A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Center Stage with Jesus, Judas, and Life's Big Questions

Overview

What happens when theater and theology share the stage?

Discover the answer in this thought-provoking memoir by Christopher Award–winning author and Jesuit priest James Martin. Take a front-row seat to Father Martin’s six-month experience as a theological consultant for the New York theater production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, directed by Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, and starring Sam Rockwell and Eric Bogosian. While Martin thoughtfully responds to the ...

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Overview

What happens when theater and theology share the stage?

Discover the answer in this thought-provoking memoir by Christopher Award–winning author and Jesuit priest James Martin. Take a front-row seat to Father Martin’s six-month experience as a theological consultant for the New York theater production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, directed by Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, and starring Sam Rockwell and Eric Bogosian. While Martin thoughtfully responds to the deeply spiritual and soul-searching questions posed to him by the creative team and actors—questions that many of us ponder at one time or another in our lives—he learns about the world of professional theater and all that is required to put on a successful play.
Join Father Martin as he takes this fascinating foray into the acting arena . . . and offers answers to some of life’s biggest questions.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Part retreat, part seminar, part master class, James Martin’s account of his role as ‘theological adviser’ for a play about Jesus and Judas is ultimately a spellbinding story of faith, friendship, and the deepest mysteries of the heart. Like a great drama, its impact lingers long after the curtain has fallen.”
—Robert Ellsberg, author of The Saints’ Guide to Happiness
 

“Father Martin’s account of his experiences as an adviser to the Off-Broadway production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is not only riveting; it is also theologically important: no one who reads this book can come away thinking that Christianity is just a set of dry rules and regulations. Father Martin helps us see that we all play our parts in a great and complex cosmic drama about the goodness of creation, the pain of sin and brokenness, and the power of God’s redemptive love.”
—M. Cathleen Kaveny, John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law and professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame
 

“This memoir is a superb exercise of the Catholic imagination, delighting in the profound connections between sacred and secular. James Martin is both Virgil and Dante, not only guiding us through an engaging drama but also recounting how he himself was changed by the experience. And is that not the goal of all theater—and the Christian life?”
—David Gibson, author of The Coming Catholic Church

“The estimable James Martin compresses a short course in New Testament criticism along with a glimpse into Ignatian spirituality while creating a model for making friends in this fast-paced account of his experiences as a Jesuit consultant for an Off-Broadway play about Judas. In the narrative, Martin shows us how he almost inadvertently morphed from a consultant into an unofficial chaplain. This book is a vivid lesson about how the Christian life can be led when it is lived out in the midst of the real (and imagined) world.”
—Lawrence S. Cunningham, author of A Brief History of Saints
 

“James Martin’s storytelling at its best! A Jesuit Off-Broadway provides a fascinating glimpse into the production of a new play, beautifully blending pop culture with the gospel, and theater with theology. Martin and his colorful cast accomplish much more than five acts. In retelling the Passion story, they make it real.”
—Therese J. Borchard, author of Beliefnet.com’s blog Beyond Blue

Publishers Weekly

Martin, an author and Jesuit priest, lifts the curtain on theater life in this account of his experiences as theological adviser to an off-Broadway play, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. It was the role of a lifetime for Martin, who had access to all the players involved in the production from the first readings to the play's five-week run in 2005. Although the play, which deals with the fate of the disciple who betrayed Christ, is compelling in and of itself, the way Martin combines the story line with historical detail and conversations with the actors, playwright and director is utterly captivating. Martin takes readers inside the play and into the minds of the key players, showing everything from glimpses into their spiritual lives to their reactions to the mixed reviews the play received. As a writer, editor and parish priest, Martin was obviously stage-struck by his encounter with the theater. But his transparency is sweet and refreshing, particularly when he talks about the ways in which the play affected him spiritually. His ability to translate and dissect the gospel story of Judas for a troupe of thespians echoes through his writing, making this a book that is bound to draw applause from a diverse audience. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780829425826
  • Publisher: Loyola Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/2007
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 889,414
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

James Martin, SJ, is associate editor of America magazine. A prolific author, writer, and editor, his books include Searching for God at Ground Zero, In Good Company, My Life with the Saints, and A Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, and his articles have appered in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Tablet, and Commonweal. He resides in New York City.

Stephen Adly Guirgis is an American playwright, screenwriter, and actor. He is a member and co-artistic director of New York City's LAByrinth Theater Company. His plays have been produced on five continents and throughout the United States. His plays include The Little Flower of East Orange, Our Lady of 121st Street, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings, and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot produced by LAByrinth in collaboration with The Public Theater in 2005.

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Read an Excerpt

Foreword

Have you ever wanted to cross-examine a Priest? I did. Over many lunches and dinners and coffees and late-night phone calls and even-later-night calls, and then during early-morning meetings after late-night dinners and phone calls. I forcefully, aggressively, and desperately cross-examined Father Jim on anything and everything having to do with Scripture, Catholicism, The Priesthood, Jesus and Judas, Heaven and Hell, God’s Plan and the Nature of Man—and then followed up my questioning?with more questions that had little, if anything, to do with ANY of the above. I asked many questions that, perhaps, one is not supposed to ask, and, on occasion, Father Jim would reply with answers that perhaps he was not supposed to give. I tried to—and needed to—leave no stone unturned, and Father Jim, secure in his faith and his priesthood, never did anything but supply direct answers to pointed questions. And he did so kindly, thoughtfully, and with both a passion for the subject and a wealth of com-passion for me—his confused, often irate and disconsolate lapsed Catholic Interrogator. In short, he was everything I think a Priest should be: kind, caring, thoughtful, strong, unimpeachable—and up for the challenge. In short, I have no doubt that Father Jim is one of Jesus’ true soldiers. And trust me: I’m not the doubt-free type. I drown in doubt, and to the degree that that’s true, Father Jim, from our first meeting and right up to today, is slowly teaching me to swim.
So anyway, what was it like to work with a Priest on a piece of Theater? Not weird at all. What was it like to bring a Priest to rehearsals and encourage him to speak freely and mingle with the cast? It was common sense. Was it weird during Performances to have a Priest hanging around backstage? It was completely normal. Why was Father Jim made a member of our theater company? Because he serves a useful purpose and because we all fell in love with him. So was it all just peaches and cream? No, writing and putting up any kind of play is difficult. This play was especially difficult to write, direct, act, and produce. There were problems all the time. All kinds of problems. In fact, there were so many problems to tackle that having a Priest around was the least of our worries. The reason things worked out so well with Father Jim was that he took off his collar (not literally) and picked up a shovel. He became a worker among workers—and very quickly a friend among friends. The play—and more important, the Experience—could never have been the same without him. And along the way, Father Jim accomplished that thing that I hoped, and hope, to accomplish with the play itself: he got good people thinking about God again, and even got some back to the church. Even me.
Lastly, I remember often asking Father Jim about the Celibacy thing. He would say that, yes, there were times when it felt lonely not to be able to have the experience of sharing his life and heart with another person. But he went on to explain that abstaining from a single, intimate relationship allowed him the time and freedom to be of greater service to others and to the community at large. To be part of a larger family. Celibacy was not a sacrifice, but rather an Opportunity.
As I write this and reflect on what Father Jim has given just me and my theater company alone, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for his embracing that sometimes lonely road. And having seen him in action, I know that his time with us was only one part of his day. We were not nearly the only community being served.
One last thing: I haven’t really read this book. I don’t know why, but I just can’t. It’s hard to be a character in someone else’s story. I have read all his other books, though, and I recommend them highly. He tells a very good story, has an honest and clear voice, and there’s always plenty of gentle humor and well-balanced food for contemplation and thought. I’m sure one day I’ll sit down and read this one all the way through. But for now, I am content with my own memory of the experience of meeting and working with and being befriended and ministered to by Father Jim. I will always remember that, more than just a “theological adviser,” he was a cheerleader, a rabbi, and a friend during the creation of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. And I will never, ever forget that when I found out my mom had terminal cancer, I called him and he was there in thirty minutes. He gave my mother last rites (twice), counseled her, visited her, listened to her, was there for me and my family, and he booked the church and conducted her funeral Mass when she passed. I took care of my mom in many ways—but none better than by having a friend like Father Jim to see her through her Last Days.
P.S. Don’t be afraid to talk to Priests about serious stuff. And if the first guy you reach out to doesn’t really get it, then ask another. And even another. My mom used to always say that back in the day, Priests were our friends. Things may be a little different now, but perhaps not so much. The best Priests, like Father Jim, are here to serve, and to expand their communal life by expanding our spiritual lives. So reach out and speak your heart. You have a right to expect answers and assistance. And you may even make a friend.

—Stephen Adly Guirgis Author, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
May 19, 2007

 

Prologue

Until a few months ago, what I knew about the theater—playwriting, directing, acting, dramaturgy, set design, and all the rest—wouldn’t have filled a paper cup. When the playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis and the actor Sam Rockwell contacted me to help with a new Off-Broadway play called The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, I wondered how much I could contribute to their production. On the other hand, after sixteen years as a Jesuit, I thought that I might be able to help the two learn something about what happened in first-­century Palestine to the itinerant preacher and the man who betrayed him.
I didn’t know then that I was about to learn quite a lot myself—about acting, about the theater, about hard work, and even about the spiritual life.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, which ended a sold-out run at the Public Theater in New York City in April 2005, examines the fate of one of the most reviled men in history. The play was coproduced by the LAByrinth Theater Company, of which both Rockwell and Guirgis are longtime members, and the Public Theater. Guirgis, a successful playwright, had wondered about Judas’s fate ever since childhood, when he was taught in his Catholic school that God had consigned Judas to hell for his sins. Despite what the nuns told him, Guirgis never regarded Judas’s fate as a fair one. His play, which put Judas on trial in a courtroom in purgatory with a host of witnesses (including Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud, Simon the Zealot, Pontius Pilate, and Caiaphas), considered whether or not the betrayer of Jesus deserved eternal damnation.
Guirgis provided a sophisticated theological treatment of the issue, all in the slangy (and sometimes foul-mouthed) urban argot for which he is known among theater aficionados. In this case, the streetwise lingo represented the playwright’s attempt at what theologians call an “inculturation” of the Bible—that is, a translation of the Gospel texts not simply into a different language but for a specific culture.
For Guirgis, that culture is contemporary urban life. Hence, his saints and apostles speak (and often shout) as if they were standing on a crowded subway platform at rush hour. Freed from the need to provide historically accurate quotations for his characters, Guirgis deploys such language to reveal the essential nature of his characters in surprising ways.
For example, when the defense attorney in Judas faces difficulty in getting Judas’s case heard before a judge in the afterlife, she appeals to Saint Monica, the fourth-­century woman whose relentless prayers are credited for the conversion of her wayward son, Augustine. In the biography Augustine of Hippo, church historian Peter Brown describes Monica as an “all-­absorbing mother, deeply injured by her son’s rebellions.”
In Guirgis’s world, a fiery Monica is a self-­described nag who encourages the audience to seek her intercession: “I got a calling, y’all—you should try giving me a shout if ya ever need it, ’cuz my name is Saint Monica . . . and ya know what? My ass gets results!”
Among some Jesuits, Guirgis’s approach got results, too. After one performance, a friend said to me, “Maybe I should start praying to Saint Monica again.”
Saint Monica was one of the first characters included in the early drafts of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, a play that was still being written when I was asked to serve as what would eventually be called a “theological adviser.”
The prospect of a Jesuit priest working alongside an Off-Broadway acting troupe is not as odd as it might seem. The image most people have of the daily life of the Catholic priest is a prosaic one: celebrating Mass, baptizing babies, marrying couples, presiding at funerals, and hearing confessions, all the while knowing little about the larger culture—except maybe where to buy the best brand of ­single-malt scotch—and certainly nothing at all about popular culture.
If priests are seen in a positive light—an increasingly rare phenomenon in the wake of the church’s sexual abuse scandals—they are imagined as leading a hidden, almost monastic existence. But in my experience, the lives of most Catholic priests bring them into contact with more suffering, more craziness, more humanity—in short, more reality—than do the lives of many of those with other, “real-world” jobs.
Since its founding in 1540, the Society of Jesus (the formal name of the Catholic religious order to which I belong) has been training its members for a surprising variety of jobs, many quite unorthodox, both in the church and in the world. Today, Jesuits are probably best known as educators. In the United States, members of the society founded, and still work in, dozens of high schools, colleges, and universities—
including Georgetown University, Boston College, and Fordham University.
But the Society of Jesus was not created simply to run schools. Its original goal, as articulated by its founder, the Basque lover-turned-­soldier-turned-­mystic-turned-writer, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, was much broader than that. The fundamental goal of the Jesuits is to “help souls.”
Simply put, this means that for more than 450 years Jesuit priests and brothers have taken jobs that were both expected (running parishes, retreat houses, and high schools) and unexpected (exploring uncharted rivers, overseeing observatories, and cataloging newly discovered ­indigenous languages.) Among its members have been theologians and philosophers, to be sure, but also physicians, poets, politicians, and peace activists. (You can read a fuller history of the Jesuits in the back of this book, in the chapter “Who Are the Jesuits, Anyway?”) So working with a theater company is a fairly tame venture for a Jesuit, and very much in keeping with the mission to help souls, even if they happen to be actors, directors, and playwrights.
This book is the story of my time with the cast and crew of a new play. Like any tale worth telling, it is something of a journey—for me a journey into unfamiliar territory. My navigation would not take me down the Amazon River or into an obscure province of China, as it did for some of my Jesuit brothers in past centuries, but into the Public Theater in Lower Manhattan. In a way, this book is a kind of modern version of the reports, called the Relations, that the ­seventeenth-­century French Jesuits were asked to send to their religious superiors in the Old World, who were fascinated by what was happening in the New. But instead of writing about the religious ceremonies of the Hurons and Iroquois, I’ll relate something about how a new play is created: the writing of the script, the readings, the castings, the rehearsals, the previews, the opening and closing nights, as well as what goes on backstage, what happens when the reviews (both good and bad) hit the papers, and so on. All this was new to me, and I’ll share my reactions to the surprises I experienced.
Along the way, I’ll address topics that were familiar to me but not as familiar to the cast and crew, and perhaps not as familiar to readers: life in first-­century Palestine; what the great spiritual masters said about despair, detachment, and poverty of spirit; whether one can rely on the historical accuracy of the Bible; who was responsible for the death of Jesus; the real-life histories of saints such as Peter and Thomas and Mary Magdalene; the accuracy of films such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and novels such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code; and even the long-­forgotten history of what was called “Jesuit theater.” I will also introduce you to the remarkable men and women with whom I worked, and I will share with you the stories of their own journeys—spiritual, emotional, professional, and otherwise.
One final aside before we begin in earnest. Stephen Adly Guirgis’s script was written in a slangy style that included the occasional obscenity. That never bothered me; I found his writing fresh and alive. The cast and creative team sometimes spoke that way as well. That didn’t bother me either; I considered it a compliment that they felt comfortable being themselves around me. However, some of the language bothered my Jesuit superiors, and it may offend readers unused to seeing certain words in a book written by a Catholic priest. So what to do? In the end, hoping to be faithful to the spirit of the play, and wanting to quote accurately those with whom I worked, I have elided some of the more piquant profanities with dashes. It’s not a perfect solution, but it preserves the flavor of the play and my interviews with the cast, and it satisfies the desire for the book to be accessible to a wider readership.

My journey with the cast of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot was actually a short one, beginning and ending in the space of just six months. Like many memorable trips in one’s life, it wasn’t one I had planned on making.

 

Act 1: Into the Deep End

October to December

Judas called first.
In late October 2004, I got a phone call from Sam Rockwell, who had just been cast as the title character of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s new play. He left a polite message on my answering machine: I’m an actor who is working on a play about Judas. Would you be willing to talk with me about him?
As an associate editor of a Catholic magazine and a Jesuit priest, I spend most of my time editing manuscripts, proofreading galleys, writing books and articles, lecturing on spirituality and religion, celebrating Mass, and hearing confessions. Until I got the call from Sam, I had no experience working with actors, directors, or playwrights (unless you count my unfairly forgotten turn as Hugo F. Peabody in Plymouth Whitemarsh High School’s 1978 production of Bye Bye Birdie).
I didn’t know what to expect, particularly with someone of Sam Rockwell’s caliber. Besides Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Matchstick Men, The Green Mile, Galaxy Quest, and Charlie’s Angels, he had also starred in ­lesser-known indie gems such as Box of Moonlight, where he played an off-the-wall, off-the-grid loner who teaches John Turturro’s uptight electrical engineer a thing or two about life. Would the actor arrive at my Jesuit residence with his handlers? His posse? Would fits be pitched if I didn’t have his favorite brand of bottled water?
Sam arrived on a cold Sunday afternoon, the last day of October, wearing a nylon sweat suit and talking on a cell phone. “Hey, man,” he said with a broad smile. “I’m Sam.” He pulled off his wool cap, and his staticky brown hair stood straight up from his head. He explained that the few days’ growth of reddish beard was part of his look for the new character.
When we sat down in the musty library of my Jesuit community residence, Sam told me about his background. Both his mother and his father were actors and had met while studying at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. When Sam was five, his parents divorced. Though he remained with his father in California, during the summers he visited his mother in the Latino neighborhood where she lived in Harlem. Years later, that background would enable him to feel comfortable in the LAByrinth Theater Company, then a company for Latino actors in New York. “I was one of the first gringos they ever accepted,” he said. “Definitely the first Irish-German guy.”
Sam got an early start in his profession, appearing with his mother onstage when he was ten. While still a student in high school, he won a leading role in a horror movie, a job that gave him the confidence to move east. After graduating from San Francisco’s School of the Arts High School, he left for New York, initially boarding with his mother and stepfather. A variety of restaurant jobs, including a stint delivering burritos by bike, enabled the actor to save enough money to move “from sublet to sublet” in Brooklyn. He took almost any job to make ends meet. “I even was an apprentice to a private investigator,” he said with a laugh.
Once settled in New York, Sam began studying with the acting teacher William Esper, a follower of the Sanford Meisner technique, which emphasizes the importance of relating to the other actors onstage. It was at Esper’s studio that he met several future members of the LAByrinth Theater Company, including Stephen Adly Guirgis, the playwright of Judas. Sam studied with Esper for two years and began finding more work and landing bigger parts.
In time he was cast in a few television commercials (Burger King), found work in a television series (Law & Order), and began landing some film roles, including a part in the 1989 movie Last Exit to Brooklyn. He counts his role in Box of Moonlight as his big break. In 1997, he won a Best Actor award at the Montreal World Film Festival for his role as a troubled young man in Lawn Dogs, which led to roles in several more mainstream films. All told, Sam had been acting for more than ­twenty-five years.
“I like acting because it’s cathartic,” he said. “When it’s at its best it’s pretty therapeutic, and even spiritual. There’s a kind of release that comes with it, almost like an exorcism, as you let go of a part of yourself that you’ve kept locked away.
“But it’s hard, too,” he added. “I have this kind of love-hate relationship with acting. It gives me a lot of anxiety—all that performing and auditioning and traveling takes a lot out of you. And the business part of it . . . well, it’s just mind-­boggling how crazy that can be sometimes.”
If I didn’t know what to expect from our meeting, neither did Sam; he didn’t know any priests. Casting about for someone to speak with about his part, he had gotten my phone number from one of his mother’s friends who worked at a local Jesuit parish where I celebrate Mass on Sundays.
Eventually Sam got around to describing his religious background. “My grandmother was Irish Catholic and used to try to bring me to church, but I used to squirm around and hide under the benches,” he explained sheepishly. “I went to Catholic school, too—but just for a month. I was too rebellious. So I wasn’t raised religious, and I don’t know anything about religion.” His exposure to religious topics, to the Bible, and to the story of Jesus had come almost exclusively from film.
As for his own faith, he said, “Well, I pray to God when I’m having an anxiety attack or am panicked about a performance. God’s there when I need him, but I’m still not sure if I really believe or not.”
It appeared that both of us were in unfamiliar territory: I with theater and Sam with religion.
But religious topics provided enough common ground for a freewheeling conversation that lasted until sunset. With Sam’s small tape recorder placed before me, I launched into a sort of Introduction to Christianity, scribbling notes on stray sheets of paper, summarizing the history of the Hebrew people in the Old Testament, sketching a crude map of Judea in the first century, describing the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, listing the twelve apostles, and outlining how the various Christian denominations had grown apart over the centuries.
Sam followed my mini-­lecture attentively, squinting and cocking his head when something wasn’t clear. When something made an impression he would stare intently, nod, and say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah . . .”
The actor had already screened several films about Jesus and was in the process of listening to Gregory Peck narrate the Gospels on tape, and in fact he knew more about the Bible than he suspected. He enjoyed the 1969 movie Jesus Christ Superstar, in particular for the passionate and very physical performance of Carl Anderson, the actor who played Judas. “It helped me to see some of Judas’s point of view,” he said. But it was Jesus of Nazareth, the six-hour film directed by Franco Zeffirelli in 1977, which still appears regularly around Easter and Christmas on cable television, that was his favorite of all the Jesus films.
It was my favorite, too. Jesus of Nazareth, which stars the British actor Robert Powell as Jesus, is the film that, at least for me, most effectively conveys the sweep of the Gospel narratives. Certain scenes have imprinted themselves so deeply onto my religious consciousness that whenever I hear, for example, the story of the raising of Lazarus, it is not any Renaissance painting or fresco that comes to mind, but Robert Powell, clad in his white robes, standing before an open tomb and shouting in a booming voice, “Lazarus, come forth!”
On the other hand, Zeffirelli’s film adheres to the cinematic doctrine that while the twelve apostles are to be portrayed as simple men who speak plainly, Jesus himself must speak with a plummy British accent, as if the Messiah divided his time between Galilee and Oxford.
Sam had a terrific memory for scenes from Zeffirelli’s film. The gentle way in which Jesus treated the adulterous woman, quickly silencing the crowd intent on stoning her, made a marked impression on him. It was an account that he referred to again and again. “Even if you forget about the miracles,” said Sam, “what Jesus said and what he was trying to do were pretty extraordinary.”
Each answer I gave to one of Sam’s questions prompted a digression that led to yet another question. We jumped from the book of Genesis to Charlton Heston’s performance in The Ten Commandments, from the origin of the phrase doubting Thomas to Martin Luther and the Reformation, from the rosary to Saint Peter’s betrayal of Jesus, from the work of a Jesuit priest to Christian fundamentalism, from Mary Magdalene to Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, from the Eastern Orthodox Church to the contradictory accounts of the Resurrection in the Gospels.
At one point Sam asked about the Our Father. When the actor learned that it was a prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples, he asked me to dissect it for him, line by line. We talked about its underlying structure—the traditional praise to God, the expression of hope for God’s “kingdom,” the petition for one’s daily needs, the desire for forgiveness, and the offer of forgiveness for others. Each phrase provoked more questions from Sam. For all his lack of formal religious training, he posed queries that would have challenged even the best theologians: “I want to go back to something you just said: ‘Thy kingdom come.’ Your kingdom come? Does that mean I’m coming to your kingdom in heaven, or is heaven coming to me?”
After we dipped into random passages from the Bible, Sam and I started to focus on what he was most interested in for the purposes of the new play: the story of Jesus of Nazareth and the man who betrayed him.
As it happens, the study of what contemporary theologians term the “historical Jesus” has long been an avocation for me. This branch of New Testament scholarship uses modern scholarly methods—­archaeology, text criticism, and research into the social and cultural life of first-­century Palestine—to understand Jesus of Nazareth and his circle of disciples. Almost twenty years ago, when I entered the Jesuit novitiate, I was given a slim book called Jesus before Christianity, by a Dominican priest named Albert Nolan. Nolan describes daily life in ancient Galilee, Jewish practices and beliefs at the time of Jesus, and the real-world events that lay behind some of Jesus’ most famous stories and parables. Nolan’s fascinating study launched me on a quest to read as much as I could about the Jesus of history.
Sam was on his own quest—to learn everything he could about his character. I could see how important this kind of preparation was for him. And I was happy to discover that the actor was an open and self-­effacing fellow—anything but the stereotypical movie star.
The more Sam and I talked, the more enthusiastic I grew about the play. Over the next few months, Sam would put me to the test with a barrage of questions: What was life like for the apostles? What do we know about Judas Iscariot? Why did he betray Jesus? Could Jesus have forgiven him? Sam’s curiosity astounded me.
When I mentioned this to a Jesuit friend, he said, “Aren’t you glad you paid attention in your New Testament classes?” Then he paused and asked, “What do you know about Judas anyway?”

About Judas Very little is known about Judas. The Reverend John Meier, a professor of New Testament at Notre Dame and the author of a multivolume study on Jesus called A Marginal Jew, is one of the leading contemporary scholars on the “historical Jesus.” In the third volume of his work, entitled Companions and Competitors, Meier notes that only two basic things are known about Judas: Jesus chose him as one of the twelve apostles, and he handed Jesus over to the Jewish authorities.
Those “two bare facts,” Meier writes, “are almost all that we know about the historical Judas. Beyond them lies theological speculation or novel writing, with the dividing line between the two activities not always ­clear-cut.”
In other words, many of the standard traits of the Judas who appears in films and onstage, such as his reddish hair color (Harvey Keitel in The Last Temptation of Christ) and his fiery disposition (Jesus Christ Superstar), as well as various “facts” that appear in supposedly historically minded narratives (Judas is the first disciple called by Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told), are almost purely speculative, invented primarily for artistic purposes.
Many of these artistic speculations can be traced back to varying interpretations of a single word in the New Testament: Judas’s last name, Iscariot.
According to John Meier, there are four main theories about the name. From these interpretations came two millennia of artistic ­representations of Judas. In turn, these representations have influenced how Western culture has come to think about the man and his actions.
First, the name is said to derive from Judas’s membership in the Sicarii, or “dagger wielders,” a band of religious terrorists of the time. In this speculation, Judas was aligned with the Zealots, a fanatical group that included another apostle, Simon. As a result, Judas is sometimes portrayed, as in The Last Temptation of Christ, as an apostolic hothead. But, as Meier notes, the Sicarii did not emerge until around AD 40 or 50, well after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Also, if Judas was a Sicarius, then he would have been more likely to assassinate Jesus by stabbing him in a crowded place—the approved method among the Sicarii—rather than hand him over to the detested authorities.
The name Iscariot is also said to have come from the Semitic root verb sqr, meaning “to lie.” But here the problem is subtler: Judas is not portrayed throughout the New Testament as a liar as much as a betrayer. (An even more tenuous linguistic connection is to the Semitic verb skr: “to hand over.”)
Others see in the name a link to a Semitic word describing the man’s occupation, a red dyer, or a reference to his supposed reddish hair color. (Near the end of the play, Sam Rockwell would sport a full reddish brown beard, a feature that prompted one of my Jesuit friends to ask if he had dyed it for the part.)
Finally, Iscariot may refer to a place of birth, a village named Kerioth in Judea. Therefore, Judas Iscariot would be, in Hebrew, “a man of Kerioth” (‘ish qeriyyot). In this construct Judas would have been the only apostle not from Galilee, a tantalizing possibility: it would make the Judean Judas an obvious outsider among the Galilean apostles. Unfortunately, it is not clear that a town called Kerioth ever existed.
The best explanation may be the simplest: Iscariot was the name that Judas took from his father, who is identified in the Gospel of John as Simon Iscariot. Where the father got his name, however, remains a mystery. And whether John’s narrative is authoritative on the matter is also doubtful. In the end, says Meier, “the nickname, like the person, remains an enigma.”
The lack of historical information on Judas would be—to borrow a line from the Old Testament—both a blessing and a curse to the play’s creative team. It offered the playwright, the director, and the actors a great deal of creative freedom with the story. On the other hand, it made research into the title character’s motivation more difficult. As one character in the play says, referring to the sparse record: “Not a lot to go on—especially when we’re meant to rely on facts.” Especially when even the “facts” come from writers intent on convincing us of the underlying truth of their story.
There was one thing I could tell Sam unequivocally: Judas was not always as villainous as he has appeared historically in art and literature. Judas Iscariot was, after all, chosen to be one of the twelve apostles. This means that Jesus, supposedly a shrewd judge of character, must have seen some redeeming qualities in him. Likewise, Judas identified Jesus as someone worthy of following and initially accepted the sacrifices required to become his follower.
This alone argues for a more sympathetic portrayal of Judas. In other words, how could someone so irredeemably evil decide to give up everything to become a follower of Jesus? And if any of the traditions have any factual basis, and Judas was indeed a passionate man, we can speculate that he could have been one of the more devoted followers of Jesus of Nazareth.
Needless to say, the writers of the Gospels would have been unlikely to include any material in their narrative that would cast Judas in a positive light. Evidence of Jesus’ early affection for Judas or any stories showing Judas’s initial devotion to Jesus would probably have been set aside by the evangelists in their writing and editing. Consider one of our more recent villains, Benedict Arnold. Because we know that he turned traitor in the end, we may have less interest in knowing what positive things he might have done for the American cause earlier in his life. In a way, we can allow the later sins to obliterate the earlier graces when we are forming opinions—or writing histories—of people.
Consequently, the generally accepted understanding of Judas begins with sources that painted him in the darkest tones possible. And the writers of the four Gospels were also good storytellers who knew that, for simple dramatic effect, the story of Jesus required an arch villain: a divine protagonist needs the wickedest of opponents.
Later Christian traditions built on such presentations were, unfortunately, also influenced by nascent anti-Semitism, as the early church distanced itself from its Jewish roots. Writing in the fourth century, Saint John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople, used Judas as an example of the wickedness of Jews in general. Chrysostom was one of several saints whose writings were tinged with—and contributed to—the virulent anti-Semitism common at the time. In Chrysostom’s view, Judas was evil not only because he betrayed Jesus but also because he was Jewish.
Chrysostom sees the suicide of Judas as foreshadowing the suffering of the Jews, and he comments on this approvingly. In his Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, he writes: “This desolation [his fate] was a prelude to that of the Jews, as will appear on looking closely into the facts.” That one of the most influential figures in the patristic era could write so cruelly shows the rapid assimilation of anti-Semitism into Christianity and the hardening of the Christian heart against Judas.
These characterizations, which influenced the medieval Passion plays, continued to color the work of the early and late Renaissance writers and artists. Dante, for example, places Judas in the lowest circle of hell in his Inferno, where the arch sinner is torn apart by a three-­headed Satan. Kim Paffenroth, a religious studies professor at Iona College in New York, writes in his wide-­ranging historical study Judas: Images of the Lost Disciple: “For Dante, Judas is the worst example of the worst sin possible, betrayal, and therefore he places him at the center of hell, the worst of human sinners.”
Virgil, the poet’s guide to the underworld, identifies the man who is being chewed upon by one of Satan’s mouths while his back is being “raked clean of its skin”:

“That soul up there who suffers most of all,”
my guide explained, “is Judas Iscariot:
the one with head inside and legs out kicking.”

As Paffenroth notes, most of the Passion plays popular throughout Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries accentuated the ties between Judas and the Jewish people. The development of the most famous of these plays shows how central that identification was.
In the seventeenth century, the Bavarian town of Oberammergau vowed to stage an elaborate Passion play every ten years as a sign of thanksgiving for being spared the ravages of a terrible plague. From 1634 until the mid-­eighteenth century, writes Paffenroth, the Oberammergau play was similar to other European versions, with its crowd-­pleasing depictions of many devils tearing Judas apart for his perfidy. But in 1811, a rewrite excised the devils and prompted what Paffenroth calls an “amazing transformation.”
The new version of the Oberammergau play blamed the Jews exclusively—instead of devils or the devil—for the death of Jesus, thus “elaborating and accentuating Jewish evil as completely human but utterly and irredeemably evil.” The Oberammergau Passion continues to be staged; according to Paffenroth, only in 2000 were any “substantial” changes made to the script regarding anti-Semitism.
Over time, then, the stereotype of Judas as the wickedest of all human beings, as well as layer upon layer of anti-Semitism, made it difficult if not impossible for later generations to gain any distance from Judas’s story and to understand his motivation. The historical Judas was buried under the artistic representations of him. As Graham Greene wrote in his novel The End of the Affair, “If we had not been taught how to interpret the story of the Passion, would we have been able to say from their actions alone whether it was the jealous Judas or the cowardly Peter who loved Christ?”
An edgier interpretation comes from David A. Reed, a Scripture scholar writing in the Biblical Theology Bulletin. Perhaps, says Reed, one could see in Judas a kind of offbeat heroism. Reed suggests that in the first century, Judas’s suicide would have been understood as a calculated decision to shame the Jewish religious leaders for refusing to take back the money they had given Judas in payment for his betrayal, as well as a means for Judas to atone for his sin.
“Like many figures in the Hebrew Bible,” writes Reed, “he has experienced atonement in the best sense of the word, though it shocks us that his atonement came about by suicide.”
In lengthy conversations, Sam and I explored some of these insights into the life of his character. Without a real understanding of Judas’s history, Sam would not be able to portray him accurately or compellingly onstage, and so he was interested in learning anything he could about his character. For example, once Sam saw Judas as initially supportive of Jesus’ ministry, he was able to portray him as something more than the monster described by most Christian writers. Over time, the actor’s questions also helped me see a familiar story from a fresh perspective.
Eventually, we had to sift through the traditional explanations for, and biblical descriptions of, Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. One Saturday afternoon, I made my way to Sam’s apartment downtown. Fortified by a few cups of strong tea, we turned our attention to the act that defines Judas in the popular imagination. Unfortunately, as Meier points out in A Marginal Jew, the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) offer confusing and even contradictory explanations for his motives.
The Gospel of Mark gives no motivation for Judas’s sudden betrayal. John’s Gospel has Jesus telling Judas at the Last Supper, “Do quickly what you are going to do,” implying coercion on the part of Jesus. Matthew, writing a decade or so after Mark, attempts to clarify things in his account by introducing the motive of greed: “What will you give me?” Judas asks the Jewish chief priests.
This theme is taken up by the Gospel of John as well: long before the Last Supper, Judas is depicted by the evangelist as the greedy keeper of the common purse. When, shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus is anointed with costly perfume by a woman in the town of Bethany, John’s Gospel has Judas complain, asking why the money was not given to the poor.
In an aside, John says to the reader, “He [Judas] said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” So John paints Judas as exceedingly greedy and a thief as well. Finally, Luke’s Gospel tells us that at the Last Supper, “Satan entered into Judas.” Daniel J. Harrington, SJ, a New Testament scholar, told our class in graduate school that for the interested reader this phrase from Luke explained “either everything or nothing.”
There is another hypothesis that sometimes remains unstated by Scripture scholars: the evangelists simply concocted the entire story of Judas’s betrayal for dramatic purposes. Some have posited that the one who betrayed Jesus could have come from outside the circle of the Twelve and that Judas was simply a convenient fall guy. Similarly, Judas may have been invented as a generic “Jewish” character in order to lay the blame for the Crucifixion on the Jewish people.
But this wholesale invention is unlikely. By most accounts, Mark wrote his Gospel around AD 70, only forty years after the death of Jesus. Luke and Matthew wrote some ten to fifteen years later. The early Christian community would have still counted among its members those who were friends of Jesus, those who were eyewitnesses to the Passion events, and those who knew the sequence of events from the previous generation. We can assume that these followers would have criticized any wild liberties taken with the story. Rather, as Father Harrington told me recently, “Judas’s betrayal of Jesus was a known and most embarrassing fact.” In other words, the ignominy of having Jesus betrayed by one of his closest friends is something that the Gospel writers would most likely have wanted to avoid, not invent. Overall, though, none of the four Gospels provides a clear or convincing reason for why one of Jesus’ inner circle would have betrayed the teacher he esteemed so highly. Greed, for example, fails miserably as an explanation. After all, why would someone who had traveled with the penniless rabbi for three years suddenly become consumed with greed?
One Scripture scholar, the late William Barclay, former professor of divinity at the University of Glasgow and author of the widely used multivolume Daily Study Bible, suggested that the most compelling explanation is that in handing Jesus over to the Romans, Judas was trying to force Jesus’ hand, to get him to act in a decisive way. Perhaps Judas expected the arrest would prompt Jesus to reveal himself as the long-­awaited Messiah by overthrowing the Roman occupiers. Barclay noted that none of the other traditional explanations (greed, ­disillusionment, jealousy) explains why Judas would have been so shattered after the Crucifixion that he committed suicide. Only if Judas had expected a measure of good to come from his actions would suicide make any sense. (The recently discovered Gospel of Judas, written in the fourth century, more or less takes that same approach.)
“This is in fact the view which best suits all the facts,” Barclay concluded.
After we had batted around Barclay’s theory for a while, Sam thought for a moment and remarked, “Maybe Judas was throwing Jesus into the deep end of the pool, hoping he’d swim.” I liked his analogy so much that I used it in a homily at Mass the following Sunday at a local Jesuit church. After Mass, one of the parishioners approached me on the steps of the church and said, “That was a great insight about Judas. Where did you get that from?”
Sam’s insight would eventually find its way into Guirgis’s play, on the lips of Simon the Zealot, one of the twelve apostles, who provides the main defense for Judas: he hoped to help Jesus fulfill his destiny. “I think Judas was trying to throw Jesus into the deep end of the pool,” says Simon. But the playwright doesn’t let Simon off easily. Through the Egyptian-born prosecutor, he provides a trenchant rejoinder to Barclay’s hypothesis: “[Judas was] there to lend zee helping hand, yes?” says the prosecutor sarcastically. “Yes, I think you are correct. . . . I’m sure [if I were Jesus on the cross] my first thought as I gasped for air and bled to death would be, ‘Really, that Judas—what a helpful guy!’”

The Birth of a God-Haunted Play Stephen Adly Guirgis’s theological interests were even more wide-­ranging than Sam Rockwell’s. As the playwright, he needed to know not only about Judas but also about all the events leading up to the Crucifixion, including the roles of Pontius Pilate, the Jewish leader Caiaphas the Elder, and the apostles.
Like Sam, Stephen had gotten my name from a Catholic church in Manhattan, called Corpus Christi, his childhood parish. When we first met, the play was still being written, although it had been performed in readings at the past two annual summer workshops of the LAByrinth Theater Company. As Stephen would later explain, “Lab,” as he called it, had been his creative home for almost a decade. Working with close friends afforded him a measure of comfort in the midst of the otherwise stress-­inducing venture of staging a new play.
And this play would certainly be a challenge: not only was it new, but it would also be staged in a larger venue and before a wider audience than any of Stephen’s previous works. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot was slated for a run at New York City’s prestigious Public Theater, also the coproducer of the show. Founded in 1954 by the impresario Joseph Papp, the Public Theater was the originator of the popular Shakespeare in the Park series, as well as the source of some of the most successful Broadway plays in the past few decades. Shows as diverse as That Championship Season, Hair, A Chorus Line, The Pirates of Penzance, Take Me Out, and Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk all began their profitable lives at the Public. Over its fifty-year life, the theater has staged plays that have won 40 Tony Awards, 135 Obies, 38 Drama Desk Awards, and 4 Pulitzer prizes. The Public, therefore, would give Guirgis’s play instant attention. But wider visibility and a larger audience would also mean an increased risk of failure, and a very public one at that.
At my first meeting with Stephen, in early November, over dinner at a Greek restaurant around the corner from my Jesuit community in Manhattan, the affable and voluble playwright handed me a book of his plays. Stephen was an unlikely looking intellectual: sleepy eyes hung at half-mast, a few days’ growth of beard, gray-­tinged black hair flopped over his collar, layer upon layer of T-shirts and sweatshirts, and a crumpled pack of cigarettes at the ready.
He was also a natural conversationalist, every once in a while offering an observation so insightful and clear-eyed that I realized why he was a successful playwright. Though I had heard of two of his most successful works—Our Lady of 121st Street and Jesus Hopped the “A” Train—I was embarrassed to admit that I had seen neither. But I read through these two plays over the next few nights.
Stephen’s writing revealed a playwright who seemed, in the words of the theologian Johannes Baptist Metz, “religious ‘by nature.’” Underneath many of his foul-­mouthed characters were men and women, usually poor and unlucky, who had nonetheless not given up searching for meaning, for answers, and for a modicum of faith. I thought of a quote from Saint Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; . . . struck down, but not destroyed.” While Stephen might have blanched at the description, the two plays I read were deeply theological.
They were also wildly profane, full of the kind of vulgarity heard not in church sacristies (at least not most church sacristies) but in locker rooms, bars, and traffic jams. That kind of in-your-face language not only reflected the milieu of the characters but also prevented the presentation of religious themes from becoming either cozily conventional or piously sentimental, and probably helped open a window into theological questions for those normally put off by such topics.
Jesus Hopped the “A” Train, or Jesus, as Stephen called it, tells the tale of Angel Cruz, a young Puerto Rican in New York jailed for shooting a born-again Christian who has brainwashed his best friend. “All I did was shoot him in the ass,” explains Angel, an essentially ­good-­hearted man. But the minister dies, condemning the young man to his fate. While in jail, he meets Lucius, a born-again serial killer intent on conveying his religious worldview to Angel.
It is an incendiary work, written in the playwright’s slangy style, with the two main characters arguing over questions of free will, personal responsibility, the nature of evil, and faith. “If prayer don’t mean st,” says Lucius to Angel, “then how come I was awoken the other night to hear a sorry little bitch stutterin’ over some prayer in between chokes ’n’ sobs ’n’ snorts from inhaling his tears on the damp little prison pillow?”
Even reading the script in the quiet of my office, I felt the play’s passion and intensity. Jesus garnered Stephen a good deal of attention and received nominations for several dramatic awards. In 2002, it was nominated for the prestigious Olivier Award for best new play in London. Writing in the New York Times, Ben Brantley said, “Plays of this ilk automatically raise the body—and mind—temperature of New York theater.”
Our Lady of 121st Street, Stephen’s next work, paints an affectionate group portrait of the former students of a much-loved Catholic sister, whose funeral they are attending in their old, and poor, neighborhood. The police are also investigating why the nun’s body has disappeared from the funeral home. “What did Rose ever do till the day she died but be a . . . living saint on earth to deserve . . . this sacrilege?” says one character in the first scene.
At the heart of Our Lady is the way in which the tough-­talking characters—Anglo, Latino, African American—are forced, through direct conversations with one another, to accept responsibility for their lives. As in Jesus, questions of faith take center stage: characters talk about confession, the story of Jonah and the whale, and Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Like Jesus, Our Lady was greeted ­enthusiastically. It received nominations from the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle for best play. In a review of the original production, Bruce Weber said in the New York Times that the playwright had “one of the finest imaginations for dialogue to come along in years.”
After glancing at the back jacket of the book, I was further embarrassed by my ignorance. A writer in the New York Times Magazine stated that Stephen Adly Guirgis “may be the best playwright in America under forty.” Other reviewers compared him to Tennessee Williams, David Mamet, Joe Orton, and even Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Subsequent conversations with theatergoers at my parish pointed up my sorry lack of theatrical knowledge. One woman active in our parish told me that she had seen all of his plays.
“You’re working with Stephen Adly Guirgis?” she said. “He’s God-­haunted, I think.”
Stephen admitted as much in a later conversation. “In the final scene of Jesus,” he explained, “Angel listens to his conscience, a way of entering into relationship with God. In Our Lady, it is ultimately a priest who gets through to the main character. My last few plays have been about exploring my conflicts with the spiritual side of life as well as what continues to draw me to it.” Judas was a natural next step.

The Making of a Playwright Before my first meeting with Stephen, his new play already had a long history. In a way, it had begun when Stephen was in third grade. That year, one of the Dominican sisters teaching at Corpus Christi told his class the story of Judas. Stephen was horrified. He believed in a loving God, and the idea that God had consigned Judas to a place called hell “just stopped me in my tracks.” He loved and respected the nuns in his school but wondered about what they were telling him. How could God not feel sorry for Judas?
The third grader had stumbled upon a theological conundrum that has challenged theologians, philosophers, and saints for centuries. Doesn’t God, who is kind and merciful, as the psalms say, forgive every sin? How could a merciful God create hell? In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus of Nazareth repeatedly forgives sins, but he also tells his followers that they will be judged at the end of time, with the “sheep” being separated from the “goats.” How does one reconcile justice with mercy? Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the ­nineteenth-­century French Carmelite nun, solved this dilemma for herself by saying that she believed in hell but also believed it was empty. How could anyone in heaven, wondered Thérèse, be happy if there were still souls suffering in hell? (Tertullian, one of the most influential early Christian writers, disagreed—which is putting things mildly. He predicted that one of the chief joys of heaven would be thinking about the torments of the sinners in hell.)
It would have been unfair to expect Stephen’s teacher to present her third-grade class with a sophisticated presentation of the Catholic understanding of hell, a topic that prompts even the best theologians to scratch their heads.
There is obviously no earthly way of knowing what awaits sinners and the “elect,” but that has not prevented Christians from reflecting on what the soul might face after the death of the body. And it is a difficult topic to avoid, not only because of our innate curiosity (and fear) but also because Jesus of Nazareth alluded to what is called the “Last Judgment” in his preaching, most famously in his parable of the sheep and the goats. For the “sheep”—the good souls, the faithful—there is the reward of heaven, eternal life, or, in Christian terminology, the “beatific vision”: the direct seeing and knowing of the divine.
But from as early as the late fifth century, the church has also recognized punishment after death for the “goats,” those who die in a state of “mortal sin,” or serious sin. Popes and ecumenical councils have wrestled with the topic until the present time, striving to arrive at a definition that preserves God’s justice while not understating God’s mercy. In 1979, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its “Letter on Certain Questions concerning Eschatology,” reaffirmed the belief that some sinners are punitively “deprived of the sight of God.”
But beyond this—and contrary to popular belief—the church has never affirmed that any individual human being has been consigned to hell. Not even Judas.
The general understanding of ordinary Christians, however, is slightly different. What theologians call the sensus fidelium (“sense of the faithful”) can be summed up as follows: there is a hell, and Judas is probably there, along with, say, Hitler and Stalin and a few other evildoers. (Most Catholics, perhaps being forgiving sorts, or perhaps trying to hedge their bets on their own sins, don’t like to go further than the most notorious sinners.) This view seems to be what Stephen’s teacher imparted to his class.
For the young boy, though, the notion of a vengeful deity was shocking, disturbing his previously benign image of God. He explained his reaction to me over lunch one day.
“It’s like I’m getting to know you,” he told me, “and all of a sudden someone says to me, ‘Hey, Father Jim is a murderer!’ And I go to you, and you say that you are a murderer, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” Harboring questions like these made Stephen feel guilty for having a viewpoint different from that of his teachers and, by extension, different from how God viewed the world. He felt that he was a bad person for believing these things. This was the beginning of his problems with faith.
But the boy with the questions about faith would spend most of his childhood in Catholic schools, first at Corpus Christi and then at Xavier High School, a Jesuit school in Manhattan, until eleventh grade. During that time, his mother, a devout Irish Catholic, and his father, an Egyptian immigrant who was baptized in the Coptic Church, taught him to pray and encouraged him to go to Mass. And he would go—sometimes. “My mother would give me money for the collection in an envelope, but sometimes I would skip Mass, take the money, and play pinball.”
This only added to his guilt. “I felt that it should be easier for me to do the right thing—to pray, to go to church, to be more into all of it.” Stephen grew into an intelligent young man prone to misbehavior: he became proficient at shoplifting, mainly to keep up with his neighborhood peers, whose families were wealthier than his. “I got really good at it, too.”
In tenth grade, Stephen underwent back surgery to correct a childhood curvature of the spine, which put him in a full body cast and kept him out of school for six months. Afterward, his limited ability to walk meant leaving Xavier for a school nearer home; he enrolled at the Rhodes School, which he characterized as being less disciplined than his previous schools. Aimless after graduation, he was a bike messenger for a time and then applied to state universities. Albany State University accepted him, and Stephen described seven years of working toward his degree while partying, battling depression, and teetering on the edge of expulsion, until he discovered the drama department.
“For me, it was a chance to escape and to dream and to play make-­believe,” he said. Stephen still acts and recently appeared in Todd Solondz’s movie Palindromes and Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. “I love acting, and if I go too long without acting, I get pretty sad, and then I realize that it’s because I haven’t done any acting for a while, and then I try to find a way to do some, and then I immediately feel better.”
His spirituality—even in the midst of doubt—was always a part of his life, and it became part of his profession. “Whenever I perform, I pray to God and ask him for help. I pray to Mary, because I figure she’ll help me more because she’s a woman. And I pray to the Holy Spirit to move through me as I act.”
More confident of his direction in life, he finished his degree in 1991 and almost immediately founded a small theater in the Bronx with a friend. He left after a year, upon realizing that it was acting, not managing, that he wanted to do most. After a year in Santa Fe (where he founded another theater), he returned to New York and heard that a friend from Albany State, John Ortiz, had cofounded the Latino Actors Base, the precursor of the LAByrinth Theater Company. Stephen auditioned and was accepted. Around the same time, he began taking acting lessons at William Esper’s studio, where he met Sam Rockwell.
In 1993, Ortiz asked his friend to write a one-act play for LAB. The fledgling company was having a hard time finding scripts to produce. Francisco and Benny, Stephen’s first play, was a success. “Everyone laughed at the funny parts and was quiet at the serious parts,” he said. “After that, [the company members] kept pestering me to write something for their summer workshops.”
A number of successful full-length plays followed, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, a friend and fellow company member. Stephen the actor had become a playwright.
In the summer of 2003, John Ortiz called Stephen again and said, “You’re writing something, right?”
At a loss, Stephen blurted out, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.” His last three plays had focused on religious topics, and since Judas had been his original stumbling block with religion, he figured, “Why not go back to the source of my problems and see where it takes me?”
For the first workshop, he brought in a ­twenty-page script. During the following year, Stephen landed acting roles in two movies, while the play percolated through his unconscious. In the summer of 2004, a few months before I met Stephen, the play, now twenty pages longer, had another reading at the LAB summer workshop. Stephen also began to cast a few members from LAB, including Sam. Hoffman agreed to direct Judas, and the play was scheduled for the next season. After that summer, Stephen’s research began in earnest. So did his resistance.
“I discovered that there was a reason I hadn’t written it before,” he told me not long after the play closed. “The subject was terribly daunting for me, in almost every way. It not only touched on all my spiritual struggles, but it seemed too big a topic for someone like me to tackle.” A visit to the pastor of Riverside Church, where Stephen had attended kindergarten, gave him the courage to continue. Another conversation, with the pastor of Corpus Christi Church, who also gave him my phone number, further encouraged him. His doubt had led him back to his kindergarten and childhood parishes.
Stephen’s spiritual life at the time was also beginning to deepen. “The last several years have been about trying to reconnect and get closer with whatever it is that God is,” he said. “This play about Judas is part of that journey.”
Still, he faced inner resistance. “So I’m trying to write this play about avoidance in Judas’s life—and I’m avoiding it! One day I had lunch with Sam, who said that he had met this young priest and that I should call him. It’s a manifestation of a general spiritual problem that I have: I always think I need to do everything by myself. But the reality is the exact opposite! So I knew I needed to talk to someone about all this theology.”
I asked him whether he believed that his lunch with Sam was a kind of providence.
“Well,” he said, taking a drag off his cigarette, “I took that as a sign of providence, and I took it as a sign that I should get up off my ass and call you.”

Theological questions were indeed foremost in the playwright’s mind, and our conversations ranged from broader questions about grace, forgiveness, and despair to more detailed inquiries into the history of the individual characters in the drama.
Stephen came to our first meeting armed with an impressive knowledge about his new protagonist. His initial preparation had included reading several books and screening a wide variety of movies about Jesus. “When I had trouble reading about Judas, I went to the video store and bought every Jesus movie I could find.”
While this research provided some useful background, it left some key questions unanswered.
Shortly after our first meeting, I lent Stephen a few favorite books and copied some articles I had kept from my graduate studies in theology. These he squirreled away in his cramped, West Side apartment, a fourth-floor walk-up whose front door was a riot of stickers, posters, and photos from previous LAB productions, and whose chaotic interior—the floor was littered with books, clothes, CD covers, loose pages from his scripts, even a dinner plate or two—made locating the books he borrowed a challenge after the play closed. Stephen’s apartment reminded me of the saying that while Jesuits take the vow of poverty, there are others who actually live it more fully than some of us do. But while Stephen eagerly accepted any and all of the books and articles I gave him, it was conversation and debate that seemed to engage him most.
“Okay,” he said one night over the phone, “give me the case against Pontius Pilate.” I told him what would lead people to conclude that Pilate was the man responsible for the death of Jesus. After an hour of that, he said, “Okay, now give me the case for Pontius Pilate.” What most surprised me about these late-night sessions were not the questions Stephen asked but what he did with the answers, quickly transforming the raw material of our conversations into monologues and dialogues in his streetwise style.
Early on, for example, Stephen asked a provocative question about Pontius Pilate: “What do you think he thought about his time in Judea?” As it happened, I had recently read Ann Wroe’s superb biography Pontius Pilate, in which the author tries to answer that question. Wroe, a former literary editor of the Economist, based her book on the limited evidence about Pilate himself and the more available history of the time.
Her biography speculates that the procurator of Judea was, above all, a thoroughly Romanized man, a man who believed firmly in the Roman gods and the ethical code of the empire, and who held Rome to be the center of the world. Pontius Pilate most likely spent many years as a Roman soldier before being assigned to his post in Palestine. Judea was not the first place a Roman soldier would choose for a home. “His job was not a plum appointment,” she wrote. “It was a junior officer’s billet; more experienced men got Syria or Egypt.”
As a citizen of the great Rome, Pilate would almost certainly have viewed the hot and dusty Judea as a backwater, with little of the cultural amenities available in faraway Rome. “Armpit of the empire,” I suggested to Stephen over the phone.
The next morning, the playwright e-mailed me a scene based on our discussion. In this scene, Pilate, on the witness stand, lays out his ­opinion of the region he had been sent to govern on behalf of Caesar. During the run, Pontius Pilate was played by Stephen McKinley Henderson, an actor with a booming voice and a commanding presence.
As Pilate, Henderson was casually dressed in golfing attire, including plaid socks, as if to communicate his disdain for the proceedings. In the following scene, he has just described his role as procurator of Judea to Fabiana Aziza Cunningham, the defense attorney.

    Cunningham.    I see. And you governed or procurated over Judea from ­twenty-six to ­thirty-six A.D., correct?
    Pilate.    Longest ten years of my life.
    Cunningham.    Why do you say that?
    Pilate.    You ever been to Judea, missy? It ain’t Paris, France—believe that.
    Cunningham.    I see.
    Pilate.    Yeah, that Moses musta read the map backwards—misplaced his bifocals, sumpthin’—’cuz if that was the “promised land,” . . . them Jews shoulda held out for a better Promise.
    Cunningham.    You didn’t care for Judea much?
    Pilate.    Care for it? Armpit of the Empire, if you ask me. No atmosphere, nuthin’. Hot. Dirty. Dusty. Flies everywhere. Complete lack of Culture and Amusements. . . . But Augustus ordered me to keep the peace there, so I obeyed my Emperor, and did my duty.
    Cunningham.    And kept the peace?
    Pilate.    The Pax Romana, baby, the prime directive—dass right.

Pilate’s dismissive responses to Cunningham always elicited laughter from the audience. But Guirgis was interested in more than simply getting laughs or making Pilate a risible figure. Ultimately, the playwright wanted to help the audience appreciate the complicated mix of motives that led to the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

Who Killed Jesus?
Examining responsibility for the death of Jesus was critical for the purposes of Stephen’s play. The controversy surrounding the implication of Jewish responsibility in Mel Gibson’s blockbuster movie The Passion of the Christ made Stephen see that the treatment of Roman governor Pontius Pilate and the Jewish high priest Caiaphas would need to be carefully written. In our conversations, Stephen and I probed the more reasonable explanations for the Crucifixion in recent books and films and discarded the less reasonable ones. Stephen was careful to repeat to me, however, that he had purposely avoided seeing Gibson’s film, to prevent him from writing a “response” to it.
The Passion of the Christ raised fresh controversy over the question “Who killed Jesus?” (Almost entirely overlooked was the more interesting question of why.) Mel Gibson’s film generated coverage in every major magazine and newspaper as well as hours of face time for a variety of expert (and not-so-­expert) commentators. Critics of the movie contended that by making Pontius Pilate appear as a thoughtful and conflicted official, the movie tipped the balance of responsibility to the Jewish leaders at the time. The movie’s supporters, on the other hand, contended that any attempt to remove guilt from the Jewish leaders amounted to a whitewashing of history.
One problem with the public conversation that surrounded The Passion of the Christ was the frequent presentation of a dichotomy between reason and faith. Some on the secular left argued that religious faith blinds a person to the need for serious historical scholarship. That is, religious people are willfully ignorant of facts—or they’re just idiots. Some on the religious right countered that appeals to historical evidence betray a lack of faith. That is, academics are prejudiced against religion—or they’re just atheists.
This is a false dichotomy. The majority of Christian denominations have long recognized the importance of serious Scripture scholarship, as well as the need for using historical tools to understand the Bible. Underlying this recognition is the belief that Scripture is one of the primary means through which God is revealed. In the early 1960s, the Catholic bishops who convened at the Second Vatican Council to consider contemporary theological issues wrote in Dei Verbum (“Word of God”): “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God.” This reemphasis on serious Scripture scholarship (long the domain of dedicated Protestant theologians, philologists, and historians) led to a flowering of Catholic biblical scholarship during the past few decades.
Today most mainstream Christian scholars rely on what is called the ­historical-­critical approach to Scripture, a way of studying biblical texts that considers their original historical settings and what the texts would have meant in those contexts. For example, in studying the parables of Jesus, which include references to farmers, crops, and planting cycles, it helps to know something about agriculture in first-­century Palestine, a topic we can understand more deeply with the help of independent historical sources and studies. This kind of approach is essential when trying to understand something as complicated as the death of Jesus.
From as early as the second century, for example, a handful of Gospel passages have been used to support the charge of “deicide” (literally, God-­murdering) against the Jewish people as a whole. Used most often is a passage from the Gospel of Matthew, where “the people” say, in response to Pontius Pilate, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
Until recently, the history of Christian-Jewish relations has been largely a record of Christian hostility, persecution, and cruelty. Throughout European history, Jews were exiled from their homes or murdered in the name of the church. Both anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism were also, as noted before, given expression and encouraged by medieval Passion plays sponsored by Catholic churches and organizations. This was the last thing Stephen Adly Guirgis wanted to emulate in his new play.
Eric Bogosian, the actor and writer who would play Satan in Stephen’s play, offered an example of how anti-Semitic sentiments may operate in subtle ways in the film and television industry. Though a Christian of Armenian descent, Eric told me that because of his olive complexion, aquiline profile, and dark curly hair, many people assume that he comes from another ethnic background. “I look Jewish,” he said bluntly. “And in the real world that seems to make me a natural bad guy: my black curly hair, and so on, is a quality equated with evil.” As a result, the actor is often offered the role of the heavy in films. “It’s part of the continuing vilification of the Jews.”
More tellingly, almost every review of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot would celebrate Eric’s performance as Satan. He hoped that it was because of his acting skills but suspected that something else might be involved. “I found it interesting that many of the reviews said, ‘Bogosian is perfect as Satan.’ I wondered how much of that had to do with the way I look. Did the fact that I have Semitic looks make me ‘perfect’ to play Satan?”
It could be argued that all of this is a by-­product of the way that the story of Judas, the Jews, and the Crucifixion has been told over the centuries. Indeed, the long history of Christian anti-Semitism and the horrific fate of the Jews during the Second World War are in themselves reason enough to consider carefully the ways in which Christians understand and present the Passion story. In one of its most important decisions, the Second Vatican Council, after decades of work on Catholic-Jewish relations, published its document Nostra Aetate (“In Our Age”). Echoing the statements of Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans, the council reaffirmed the role of the Jews as the “people to whom the covenants and promises [of God] were made.” Nostra Aetate also repudiated the ancient accusations that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for the death of Jesus: “True,” the council wrote, “the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”
More recently, Pope John Paul II worked diligently on Catholic-Jewish relations. Apologizing for the church’s role in Jewish persecution throughout history, he stated, “Erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability [for the Crucifixion] have circulated for too long, engendering feelings of hostility toward this people.”
The ­historical-­critical approach to interpreting the biblical accounts also makes sense intellectually. Put simply, a completely literalistic or fundamentalist interpretation is impossible. The proof for this is plain: the Gospels are not always consistent.
A few examples will suffice. The adult Jesus makes only one journey to Jerusalem in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), while he makes several in John. The story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew describes Mary and Joseph as living in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt, and then moving for the first time to Nazareth, while Luke has the two living originally in Nazareth, traveling to Bethlehem in time for the birth, and then returning home again. Mark and John have nothing of such traditions. More serious still, in terms of basic tenets of the Christian faith, some of the Resurrection stories are substantially different. In some accounts, the risen Christ appears as a material being; in others, he can walk through walls.
The various ways of telling Jesus’ story reflect the different views and concerns of the Gospel writers (and, in the case of the Resurrection, the difficulty of fully expressing what the earlier witnesses had experienced). Despite what many fundamentalist Christians contend, the Gospels are not to be treated as strictly historical chronicles.
This points up the need for a careful approach to even the most familiar of New Testament stories, such as the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. The first-­century writers of the Gospels presented different views of Jesus Christ, and they did so with different communities, concerns, and readers in mind. So when arguing about historical accuracy, it is not enough simply to say, “It’s in the Bible.”
Likewise, when believers raise questions about the accuracy of certain historical contexts, unearth inconsistencies in the narratives, or critique a reliance on literalistic interpretations, they are not trying to “water down” the Gospels, as some of their critics accuse them of doing. They are engaging in an important aspect of the life of faith. Theologians call this adopting a stance that is “historically conscious.” And in mainstream Christian theology, reason and faith are not opposed to each other; both are seen as expressions of God’s leading human beings in the search for truth. Indeed, one of the most venerable definitions of theology, from the ­eleventh-­century saint Anselm of Canterbury, is fides quaerens intellectum: faith seeking understanding.
Stephen Adly Guirgis’s own “historically conscious” questions into what really happened to Jesus and Judas were therefore an important part of his own spiritual journey. And once put on stage, they would become part of the journey of the audience—at least for a few hours.
After all his research, Stephen wanted to hear what I thought about who killed Jesus. The responsibility for Jesus’ death was the underlying theme of his play, and the answer to the question of who was responsible would help us unlock the riddle of Judas Iscariot. “So who do you think was responsible?” he asked me one evening a few days before Thanksgiving. “Caiaphas or Pilate?”

The most notable recent effort to answer Stephen’s question is a ­sixteen-­hundred-page, two-­volume work, The Death of the Messiah, written by Raymond E. Brown, a Catholic priest and one of the leading New Testament scholars of the late twentieth century. He points out that while it is clear that some of the Jewish leaders were opposed to Jesus, it is also clear that only Rome had the power to condemn and crucify a man.
Brown also reminds us that as the early Christians began to move away from Jewish traditions and to embrace non-Jews into their movement, strains of anti-Judaism crept into their writings—the accounts that would become our New Testament. Because the early church sought to distance itself from its Jewish roots, it encouraged readings of the events of the Passion that would cast the Jewish authorities in a poor light. The writers of the Gospels were not immune to this. Contemporary scholarship therefore treats this issue with justifiable care and attention.
No matter how fine the scholarship, one has to remember that we are dealing essentially with reconstructions of what happened to Jesus. Those reconstructions were written by his followers, anxious to tell an inspiring tale. The Gospel accounts are not necessarily eyewitness accounts.
In an essay entitled “Who Killed Jesus?” New Testament scholar Daniel J. Harrington, SJ, answers the question simply: “Pontius Pilate, with cooperation from some Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, killed Jesus.”
The key point is that Jesus was executed by Romans for a Roman crime: sedition. “Jesus was, in fact, executed by the Romans,” writes D. Moody Smith, professor of New Testament at Duke University, in an essay in Harper’s Bible Commentary. Still, some Jewish religious leaders were likely angered by what they saw as Jesus’ blasphemous utterances, as well as actions that threatened their understanding of their religious duty—among other things, his claim to have the power to forgive sin, his violent expulsion of the money changers from the temple grounds, his association with people considered “unclean,” and his followers’ declaration of their teacher as the Messiah.
But the Gospels are murky about precisely what lay behind the death of Jesus. For the evangelists were not as concerned with providing a historically accurate picture as modern readers might assume. “From the outset,” writes Raymond Brown about the Passion narratives, “we must be cautious about the NT [New Testament] reports.” Here is a blunt warning against simplistic interpretations of the Gospel narratives, coming from one of the most accomplished scholars of those Scriptures.
What Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were intent on providing was not historical truth but something more elusive, and far more important for the early Christians: the religious meaning of the events in question. As a result, the descriptions of the last days of Jesus differ from Gospel to Gospel. For example, the Gospel of John has Jesus speaking at length to Pilate, and the other three Gospels present him as virtually silent during his Roman trial.
In another of Brown’s books, An Introduction to the New Testament, the author notes that only one Gospel tries to give a more or less complete explanation for Jesus’ condemnation: “Only John explains clearly why Jesus was brought to Pilate (. . . the Jews were not permitted to put anyone to death) and why Pilate rendered a death sentence even though he knew that Jesus did not deserve such a punishment (. . . he would be denounced to the Emperor for not being diligent in punishing a so-called king).”
It is critical to note that the use of the Jews in the Gospels as a description of the opponents of Jesus is not meant to convey “all Jewish leaders” any more than “the Jewish people.” Unfortunately, phrases such as the Jews in the Gospel of John have been used to foster anti-Semitism. That particular phrase has been used to blame all Jews for the decisions of a few specific religious leaders who have been dead for almost two millennia. As D. Moody Smith notes, “Certainly the Evangelist could not have foreseen the awful implication and effects of his words as they have resounded through the centuries.”
This is one reason Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ proved problematic for so many theologians and biblical scholars. The Passion focuses on the last several hours in the life of Jesus, beginning with his betrayal by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane and ending with his crucifixion and resurrection. It was both exceedingly popular and exceedingly violent, sparing viewers little of the blood and gore of Jesus’ execution.
While Gibson’s film superbly portrays the utter brutality of the Crucifixion and the emotional responses of the disciples, and does so in the language of Jesus and his circle—Gibson’s brilliant use of Aramaic neatly avoids the problem of the Oxford-­educated Jesus—it does a poorer job in handling the complicated question of Jewish and Roman responsibility. For all his emphasis on historical accuracy, Gibson ­presented a story that was far from what most biblical scholars would call historically conscious.
The Passion of the Christ contains dialogue and scenes that, in general, make the Jews look worse and Pilate look better. For example, the Gospels are unclear about the number of Jews in the city of Jerusalem who demanded the Crucifixion. The movie, however, shows a large mob, visually implying that the city’s entire Jewish community wanted Jesus dead. Some scholars point out that Jesus likely had many Jewish supporters in Jerusalem; one reason that the Romans arrested him at night, as mentioned in the Gospel of Mark, was probably to minimize angering those supporters. New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan has suggested that the pilgrims at the temple were much taken with Jesus’ teaching on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and that there is every reason to believe that by Friday the authorities would have been reluctant to take the popular teacher by daylight.
In addition, what are called the Palm Sunday narratives present Jesus entering Jerusalem the week before his death to the adulation of a celebratory crowd. That the Jewish population as a whole would have flip-­flopped from adulation to publicly calling for Jesus’ execution seems unlikely.
In many ways, The Passion of the Christ was a needed corrective to the saccharine and bloodless portrayals of the Crucifixion we see in many mainstream movies about Jesus. But the movie subtly shifted the burden of responsibility for the death of Jesus away from Pontius Pilate and to the Jewish leaders. Mel Gibson’s film thereby overlooks some of the insights of modern Scripture scholars and may frustrate the desire of many mainstream Christian denominations to avoid precisely this kind of misrepresentation.
Any artistic retelling of historical events must take liberties with the original story for dramatic purposes. Some events will have to be omitted for the sake of time; conversations will have to be invented to convey information; and characters will have to be eliminated for the sake of simplicity. But those who tell the stories and produce the films and plays must discern how many liberties they can take and whether these liberties fundamentally alter the underlying history.
Even the most rigorous of historians would accept the validity of the question of how much liberty an artist can take in a retelling of history. In 1997, Edmund Morgan, one of the most admired historians of colonial and early America, wrote an appreciative review of the film version of Arthur Miller’s Crucible, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Joan Allen, and Winona Ryder. Based on Miller’s successful stage play of the same name, which was written at the height of the anti-Communist crusades of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the mid-1950s, the film takes as its subject the ghastly Salem witchcraft trials that took place in late-­seventeenth-­century Massachusetts. The trials resulted in the executions of nineteen people.
Morgan’s provocative essay is included in a collection entitled The Genuine Article: A Historian Looks at Early America. “A playwright dealing with historical figures can scarcely ignore what is known or knowable about them. . . . The only question is how closely a playwright must be tied to what is known, for he cannot be tied so closely that his play or film becomes merely a documentary. He is surely entitled to make up things that did not happen. Indeed he must make them up if he is to give us more understanding of what did happen than historians have been able to do in confining themselves to proven facts.”
Though the artist and the historian draw from the same well of historical data, they use the material for different ends. The central weakness in the presentation of the last days of Jesus of Nazareth in Mel Gibson’s movie is, therefore, not that it is one man’s artistic representation of the Crucifixion, but that it substantially tips the balance of responsibility to the Jews in ways unsupported by historical evidence—and does so while asserting its historical accuracy.
In tackling essentially the same story, and in trying to achieve the delicate balance between historically accurate material and artistically compelling action, Stephen Adly Guirgis knew what a difficult task he was taking on.
One morning in early December, Stephen e-mailed me a scene that placed an arrogant Pontius Pilate on the witness stand to be examined by the defense attorney. Neither the Jewish nor the Roman tribunals of the time offered attorneys for defendants, but the device would help the ­modern-day audience better understand the facts of the “case” before them. (Besides, courtroom dramas like Twelve Angry Men and A Few Good Men seem always to make for good theater.)
A few days later, I read a scene in which a patient but weary Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, is similarly questioned. I was astonished to see how well Stephen had incorporated our conversations into the dialogue between the two witnesses and the attorneys. In the prosecution’s cross-­examination of Caiaphas, Stephen even leavened the scene with a measure of historical irony. Early on, the prosecution asks Caiaphas whether he is certain that Judas approached him. When the high priest says he is, the prosecution expresses his doubt: “Because I saw in a film once . . . where it was you who approached him.”
By using the trial method, Stephen’s treatment would show the complexities involved in placing blame for the death of Jesus. When Pilate is summoned to the witness stand, his situation is first laid out for the audience. As Roman prefect, or procurator, of Judea, he was charged with preventing violence from breaking out; he was trying to keep the peace and was adamant about being loyal to Augustus Caesar. The historian Edith Hamilton notes in her book The Roman Way that ingrained into the Roman soldier was what she calls the fundamental idea of discipline. “However fierce the urge of their nature was,” she writes, “the feeling for law and order was deeper, the deepest thing in them.” Palestine had to be kept under control, which dictated quick and savage responses—including mass executions—to movements that were seen as potentially revolutionary. In addition, Pilate could have argued that he was only doing what the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem apparently wanted: keeping the peace.
But Stephen presented a strong case against Pilate as well. The defense attorney reveals him to be a ruthless dictator who had no qualms about killing a Jew he knew nothing about. Moreover, only the Roman governor had the authority to put someone to death. Any innocence that had accrued to Pilate was the result of the historical attempt to blame the death of Jesus on the Jews. He was the man ultimately responsible.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot would therefore reject the notion of the conflicted and thoughtful Roman governor who appeared in Mel Gibson’s film. “You didn’t wash your hands, Pontius Pilate,” says the defense attorney in Stephen’s play, referring to Pilate’s famous action after announcing Jesus’ death sentence. “History did it for you.”
In the play, Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, doesn’t get off easy, either. One night Stephen asked me to assume the role of Caiaphas and speak in his defense. This was not hard, because I felt that I knew something of how devoted he must have been to his religious traditions. The high priest would have been forced to safeguard not only his deeply held religious beliefs but also his people. The prophet Jesus could easily be seen as an insurrectionist and a blasphemer. In The Death of the Messiah, Raymond Brown lists the actions of Jesus that would have angered the religious authorities of that time and then concludes, “I see little reason to doubt that his opponents would have considered him blasphemous.”
And blasphemy (from the Greek, “speaking evil”)—the utterance of contemptuous language to or about God—was a capital offense. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the prescribed punishment was stoning.
In Stephen’s play, the defense attorney questions the high priest about his decision to hand over Jesus to the Roman authorities. Caiaphas responds with growing impatience:

    Caiaphas.    Our Torah has six hundred thirteen Sacred Laws—I can’t even count how many Jesus broke or treated with wanton disregard and disdain! He broke the laws that came from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob! He violated the word of God. He violated the Laws of Moses. He consorted with the Unclean, and women, and prostitutes. He performed Miracles on the Sabbath, He proclaimed himself Messiah! He forgave sin! Who was he to forgive sin?! Only God can do that! If that’s not crossing the line, then I don’t know what is!!

So controversial was this question of responsibility that Jeffrey DeMunn, who would play Caiaphas, said that taking on the role scared him, though he had worked as an actor for more than thirty years.
“I felt a tremendous pressure to do nothing but present Caiaphas in the most honest and unbiased manner possible,” he said. “Nor did I want to offend any Jewish theatergoers by presenting a demeaning portrayal of the man, or a demeaning portrait of the Jewish people.” Philip Seymour Hoffman, the director, told Jeffrey that, despite his trepidation, the role of Caiaphas would probably be one that he would eagerly anticipate doing every night. Hoffman was right.
“Sometimes,” explained Jeffrey, “I would feel such rage on his behalf. Rage to the point of tears. Having to answer questions from the lawyers that suggested that Caiaphas was less of a man, less of a human being, and even suggesting that he was evil.”
The defense attorney takes pains to underline Caiaphas’s role in the drama of the Crucifixion: How, she asks, could he have condemned a fellow Jew, and someone called, at least by his followers, “Rabbi”? How could he have mistaken an obvious prophet, a holy man who had done nothing but heal and help others? How could he have handed him over to the Romans, knowing that they would certainly put him to death? Caiaphas counters that if he hadn’t taken action, the Romans would have turned on the whole Jewish people, resulting in a bloodbath. “I determined that it were better to have one man dead than a thousand,” he says.
Stephen’s use of the trial device would show the audience not only how but also why the death of Jesus occurred, shedding light on a notoriously dark topic. As I watched Stephen deal with the demands placed upon these scenes—the requirement to sort through so much history, the artistic need to keep the interest of the audience, and the sordid history of Passion plays always lurking in the background—I was impressed with what he was able to accomplish. And amazed at how quickly he was able to do it. As artists have done for centuries, Stephen was aiming to present his own interpretation of the story of Jesus, for his own time. Sal Inzerillo, a LAB member who was cast as Simon the Zealot, said, “Stephen is trying to bring all this into the culture and world we live in. It’s like it’s this little Gospel, a self-­contained Gospel for today.”
 

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Table of Contents

Contents

Dramatis Personae    ix Foreword by Stephen Adly Guirgis    xi Prologue    xv

Act 1: Into the Deep End    1
About Judas    7
The Birth of a God-Haunted Play    15
The Making of a Playwright    19
Who Killed Jesus?    28
A Study in Despair    41
“I Don’t Know, Man . . .”    49

Act 2: Teasing the Mind into Active Thought    53
The LAByrinth Theater Company    54
Readings    58
“You Wanna Do This Role?”    61
The Gospel According to Phil    66
Searching for God, Jesus, and the Buddha    71
The Jesus of History    80
Living with the Saints    87
The Woman from Magdala    93
Poverty of Spirit    100
Taking the Story Seriously    106
Jesuit Theater, a Nearly Forgotten History    119

Act 3: Fully Human, Fully Divine    127
The Hope of Results    128
Who Is Jesus, Anyway?    137
Satan Appears    153
Ready for Previews?    159
A Christological Crisis    164

Act 4: The Messiah Has a Cold    167
Chastity and Friendship    170
Traditions and Superstitions    171
A Theatrical Vocation    174
Reviewing Detachment    177
Walking Mookie at Night    190

Act 5: Hearts on Fire    201
Last Full Script Ever    202
Dramatic Faith    212
Faithful Drama    217
Just a Little More Faith    222

For Further Reading    231
Talk-Backs    233
About the Author    237
Who Are the Jesuits, Anyway?    239
Bibliography    247
 

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