'Glory Of The World' Is More Wacky Birthday Party Than Traditional Play The play celebrates Catholic monk Thomas Merton's 100th birthday. But it isn't really about Merton — it's about human complexity, and at times the action resembles the film Animal House.
NPR logo

'Glory Of The World' Is More Wacky Birthday Party Than Traditional Play

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/463081186/463290844" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Glory Of The World' Is More Wacky Birthday Party Than Traditional Play

'Glory Of The World' Is More Wacky Birthday Party Than Traditional Play

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/463081186/463290844" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A record Powerball jackpot transfixed the country this week. There were long lines and rising hopes. B.J. Leiderman was not among the winners, so he still writes out theme music. A previous Powerball winner, however, is the major investor behind a play that opens at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It celebrates the late Catholic monk and author Thomas Merton, and it's called "The Glory Of The World." But our man Jeff Lunden says it's not really about Thomas Merton.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Defining who Thomas Merton was is not easy.

CHARLES MEE: Everybody is far more complicated than that one simple line about being a great mystic, a great Buddhist, a great activist, whatever.

LUNDEN: And in Charles Mee's play, his characters argue about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE GLORY OF THE WORLD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Merton, the Catholic monk and priest.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Well, you say he was a Catholic but no, really he was a Buddhist.

LES WATERS: I don't know if this is contemporary compulsion or just a human compulsion to slap a label on something and say that's who somebody is.

LUNDEN: Les Waters is artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky, near where Merton lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Every morning, Waters walks to work.

WATERS: I pass this plaque that says, on this site, Thomas Merton had a spiritual revelation. And it's an extraordinary thing to see on a plaque.

LUNDEN: He got curious, started reading about Merton and got in touch with playwright Charles Mee to see if he might want to do something for the monk's 100th birthday last year. Mee grew up in a Catholic home with Merton's books on the shelves and nuns and priests in the family. He said yes but with a caveat.

MEE: I said, well, you know, I'm an ex-Catholic so I couldn't write anything nice about him. And probably what I would do would get you thrown out of Louisville. And Les said, that's OK.

LUNDEN: Actually what the pair came up with is less a traditional play than kind of a wacky birthday party for Merton.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE GLORY OF THE WORLD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Happy birthday to you.

LUNDEN: Featuring 17 actors, all men, in which Merton never actually appears.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE GLORY OF THE WORLD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Happy birthday, dear Thomas.

LUNDEN: Louisville Courier-Journal critic Elizabeth Kramer reviewed the play and says at times the action resembles the film comedy "Animal House."

ELIZABETH KRAMER: There's crazy parts where men start dancing a slow dance and then they kiss each other and make out. And then later on there's this huge fight where one man brings out his fist, another brings out his knife, another comes on stage with a chainsaw.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE GLORY OF THE WORLD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) What was that?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) You think it's OK to do some violence?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) No.

LUNDEN: These raucous moments are bracketed by silence, a lot of it at the beginning and the end of the play where an actor in Louisville - it was director Les Waters - sits onstage without speaking and his thoughts are projected on a screen.

WATERS: You can feel waves going in the house behind you, waves of tension, waves of people thinking what is going on?

LUNDEN: But critic Elizabeth Kramer says when that silence returns at the end of the play, the audience's perceptions have shifted.

KRAMER: It gave the middle of the play a stronger sense of the argumentation that takes place, of the passions that people have about this man Merton and how they define him. And it also gives you as an audience member just some time to reflect on your own as you're sitting in silence.

LUNDEN: One of the people who felt that was Roy Cockrum.

ROY COCKRUM: I understood it. I understood what it meant. It made sense to me. I was known as Brother Roy for a number of years and wore a black habit and traveled all over the world doing spiritual retreats.

LUNDEN: Before Cockrum became an Episcopal monk, he spent 20 years as a professional actor and stage manager. He saw "The Glory Of The World" when it premiered at the Humana Festival in Louisville last year.

COCKRUM: And when the house lights started coming up after the curtain call, I leaned over to my friend that I was sitting with and I said, if ever I'm going to be a commercial producer, this is going to be it.

LUNDEN: Cockrum wasn't just daydreaming. In 2014, he won the $259 million Powerball lottery and set up a foundation to create and support new theater works. He's used some of that money to bring the entire Louisville production - actors and sets - to New York where he hopes audiences respond to the contradictions, chaos and silence in Charles Mee's play.

COCKRUM: It's that complex diversity of the human condition that is, in fact, the glory of the world.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.