becoming; we are invited to project ourselves into their metahistorical uproar, their irresolvable complexity...narrative closure is idolatrous."

Certainly anyone expecting closure—let alone tidy hagiography—from the saints plays would be disappointed. In The Freak, a girl born with wings baptizes the shoe of a knight she meets in a dream—the story commemorates the dragon-killing St. George. Thistle, dedicated to St. Rose of Lima, revolves around a witness's description of a 1990 massacre in El Mozote, El Salvador. And in Pain, the tragedy of a missing child in contemporary New York parallels the story of the third-century Spanish martyr St. Eulalia as hallucinatory images haunt the stage—a giant wearing a ceremonial headdress made of corn husks emerges at one point, and a man with the head of Porky Pig grips a bloody pruning hook as he guards two flayed bodies in Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

Their whimsical logic and dreamlike imagery aside, the saints plays exemplify another Ehn artistic tic: a tendency to write scripts in thematically related strings. In the 1980s, he penned the Red Plays, a suite of works about young victims of surprise violence. More recently, he has created several variations on the Frankenstein story: Mary Shelley's Santa Claus, staged at Cornerstone; Frankenstein, mounted by Theatre of Yugen in 2003; and 'Maid, a take on Hans Christian Andersen's fable "The Little Mermaid" that San Francisco's Crowded Fire Theater Company mounted this past August. 'Maid is "a myth about transforming the self into something else," says Crowded Fire artistic director Rebecca Novick, who staged the piece on a wooden scaffold, conjuring up evocative images from a strange, Ehn-ish world of metamorphosis and yearning: rain falling beneath a pier, a fishbowl clutched in a pair of hands that descended through a trapdoor, a girl sewing her fingers together in an effort to become another being. Novick, who says she's attracted to Ehn's writing because it leaves so much "space for physical interpretation," sums up his proclivity for generating sets of plays with a matter-of-fact aperçu: "Erik is serially obsessed."

"I like the idea of plays in series," the playwright admitted in a March interview in a Manhattan cafe, adding that he planned to write another 20 saints plays in the following three months, "because it's time." Another suite he has underway ties in to his substantial interest in Noh drama: With Theatre of Yugen he has crafted a Noh Christmas Carol, plus the aforementioned Noh Frankenstein, and he is threatening to create not only a Noh Long Day's Journey into Night but a Noh Moby-Dick.

If such projects start to sound a little esoteric, Ehn is, paradoxically, equally fascinated by the nitty-gritty of how theatre is developed, in the U.S. and beyond. This is, after all, a man who met his wife—scenic artist Patricia Chanteloube-Ehn—during a summer he spent as a carpenter, at PCPA Theaterfest in Santa Maria, Calif. ("On a good day, I'm a B carpenter," he notes.) Now that plywood and hammers have given way to words, he's still absorbed in the means, not just the ends. "Erik is a different kind of playwright than the ones who put scripts in the mail with SASEs," notes Nick Fracaro, artistic director of Brooklyn's Thieves Theatre and a collaborator with Ehn in the RAT movement. "He shows up at the doorstep of ensembles. He's as interested in the process of theatre as he is in the process of writing for theatre."

Even the somewhat mystically idealistic manifesto that launched the RAT movement, Ehn's "A Proposal and an Alarum Towards Big Cheap Theater," published in Theater magazine in 1993, brims with concern about logistics. In a concept that seems to hearken back to his experience in the New York soup kitchen, the manifesto proposed the creation of an Art Workers' Hostelry that would facilitate exchange and cooperation between small (under 150-seat) nonprofit theatres, according to an ethic of hospitality, rather than commerce. Operating democratically and cooperatively outside the marketplace, participants would exist in a state of constant transformation and "crisis," thus avoiding what Ehn considers to be the deadening effects of stability.

In the aftermath of the paper's publication, Ehn and the members of 20 U.S. theatres launched the RAT movement, which ultimately opted for a looser identity than "Proposal and Alarum" had posited [see Trav S.D.'s "Reinventing the RATs," in American Theatre's Feb.'03 issue]. "The risk with RAT is that it will take its service as a force too seriously," Ehn commented in an interview a few years ago. "It's a ground for a force that may emerge, but we deliberately haven't organized in a way that would allow us to be effective. Which is suitable to me. We'd be trading off a lot if we were effective."

What does seem to be effective is Ehn's own persona, whose stimulating properties are comparable—if we credit accounts by his acquaintances and accomplishments like his co-founding of San Francisco's Tenderloin Opera Company—to those of a large pot of espresso. "Right from the start I regarded him as an absolutely extraordinary human being," marvels the generally skeptical Wellman, recalling his early encounters with Ehn. "I was surprised how much energy and passion he had and how much generosity. He was always doing things for other people, always connecting people to each other and to their own best ideals. Maybe he's one of the few theatre people I know who actually has a world ethic."

"He provokes you and he doesn't let you sit down in an easy space. He just won't let you do it," says actress Laurie Carlos, who refers to Ehn as a "genius" and "a holy man." And playwright Jeff Jones, who worked with the saints-plays author in the BACA days, raves about Ehn's theoretical writings—which include such impassioned and occasionally baffling exhortations as a keynote address to the LMDA Conference in 2002, "Stuffing for This Pillow: Dreamaturgy Recalled" ("A mission: To become a flaw in the ointment—to live out an irrational refusal to accept negativity's logic—to be that which will not allow soul-lessness to become absolute."). "No one else has come up with a satisfactory answer as to why someone would want to devote their entire life to working in the nonprofit theatre in America," Jones emphasizes, adding that Ehn's "theoretical writing is so valuable because he's made a connection that would never have occurred to anyone else, going back to the liberal Catholic tradition of Dorothy Day. That theatre really needs to be considered as a spiritual exercise, not as a job."

Jones puts his finger on one particularly striking aspect of the Ehn phenomenon when he observes that "one can disagree completely with his premise—and yet, it's useful!" Indeed, despite the seriously religious bent to this Catholic artist's writing and thinking, Ehn fans are able to relate to his work in a range of more or less secular ways. When asked to describe Ehn's dramatic voice, Greta Gundersen, of BACA Downtown fame, remarks, "I wouldn't say religious, I wouldn't say spiritual. I would say deeply philosophical, deeply ethical and full of challenges to his audiences—to really think and evaluate their own moral responsibility in the world, but in such a way that it's not dogmatic the way some people are. He keeps the mystery in everything."

Katherine Owens, artistic director of the Undermain, which has staged Ehn's plays Erotic Curtsies and Moira McOc, among others, speaks of his oeuvre in terms of poetry. "It's always been apparent to me that Erik is a true poet," she says. "I think that you have that experience in poetry where you weep from beyond yourself. And that experience is accessible to people." By contrast, Mark Valdez, Cornerstone's associate artistic director, who staged Mary Shelley's Santa Claus last year, resorts to a painterly vocabulary. In Ehn's work, he says, "The imagery takes this off-centered look instead of looking at things straight on. He comes at things from multiple perspectives. You can think of it as a cubist perspective, almost."

And Del Hamilton sees the dramatist's work in the context of contemporary playwriting. "Erik is writing plays that are not limited by confines of the theatre space," he says, picking up on the Ehn-aims-at-impossibility theme. "He is looking at playwriting as more episodic and more epic, in the way Tony Kushner looks at theatre. It's more film-like at a certain level. That even goes down to his stage directions, which tend to be impossible abstractions for the theatre, but at the same time challenge the theatre. I would compare his writing to that of Bernard-Marie Koltès."

Perhaps the quality that makes all of these interpretations possible is the fact that there's a certain elusiveness both to Erik Ehn's work and to his presence. Directors love his plays because they're enigmatic and can be filled with meaning. Other folks love his philosophy because it revels in possibilities, without defining (and sometimes without explaining) what those possibilities are. "There is a perpetual aloneness about him," Nick Fracaro once wrote of his RAT colleague, "even as his wit and enthusiasm extend life to whatever gathering with which he's involved. It's as if any moment he could disappear from the gathering, leaving nothing but his memory."

These impressions mesh pretty nicely with Ehn's own understanding of art, always reaching—somewhat impossibly—beyond itself. When it comes to writing well, he says, "Your technical gifts put you in a position where you cease to be technical and open yourself to something that's bigger than anything you could possibly make out. You're open to meanings that exceed your invention and exceed your technical ability to contain them. So you break your technical control as you begin to develop. You come to a place where you're united with your vision."

Keeping Company with Guilt

"The scale of the genocide is incomprehensible," says Erik Ehn, recalling his visit to a Rwandan memorial filled with lime-covered bodies, remnants of the 1994 genocide he chronicles in his latest play, Maria Kizito. "Room after room after room of bodies, and it's just a fragment of the dead that you're seeing. You're brought no closer to what happened, but at least it has a space in your head. You're forced to pray over it, really."

Ehn says he felt compelled to make the pilgrimage after he learned the story of Maria Kizito, a Rwandan nun who helped slaughter thousands of refugees who had sought shelter in her convent; she was subsequently put on trial for war crimes in Brussels. Seeing the Rwandan massacre sites first hand, Ehn says, was "overwhelming," but once he sat down to write his script, he concentrated on refraining from judgment. "The play is meant not as an explanation—not even as a condemnation," he observes. "It’'s meant to provide a space of time in which we can be with Maria. I try not to judge her guilt. I try to let us be with her in her guilt, because her kind of guilt is a key to understanding who we are in the world today. We live on a genocidal planet, so we have to understand the lived, human, personal and particular capacity for genocide. We can't abstract it. We have to see it as coming from us."

If the research for the play was traumatic for the playwright, the encounter with the script was almost as harrowing for actress Laurie Carlos, who has played the title role in early readings. "That play took me six months to read, because it made me nauseous," says Carlos. "What he understands about the character of Maria Kizito has nothing to do with blame. He doesn't judge. He has written a character that I understand to be always in a state of prayer. This was in full conflict with my idea of what someone who commits genocide could possibly be about."

Artistic director Del Hamilton, who will direct Maria Kizito at 7 Stages, says his audiences can handle the nightmarish material. "It's not a play about horrific events in Rwanda," he says, explaining the play's broad relevance. "It's a play about a single person's faith, and I don’t know if there's anything more important for us to be thinking about in the world today."

Ehn has a vivid memory of that single person whose faith lies at the core of his script. In the courtroom where Kizito on view, he says, "Looking at her in the witness box in the trial, if you'd passed her in the street you wouldn't say, 'Oh there is someone who killed seven thousand people.' She's just a small energetic person—with a very nice smile."



Related Stories in American Theatre

What's that Puppet Doing in my Play? by Gretchen Van Lente, February 2004

Reinventing the RATs, by Trav S.D., February 2003

Conference of Rats, by Mary DeDahan, December 1995

Erik Ehn, by Jerome Weeks, January 1995

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