Agnes of God
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Agnes of God is a play by John Pielmeier which tells the story of a novice nun who gives birth and insists that the dead child was the result of a virgin conception. A psychiatrist and the mother superior of the convent clash during the resulting investigation. The title is a pun on the Latin phrase Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).
The stage play contains a great deal more dialogue than the film and relies solely on the three main characters: Martha, the Psychiatrist; the Mother Superior; and Agnes, the Novice. There are no other characters on stage. All three roles are considered demanding for the actors playing them. Martha covers the full gamut of emotion during the play, from nurturer to antagonist, from hard nosed court psychiatrist and atheist to faith-searching healer. She is always on stage and has only three small respites from monologues or dialogue while Agnes and the Mother Superior enact flashbacks to events at the convent. The Mother Superior must expound the possibilities of miracles while recognizing the realities of today's world, of which she is painfully aware. Agnes is a beautiful but tormented soul whose abusive upbringing has affected her ability to think rationally.
The play has enjoyed a revival among non-Catholic women's groups, who believe it examines important moral and spiritual issues that women must face. The issues raised by the real-life incident are just as compelling, though less dramatic.
Pielmeier's plot features Sister Agnes, a young and ignorant novice of French ethnicity, molested by her mother as a child, who sings in an ethereal voice and was impregnated by an unknown entity, which makes for much of the mystery of the drama. The psychiatrist Martha Livingston interrogates her and narrates the story.
A few years before the play was written, a similar incident occurred in a convent in Brighton, New York, just outside the city line of Rochester. Sister Maureen Murphy, a thirty-six-year-old Montessori teacher, was found bleeding in her room by the other sisters of the convent when she did not come down for meals. Sister Maureen denied she had given birth; when examined by medical staff, she said she couldn't remember being pregnant. She had covered up the pregnancy by wearing the traditional nun's habit. The baby was found dead in her small convent room in a waste basket, asphyxiated.
The police found ticket stubs and other information in the nun's convent room indicating that precisely nine months earlier she had traveled out of state to an educational conference. During the trial, the father of the baby was never named. It was never suggested that the nun had been raped by a priest.
At her trial, Sister Maureen waived her right to a jury, and Judge Hyman Maas, a Jew, presided. There was a great deal of controversy about whether a Jewish judge would give a Catholic nun a fair trial. The trial was over in ten days, and Maas found the nun not guilty of all charges by reason of insanity in March 1977. It was reported in several newspapers on March 4, 1977.
The convent where the murder occurred is adjacent to the still-functioning suburban parish and school. The convent is used to house University of Rochester graduate students. The girl's high school, St. Agnes, where some of the nuns taught, is closed.
Original Broadway production
The play opened on Broadway March 30, 1982 at the Music Box Theatre. The original cast was Elizabeth Ashley as Dr. Livingstone, Geraldine Page as Mother Miriam Ruth and Amanda Plummer as Agnes. Plummer received the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play and Page was nominated for Best Actress in a Play. During the run, Elizabeth Ashley was succeeded in her role by Diahann Carroll and Amanda Plummer by Mia Dillon, Carrie Fisher and Maryann Plunkett.
The National Tour starred Ashley and Mercedes McCambridge. There was also a summer stock production starring Sandy Dennis, Peggy Cass and Susan Strasberg; and a London production starring Susannah York and Honor Blackman.
- "Theatre Factory looks at faith, failings with 'Agnes of God'". 2010-10-26. Retrieved 2011-01-18..
- "NewspaperARCHIVE.com - Galveston Daily News - 1977-02-17 - Search Newspaper Articles". newspaperarchive.com. February 17, 1977. Retrieved September 13, 2011.
- "Schenectady Gazette - Google News Archive Search". news.google.com. March 5, 1977. Retrieved September 13, 2011.