When Pope Francis named Dorothy Day as one of four great Americans in his speech before the U.S. Congress in 2015, it seemed a natural choice. Day, who founded the Catholic Worker with Peter Maurin, was a pacifist and social activist who preached a revolution of the heart after Christ’s example. She was a remarkable woman by almost any light. It was not until I read “This Other Love,” a play about Dorothy Day to premiere this month in Milwaukee, Wis., followed by And the World Will be Saved By Beauty, a biography of Day by her granddaughter Kate Hennessy, that I also realized Dorothy Day is a great dramatic figure. If the Greeks had Antigone, Americans have Dorothy Day—a woman whose fierce commitment to the Gospels is a gauntlet thrown down to the rest of us.
Written by Patty McCarty, “This Other Love” is a modern day miracle play, with a provenance as astonishing as its protagonist. In 1994, McCarty, a longtime journalist (and former colleague of mine at the National Catholic Reporter), sent the play to the Acacia Theatre, an independent, interdenominational theater focused on integrating art and faith. Last fall, 22 years later, the theater called to say they had found the manuscript when moving and wanted to put on a production.
If the Greeks had Antigone, Americans have Dorothy Day.
“This Other Love” shows us a young Dorothy Day: pregnant, unmarried and very much in love with Forster Batterham, a scientist who did not believe in private property or marriage. As they did in real life, Dorothy and Forster, both around 30 years old, are living together in a beach house on Staten Island when the play opens. The date is Aug. 22, 1927, the day McCarty has Dorothy tell Forster she is expecting and wants her child baptized a Catholic; the day an unknown Peter Maurin arrives at the house to intrude on the couple’s solitude. He wants Dorothy to run the newspaper he wishes to establish. Forster regards the Frenchman as a vagrant and crackpot, but Dorothy perceives that Peter has a plan.
McCarty’s play portrays a very human Dorothy Day, torn between her love for Forster and her burgeoning religious faith. She wants to marry Forster and have more children. His aversion to religion and marriage, which he sees as a form of tyranny, is a barrier. But is it Forster who is erecting the obstacles or Dorothy? Or is it the new possibility that Peter holds out to her of work that can align her faith with her political convictions and social conscience?
“I’m not making you choose. It’s that little guy. He’s giving you the opportunity to burn yourself up in an impossible cause and you can’t resist,” Forster tells Dorothy at one point.
McCarty wrote the play when studying for a master’s degree in theater from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She had met Dorothy Day twice, once at Marquette University where she had interviewed her for the student newspaper. The impact of Day’s ideas and dynamic personality stayed with her 40 years later, prompting McCarty to write about her.
Whether we watch depictions of her on stage or come to see statues of her in Catholic churches, Dorothy Day is going to haunt us.
Where McCarty’s play focuses on a pivotal time in Dorothy’s earlier years, The World Will Be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother offers a comprehensive history of her life. Hennessy depicts the private Dorothy Day, painting a picture of her relationship with her only child, Tamar, that tries to be fair to both women. It was not an easy relationship. Tamar adored her mother, but her retiring, diffident personality was very different from Dorothy’s. Dorothy was a loving mother but not always a sensitive or understanding one. The faith that drew Dorothy and sustained her, Tamar experienced as crushing and oppressive. “The only element of her mother’s religion that made sense to Tamar was the Catholic Worker,” Hennessy writes.
In her own memoir, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day made it sound as if Forster Batterham had rejected her, but Hennessy’s sometimes harrowing biography shows that the truth was more complicated. Dorothy and Forster continued to be on-again, off-again lovers for several years after they separated. Though Forster would go on to be with other women, he and Dorothy were close friends until she died. While her faith led her to reject the life she might have had with him, her love for him and the happiness it gave her fed her sense of mystery, her love of beauty and of God.
Was Dorothy a saint? I once interviewed Tamar Hennessy by phone. She said she did not think her mother was. Dorothy herself always decried such talk, but it is hard not to think of the Catholic Worker as a school for sainthood and Dorothy a star pupil. Certainly, she was a Christian who lived her faith with uncommon ardor and integrity. She set an example of Christian love that can seem both extraordinary and intimidating. There was a cost to her commitment, for herself and for her family. Hennessy borrowed one of Dorothy’s favorite quotes from Dostoevsky for the title of her book; she might have borrowed another just as well. “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
Moral grandeur is not a contemporary trait. Whether we watch depictions of her on stage or come to see statues of her in Catholic churches, Dorothy Day is going to haunt us. Like “Antigone,” her story makes us consider our ideals and how much we want to live them.
“This Other Love” premieres July 14 and run through July 23 at Acacia Theatre at Concordia University in Milwaukee, Wis.