It’s Becoming a Habit: the Theater is Suddenly Overflowing with Nuns, Past and Present





Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

            Nuns are everywhere in the American theater this spring. You can find them singing and dancing in ‘Sister Act,’ based on the Whoopi Goldberg movie, set in the 1970s, that opened last week, and recovering from alcohol in ‘High Times,’ starring Kathleen Turner. Rossini’s 1828 opera, ‘LeComte Ory,’ on stage now at the Metropolitan Opera, features a man who dresses as a nun to sneak into a castle to win the hand of his love, the beautiful Adele. ‘Divine Sister,’ the hilarious Off Broadway success starring Charles Busch, set in 1964, was one of the biggest hits of the fall/winter theater season.

            In New Jersey, ‘Mercy and the Firefly,’ about a troubled contemporary nun, was staged by the Luna Stage, a regional playhouse that sent ‘The Whipping Man’ to Broadway earlier this year. Last weekend, ‘Nunset Boulevard: The Hollywood Bowl Show’ about nuns appearing at Los Angeles’ outdoor theater, opened at the Theater in Center in Chicago. The New York Public Theater is presenting Shakespeare’s 17th century classic, ‘Measure for Measure,’ in Central Park this summer. ‘Measure for Measure’ tells the tale of novitiate nun Isabella trying to save her brother’s life. There is a group of nuns in John Guare’s ‘House of Blue Leaves,’ that just opened in New York. The summer Fringe Festival in New York has several plays about nuns,

            You don’t like North American nuns? How about South American nuns? Evan Mack’s ‘Angel in the Amazon,’ about the 2005 murder of a nun in Brazil, opened yesterday at New York’s Baryshnikov Theater on West 36th Street.

            Plays about nuns are being recognized, too. ‘Sister Act’ picked up five Tony Award nominations, including one for Best Musical. Other plays about nuns have been nominated for Off Broadway awards.

            Alan Menken, nominated for Best Original Score for ‘Sister Act,’ is proud. “It took us six years of working on this show to get it right, but I think we needed the time to put up the show we really wanted,” he said.

            What is it about nuns that fascinates producers, actors, writers and theater goers and has done so throughout history?

            Why stage plays about the nuns of the Catholic Church when the priests of the Catholic Church are the target of such derision because of the highly publicized sex abuse scandals across the country, and world, in which many are involved? Why do the nuns who run parochial schools remain so popular when hundreds of schools are closing around the country?

            “I think that people have always separated nuns and priests,” said Evan Mack, the composer of ‘Angel in the Amazon.’ “They see the official work and policies of the Catholic Church at one level, but they see the nuns at another. The nuns are down in the trenches doing God’s work –or in the schools -- and people admire them for that. You have respect for anybody toiling so hard for something they believe in, so you admire nuns.”

            Part of the reason, too, is that nuns, who devote their entire lives to God, have always been associated with education. Throughout history, they have always been seen as tough but lovable sisters in black and white habits who maintain an iron discipline in their classrooms (who has not gone to Catholic school and had their knuckles rapped with a sister’s ruler?). They all have memorable names that set them apart from the millions of other teachers. I have forgotten the names of most of my teachers, but can remember those of each nun I had in grade school, such as Sister Doreen (tough) and Sister Helen Ann (tougher). They are always involved in some sort of fundraiser to keep their schools open and their convents running. You always read about nuns in some order helping those in need in far-off countries. They are always doing good and they are never involved with scandals. The public keeps them entirely separate from priests. Americans have always seen them in a very good light; every Catholic has a nun’s story of some kind.

            And, too, America has a large Catholic population and a big percentage of those Catholics went to parochial school. All of them connect easily to plays about nuns. They sit there, remember their grade school or high school days and say, ‘that happened to me.’ All of this good will has built a large audience for nuns in plays about them, whether dramas, comedies or musicals. There is escapism, too. It is easy to run away from the recession by going to a play about the likable nuns.

            Whooppi Goldberg, who starred in the original movie, certainly thinks people like nuns. In a voiceover interview on the website of ‘Sister Act,’ in London, Goldberg said that “those nuns (in the story) were exceptional people and it sort of came through their uniforms and you sort of looked and went 'Oh, my God, look at that,' ” she said. “And ‘Sister Act’ is a light show, a lot of fun.”

            Nuns on stage are certainly not new. There have been numerous plays about sisters in Europe and in the U.S. for over a thousand years. The oldest I could find were those written by a nun, Hrosvitha in a German convent in the late 900s (she also wrote books and poems). The British loved nun stories. They have been in theaters there about as long as Shakespeare, with the first, Aphra Behn’s ‘The History of the Nun’ debuting in 1689.

            Singing and dancing sisters were hits in American vaudeville in the 1900-1930 era. In 1915, ‘Marie-Odile’ opened in a theater in the heart of New York’s vaudeville district. It was followed eight years later with ‘The Miracle.’

            Many great American writers have written stories and plays about nuns. Perhaps the most prominent was William Faulkner, whose play ‘Requiem for a Nun’ was staged in 1956 and enjoyed productions in several other countries.

            There have been numerous serious dramas about the lives of nuns, such as ‘Doubt’ and ‘Agnes of God.’ This year, again, there is a serious drama, ‘High,’ starring Kathleen Turner as Sister Jamison Connelly, an irreverent, foul mouthed recovering alcoholic who is the new therapist for a drug addict/dealer named Cody Randall. The teen is connected to a murder. Throughout the play, the nun, who dresses in civilian clothing, tries to cure Cody, the depressed son of a single mother who was a prostitute, of his addiction and find out something about the slaying.

            The drama, directed by Rob Ruggiero, showcases the modern nun not as a smiling and helpful fifth grade teacher, but an older woman devoted to helping teens in trouble. The more she discovers about the problems of Cody, the more she remembers the problem of her own past, troubles that now, in the play, threaten to explode.

            There is a serious opera, too. Evan Mack’s ‘Angel in the Amazon’ is based on the well publicized murder of 73 year old Sister Dorothy Stang, of Ohio, who was killed by gunmen in the state of Para, in the Amazon rainforest.

            “She was a nun who went to the Amazon to help poor people. She believed in her work. In the end, she was murdered for it,” said Mack, who first heard of Sister Stang’s story at a Catholic Church in Cincinnati. “I think anybody who hears her story sees her as a heroic figure.”

            Composer Mack believes, too, that there is room for all kinds of plays about nuns. “There are many solid dramas about the sisters and there are lots of funny musicals. The public enjoys all of them. I wrote a very serious opera about a nun, but I know some nuns in a choir in Ohio who are the funniest people you ever met.”

Most plays have been comedies and musicals. There was a whole convent full of them in the 1980s. These included “Late Night Catechism,’ ‘Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You,’‘Nunsense’ and its six sequels (plus a little known Brazilian sequel that was an all men-in-drag production), ‘And Then There Was Nun,’ ‘Nuns4Fun’ and ’The Demon’s Nun.’

            There have been wild, irreverent plays about nuns, such as ‘Co Ed Sluts,’ staged by Chicago’s Annoyance Theater Company (it ran for eleven years) and even dinner theater shows about nuns, such as ‘The Nun’s Trail,’ produced all over the country.

            Nuns have been popular subjects in films for more than fifty years. Who can forget the nun marooned on a Pacific Island with an American marine (tough guy Robert Mitchum) in World War II in ‘Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.’? The biggest hit film of all time involving nuns, of course, was the spectacular ‘The Sound of Music,’ that extolled nuns and beat up Nazis. The movie featured Julie Andrews as a novitiate nun who falls in love with the father of the children she is caring for as a nanny and whirls around Salzburg singing wonderfully for more than two hours of screen time. Other big movie hits were the haunting ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s,’ starring Bing Crosby, ‘Nunsense,’ ‘The Flying Nun,’ ‘Doubt, ‘The Singing Nun,’ and ‘The Trouble with Angels.’

            The church itself has always frowned on the irreverent comedies about nuns. The Archbishop of New York fumed when ‘Divine Sister’ opened. Parishioners always manage to revere nuns and laugh at them on the stage or screen at the same time, a healthy practice to be sure.

            Whether all the nuns on stage in America this spring can get us all to heaven remains to be seen, but they are a welcome sight. Make the sign of the cross, genuflect twice and applaud loudly.



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