Erica Drennan is a PhD Student in Russian Literature at Columbia University
Upon arriving at Primary Stages’ production of The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, audience members were asked to choose a pin with the name of one of the three historical figures. “Maybe you’ll change your mind by the end!” the usher at the door told attendees. Scott Carter’s 2014 play, directed at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre by Kimberly Senior, is a reimagining of Sartre’s No Exit with a historical and literary twist: Jefferson, Dickens, and Tolstoy are trapped together in the afterlife. All three men wrote their own versions of the gospel, and in Carter’s play they must duke out their contradictory interpretations.
The production conveys the major differences between each man’s retelling of Christ’s life, while having fun with their wildly divergent personalities. Jefferson, played by Michael Laurence, seems to be the playwright’s favorite—Carter acknowledged during the October 22nd post-show talkback that he read the Jefferson Bible first, after a near-death experience. The third American president comes off as a serious intellectual, whereas the two novelists periodically verge into caricature. Nevertheless, the actors who play Dickens and Tolstoy more than hold their own with hilarious interpretations of the characters. Duane Boutté’s Dickens struts onstage in a flamboyant velvet jacket and grandiosely introduces himself: “I was, am, and no doubt, will always be the world’s greatest novelist.” Thom Sesma as Tolstoy most looked the part—he bursts through the door as the post-conversion Tolstoy, dressed in peasant garb and complete with a long, scraggly beard. Tolstoy is quick to anger—he becomes enraged every time Dickens or Jefferson calls him “Count”—and wields a hilariously sharp tongue. “My hero is an idiot,” he remarks, as Dickens struggles to explain the physics of the star that guided the wise men to baby Jesus.
Conflict is bound to erupt in the claustrophobic world of the play. The three recently deceased men arrive one after the other (time seems to collapse in this world) into an afterlife they did not expect: a stark room with a metal table, two chairs, and a door that cannot be opened from the inside. The stage cleverly resembles a police interrogation room, with the audience in the place of the interrogators, hidden behind what the characters see as a mirrored wall. From the moment the three men appear on stage, we are positioned to observe them and, presumably, to judge.
Once the characters discover that they all wrote a version of the bible, they decide that they must be locked in the afterlife together in order to combine their respective texts. This proves an impossible task. The three men become hung up on the first sentence: “In the beginning there was the Word,” Dickens begins, only to be told that his translation is imprecise. Jefferson would translate logos as “reason;” Tolstoy would render it “spirit.” This early conflict sets the stage for the three men’s disparate interpretations of the gospel, which they dutifully summarize. The few vague generalizations that the men can agree on offer comic relief to the occasionally dry retellings of their bibles: Jesus went to Jerusalem (at some age) and returned; he chose twelve disciples (the names prove too contentious to specify).
After they realize that rehashing their gospels will not free them, the men finally turn to the mirror (i.e. the audience) and reflect on their own lives. The characters’ self-aggrandizing personae break down when they face themselves. All three acknowledge the gulf between what they preached and how they lived. Dickens claimed to be a model family man, but actually mistreated his wife and kept a mistress. Tolstoy confesses that he did not uphold his principle of abstinence. Jefferson’s apparent moral high ground collapses when he confronts the fact that he did not free his slaves in his lifetime. The mirror reveals the men as they really were: not how they presented themselves to the world, but their hypocritical, real selves.
“Was the world better off for our having lived?” Jefferson asks in the play’s last line of dialogue. The question feels momentous, yet the answer seems obvious: yes, the world is better for Jefferson, Dickens, and Tolstoy having lived and worked. The ideological sparring between the three characters is amusing at times and illuminating at others, but the play becomes stuck in predictable patterns and in rehashing biographical details that are presumably well known to much of the audience. Nevertheless, perhaps engaging in dialogue with our civic and literary heroes is particularly important now. In an era when we are quick to simplistically demonize or idolize public figures (or even private citizens—consider the brief and poorly-informed fame of Ken Bone), perhaps we need a reminder that all lives, even those of supposedly “great” men, are long, complicated, and contradictory. Rather than demanding hero-worship, historical figures and famous authors require nuanced readings and analysis. Their ideas deserve to be examined on their own merits, and their personal flaws and ideological gaps should not be glossed over.
In Discord, the three characters escape their hell after confronting their failures head-on and writing feverishly in response. But what do they write? Perhaps they reach a new kind of truth, informed by the self-reflection they underwent. Yet because we are not privy to their words, we cannot judge. We are left to believe that these characters somehow reconciled their public ideals and their private failings, without evidence. The play exposes the three great men to our critical gaze, but does not allow us to evaluate the cathartic ending. And on the way out, there was no opportunity to choose a new pin.
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord was produced by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York from September 19 – October 22, 2017.