In the searing and timely play Sinners, by the Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol, a man piles up rocks for the stoning of a woman. She was convicted of adultery. He was her lover. She is next to him, covered in a white cloth and buried in the ground up to her chest.
The setting is an unnamed Muslim country; both characters are punished for their affair. She is sentenced to execution. He is condemned with preparing the means.
For the director, Brian Cox, the Scottish film and theater actor renowned for his roles ranging from King Lear to Ward Abbott in the Jason Bourne movies,the plot uncovers the roots of a host of social issues that continue to trouble humanity. They all can be traced in some basic, tectonic way to our inability to integrate our sexuality.
The social fracture within the play converges, in a certain light, with the heart of Catholic teaching on sexuality. But what the church in doctrinal fashion struggles to preach (chastity), a story can address with raw vitality. One could say there is a singular kind of magisterium inherent in a truthful work of art.
Staged by the Mirror Repertory Company in August in an old wooden opera house in Hardwick, Vt., “Sinners”revolves around the horrific consequences of the forbidden relationship between a man and woman, Nur and Layla. Each has been trapped since a young age in an arranged marriage. Their entire lives have been controlled by other people and by their totalitarian country.
As Nur gathers the stones, the two of them argue and rage, dream of reconciliation and escape and confront the reality of her death. Both the actors (Nicole Ansari and Arash Mokhtar) and the play received strong reviews from the local press. Plans are in the making to remount the production in Boston next spring.
I spoke with Mr. Cox at his temporary residence a few miles outside of Hardwick. (I was there performing in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”) The home is a converted red barn overlooking green cornfields and a hilly cow pasture, with a windmill planted at the bottom. It is like a charged particle of an element called “Vermont.”
Sitting on the back patio, having recently arrived in the United States from the set of the film “Churchill,” in which he plays the title role, Mr. Cox said that the core conflict in “Sinners”was the repression of sexuality in a culture. “To me it’s the real root of the tragedy of the play. It’s the culture, being a real hostage to the culture…. So in a way you can’t be a celebrant anymore [of sexuality.] You haven’t got that openness; you’re damaged goods.”
Sexual repression leads to sexual acting out leads to punishment by death. Tragedy begets sin begets tragedy.
In a talkback after the opening night performance, Mr. Cox described the punishment of Layla as symptomatic of the “failure of patriarchy throughout the world, where the notion of what it is to be a man is called into question.”
He addressed the patriarchy in our conversation as well. “Man doesn’t know who he is and what he is intended to be, and so he takes it out on women,” he told me. “The reason we demonize women is because we’re afraid of their sexuality. Men want it, but they fear it.”
A permissive secular culture can make one a hostage to sexuality as much as a theocracy can. One society possesses its women by bundling them up in burqas. Another dominates women by stripping them down and selling Axe body spray off them.
Hardwick is in northern Vermont, an hour from the Canadian border. Mr. Cox described Vermont, where half of all homicides are related to domestic violence, as the perfect place for the American premiere of the play.
Correlations are often made between sexual acting outand violence. In the arena of war-making they sometimes go hand in glove. The investigation by Army Major General Antonio M. Taguba into the Abu Ghraib prison scandal reported that the sexual abuse, torture, rape, sodomy and murder of Iraqi prisoners by U.S.soldiers was “systemic.” After Osama bin Laden was killed, his computer was found to be filled with porn.
“The culture we are in, East or West, is not an aid to any of us coming to our senses,” said Mr. Cox. “We’re so seedy about [sexuality]. We don’t examine it.”
In the play, Layla describes their nation as “a castrated giant.” The young Islamic men have been held down politically, spiritually and in their very manhood.
These men, Mr. Cox said, “are neutered, and their sense of being neutered has made them so angry that they’ve actually turned in on something.”
At this point it is worth asking a basic question: Why should we care what an actor thinks about all of these devilishly complex matters? Jihad, political repression, the catastrophe of poisoned sexuality.The very tinder to the chaos and viciousness ripping through the world. Why do we always crane our necks to hear what entertainers think?
When I met him for our interview, Mr. Cox had just come from a workout. At 70 years of age, he is a presence in any space, stout in a black T-shirt and shorts, with unkempt reddish hair and an actorly voice that could sell out the Old Vic theater for the reading of a cake box.
Though he no longer practices the faith, he told me his Catholic upbringing and schooling by the Marist Brothers is a bedrock of his life. “I remember benediction, and I loved that. I loved all the ritual. I think that’s where my theatrical thing came from, that sense of ritual.” (Catholics always take this kind of admission as a minor victory for their side. You left the pitch, but don’t kid yourself, you’re still wearing the uniform.)
A Pathetic Story
Mr. Cox shared one of those pathetic stories about the Roman church that have you anxiously glancing around the room to make sure no impressionable teens or Protestants are listening. When his oldest son was born, he told me, he went to great lengths to get him baptized and was denied.
“They kept talking about my sins, and I’m going, ‘I’m not talking about me. I’m still in the middle of my dilemma, but I want to give my son a context.’” he said. “I had a wonderful context for my own life.”
Mr. Cox has been on a roll in his career, playing the lead in four movies over the past year, including “Churchill,” and in the play “Waiting for Godot.” Playing the prime minister is the kind of part one can get awards buzz for, and he hinted that he is already receiving it. He then quickly dismissed the whole concept—and not with false modesty. “It’s about practicing and...just trying to make it better. The awards ceremony, the criteria, it’s all wrong. It’s about the work. It’s always about the work.”
His work had already led him to the pinnacle of acting in 1990, when he played to acclaim King Learat Britain’s National Theatre. Two years earlier he received an Olivier Award for his performance in the title role in “Titus Andronicus.”
A lifetime of serving as a vehicle for Shakespeare and Beckett, or playing a figure like Churchill, gives an actor credibility when speaking on the turbulent matters of state and society. Someone like Brian Cox is worth listening to because he has embodied the most complex characters in the most beautiful and socially relevant stories ever told.
“Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws,” wrote 17th-century Scottish politician Andrew Fletcher (or Damon of Athens, depending on your source). Well-crafted stories like “Sinners” and “King Lear” can convince us of how we ought to live with greater effectiveness than any linear moral doctrine. As the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard put it, “Trust in the ability of narratives to persuade and to generate new beliefs.”
Good theology can also affirm what great stories reveal. The papal encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” for instance, points out the same dominating tendency in man that Mr. Cox critiques. Of all human progress, declares the document, “the most remarkable development of all is to be seen in man’s stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature...over his body, over his mind and emotions, over his social life....”
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.” (Ironically enough, in “Sinners” it is the “chastity guards” who are responsible for handing down the death penalty for Layla.) It entails “the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others.”
The catechism goes on to address the larger social issues at stake in human sexuality: “Chastity...also involves a cultural effort, for there is ‘an interdependence between personal betterment and the improvement of society.’”
There are radiant truths within these Catholic documents. And then, it seems, the darker shroud of Rome is thrown down and ruins it all.
“Humanae Vitae,” for instance, goes on to describe why the use of artificial birth control is immoral. And virtually no one is having it. A host of church positions on gender and sexuality, in fact, are gloriously unpopular. For some, they read like a rap sheet of ecclesial crimes: the all-male priesthood, the celibate priesthood, prohibition against gay sex, condemnation of gay marriage, prohibition against divorce, against cohabitation, against birth control and so on. (And, at least in some quarters, a prohibition against baptizing Brian Cox’s son.)
Arguing as to whether or not all these teachings are, in fact, somewhat heinous is beyond the scope of this article. Personally, I would rather translate the Summa Theologiae into Elvish than engage in a breathless debate over, say, the priestly ordination of women. I am less interested in declaring how things should be than in reporting how they are—namely, that the very sexual repression and domination that Brian Cox and “Sinners”address, and that the Catholic Church in its doctrine speaks against, is viewed by many as reaching one of its most precise incarnations in the Catholic Church.
If you are Catholic, you know all this. The church today has little credibility to speak out on sexual issues. Fairly or not, this is the charge. What else is new? And none of this even mentions the actual, legal rap sheet against the church: the scandal of sexual abuse of children by priests.
It is worth stating again, though. Catholics believe that Christ is the very air of the universe. He is the actual matter of all that lives, the creator of the bodies we inhabit and the purest form of love ever to inhabit a body. And the church of Christ is helpless to preach about the fundamental aspect of the body, its sexuality. The irony is almost tragic.
Until the church regains its voice, perhaps it will be artists like Brian Cox and stories such as “Sinners” that, for better or worse, tell us who we are and suggest who we might be.
Then again, there is another story making the rounds, having to do with church and women and sexuality. It is a short video of Pope Francis speaking with former prostitutes. “Today,” he says, standing before these women forced into sexual slavery, their bodies treated as little more than coarse playing fields, “I ask for forgiveness from all of you, for all the Christians and Catholics who abused you. And I ask forgiveness for me, for not having prayed enough for you and for this slavery.”
The two-minute scene is like an old Gospel play no one has put on for years, for centuries even, so rare that you wonder if it is even real.