Did Dostoevsky read this over before he published it?
It’s hard to take on Dostoyevsky but this really is somewhat sophomoric. Bruce Myers was too appealing and spry for the aged Grand Inquisitor with terrifying power over life, death and torture — and that’s the whole piece, a dramatic monolog. Christ just sits and listens with his back to the audience until the end when he gets up, gives the Grand Inquisitor a kiss (love? betrayal?) and walks off, released from the Inquisitor’s threat to burn him at the stake, presumably because we all know that never happened. The whole does not add up to a “great argument” as people like to say, and as was repeated often at a recent roundtable.
Christ, we’re told, arrived in Seville at the height of the Inquisition because he felt sorry about all the people burning, and starts off by bringing sight to a blind man and raising a child from the dead, causing an excited and hopeful stir but the Grand Inquisitor soon puts a stop to that, arrests Christ and in a prison visit speechifies to him for 52 minutes. And when all is said and done, they continue to burn people in Seville.
The Grand Inquisitor’s claim is that Christ isn’t really good for people, the Catholic Church is, and Christ’s “freedom” spoils the Church’s hold on people’s obedience and faith. The Inquisitor’s argument includes the idea that Christ spurned miracles, although they are useful for the Church — this IN SPITE OF THE FACT that Christ’s first acts in Seville are miracles. The Inquisitor’s argument is full of holes. He says it’s better for people to have food than freedom but there are at least two problems there. 1) The Church hasn’t ensured food for the people and 2) why Christ’s “freedom to chose” interferes with people getting food isn’t taken up.
This is not, generally, an ambiguous piece of writing. There are two basic interpretations. 1) It’s an expression of what he saw as the hocus pocus of the Catholic Church (Dostoyevsky being a strong believer in the Russian Orthodox Church) 2) It’s prophetic of future totalitarian states which give food to people at the expense of their freedom, robbing them of their freedom of choice. Since a totalitarian state with those attitudes did in fact rise in Russia after Dostoyevsky, that gives, I suppose, some kind of credibility to his “prophetic vision” but the connection’s pretty lose.
Dostoyevsky is a great novelist because he creates vivid characters with heart wrenching desires, passions and quests. In this Grand Inquisitor segment, which is an anomalous drop-in to the novel, although it does have an effect on the characters outside and beyond it, the Inquisitor is a mouthpiece for ideas rather than a character. Things are said well — this is a great writer after all — but they are not thought out well.
For what Ben Brantley calls an “immortal parable of of worldly and spiritual power,” none surpasses the character driven, situation driven argument between Creon and Antigone in Sophocles’ Antigone (see critique of The Oedipus Cycle below) — though I wouldn’t want to see that played out of context either.
The Grand Inquisitor presented by Theatre for a New Audience & New York Theatre Workshop, directed by Peter Brook, plays at Theatre for a New Audience on East 4th Street in New York City through November 30.
Nearby restaurant favorite: Cucina di Pesce, 87 East 4th Street
NEXT: Black Watch at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn