The Grand Inquistor

mary_wroth got tickets to the The Grand Inquisitor, a one-act play at the New York Theater Workshop based on the only chapter of The Brothers Karamazov that I liked (Part II, Book 5, Chapter 5), in which Christ returns to Earth at the height of the Inquisition, and performs miracles the day after the Grand Inquisitor had a hundred heretics burned at the stake.

The Inquisitor orders him imprisoned, “and such is his power, so tamed, submissive, and tremblingly obedient to his will are the people, that the crowd immediately parts before the guard,” and Christ is led away to a prison cell.

The Grand Inquisitor comes to his cell and tells him he will be burned in the morning, because “he has no right to add anything to what has already been said once.” He tells Christ, “Anything you proclaim anew will encroach upon the freedom of men’s faith …. For fifteen hundred years we have been at pains over this freedom, but now it is finished, and well finished. … These people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.”

He says that Christ was warned what would happen. That when Satan tempted Christ in the desert (Matthew 4:1), he was actually showing Christ “the only way of arranging for human happiness.” First he offered Christ bread, and Christ refused, but man will happly give up freedom for bread. “They will finally understand that freedom and earthly bread in plenty for everyone are inconceivable together.”

Then he told Christ to jump from a cliff and trust in God to hold him up, which Christ again rejected. “Could you possibly have assumed, even for a moment, that mankind, too, would be strong enough for such a temptation? … To reject the miracle … To remain only with the free decision of the heart? … As soon as man rejects miracles, he will at once reject God as well, for man seeks not so much God as miracles.”

Finally he offered Christ all the kingdoms of the world, and Christ again rejected him. But the Church, the Inquisitor says, did the opposite. “Exactly eight centuries ago we took from him what you so indignantly rejected.” (He is referring to the founding of the Papal States, when the Vatican first became a secular government.) “We took Rome and the sword of Caesar from him, and proclaimed ourselves sole ruler of the earth….we shall be caesars, and then we shall think about the universal happiness of mankind.”

Why did you reject that last gift? Had you accepted that third counsel of the mighty spirit, you would have furnished all that man seeks on earth, that is: someone to bow down to, someone to take over his conscience, and a means for uniting everyone.

In general, he says, the big secret is, “We are not with you, but with him.” That he and his compatriots are “a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil,” ruling over “thousands of millions of happy babes.”

We will tell them that every sin will be redeemed if it is committed with our permission, and that we allow them to sin because we because we love them, and as for the punishment for these sins, very well, we take it upon ourselves. …

Peacefully they will die, peacefully they will expire in your name and beyond the grave they will find only death. But we will keep the secret, and for their own happiness we will entice them with a heavenly and eternal reward.

And if, as prophesied, Christ returns victorious, “you will come with your chosen ones, with your proud and mighty ones, but we will say that they saved only themselves, while we have saved everyone … And we, who took their sins upon ourselves for their happiness, we will stand before you and say, “Judge us if you can and dare.”

He concludes by saying that they will burn him at the stake tomorrow, and the same crowd that welcomed him earlier that day will help pile up the coals. Christ says nothing through all of this, but when the Grand Inquisitor concludes, kisses him on the lips. The Inquisitor then lets him go, telling him, “Go and do not come again.” (Until I heard it spoken, it never occurred to me that the Inquisitor’s final admonishment might have been intended as a twist on John 8:11, when Christ tells the adulterous woman, “Go and sin no more.”)

I found the performance absolutely riveting. Bruce Meyers as the Grand Inquisitor delivered an hour-long monologue with passion and fire, capturing both the Inquisitor’s terrifying ruthlessness as well as his twisted and condescending sense of compassion. Jake Smith, as Christ, had probably the harder job, sitting still and listening intently, without saying a word, not even moving until the final kiss.

It was an improvement over the book, actually. Meyers was credited as the “Narrator,” not as the Inquisitor, because the story is told in the third person, up until the Inquisitor begins talking to Christ, at which point it just becomes one long monologue. So Meyers sets the scene and tells the story of Christ in the street, then puts on a long black cloak and enters the character of the Inquisitor.

In the so-called novel, the story is told by the “bad brother,” Ivan, to the “good brother,” Alyosha. It’s a poem he planned to write, but never did, and he tells Alyosha the whole story. The monologue concludes when the Inquisitor says, “Tomorrow I shall burn you. Dixi.” (“Dixi” is Latin for “I have spoken.”) At that point in the book, Alyosha can no longer contain himself and argues with Ivan, and the story is interrupted. The coda, when Christ kisses the Inquisitor and the Inquisitor lets him go, is explained in dialog between the two of them, following which Ivan immediately repudiates the whole thing. “But it’s nonsense, Alyosha, it’s just the muddled poem of a muddled student who never wrote two lines of verse.”

My overall problem with The Brothers Karamazov is that it isn’t really a novel, it’s a bunch of philosophical discourses forced through the mouths of artificial and annoying characters, with ludicrous plot action strewn around here and there, like the sad little bushes in a concrete Midtown plaza, to justify calling it a novel. Stripping away all the novelistic trappings made the monologue much more compelling, as did, of course, Meyers’s performance.

It’s also well worth thinking about in light of my post yesterday. The Inquisitor represents the ultimate in cynicism (as does Ivan, just less compellingly) — the belief that humanity cannot handle freedom, but instead prefers to be coddled by ruthless authoritarians. The song I mentioned yesterday, “Dear Leader,” the one I removed from my Myspace page, took exactly that viewpoint.

Of course, Dostoevsky, with that final kiss, rejected the viewpoint as well. The Inquisitor does not change his mind, but clearly, Christ was the victor in the exchange, without having said a word.

In any case, we enjoyed the performance, as well as an overpriced but rather excellent vegetarian meal at Counter. Afterward, we went to the Strand because I really wanted to pick up a King James bible. I was hoping for a used one, but instead got a modern “study bible” with all sorts of fancy maps and such. WORDS OF CHRIST IN RED! Oh and also ten pounds of H.L. Mencken, (The American Language and its two supplements).

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