The Devils of Loudun (review)
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Theatre Journal 55.4 (2003) 708-710



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The Devils of Loudun. Adapted by Matt Mitler from the Book by Aldous Huxley. Theatre Group Dzieci, La Mama E.t.c., New York. 11 January 2003.
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Jerzy Grotowski's theatrical offspring are numerous: they include nearly all of the surprisingly abundant alternative theatre companies in Poland, in addition to groups and individual artists in England, Italy, Taiwan, the United States, and probably elsewhere in the world. Theatre Group Dzieci (the word means "children" in Polish) is part of this far-flung family. The director of the group, Matt Mitler, studied with Grotowski in Poland in the 1970s, as well as later in New York with Grotowski's lead actor—Richard Cieslak. Grotowski's legacy is evident in the group's production of The Devils of Loudun, which had its world premiere at La MaMa in January 2003. The style of the production, the methodology of the adaptation, and the thematic preoccupations of the piece all reflect Grotowski's influence, especially his wish that the theatre be a place where something sacred happens.

The production is based on Aldous Huxley's historical treatise (originally published in 1952), which recounts a fascinating case that took place in seventeenth-century France, during the reign of Louis XIII and his prime minister, Cardinal Rich-elieu. The events occurred during the same time period as those in the fictional Three Musketeers, but the tale Huxley relates is a far darker and more complex one. A group of Ursuline nuns in the city of Loudun led by their Prioress, Sister Jeanne des Anges, began en masse to exhibit symptoms of what we would nowadays call schizophrenia. The church officially declared them to be possessed, and they were exhibited in public exorcisms. The nuns accused a local pastor, Father Urbain Grandier, whom they had never met but who was known to have seduced several women in the parish, of causing their possession. Grandier was tried, tortured, and burnt at the stake, even though at the time many believed him to be innocent. Dzieci, like other artists including Ken Russell and Krzystof [End Page 708] [Begin Page 710] Penderecki, was attracted to this account because of its inherent dualities—truth versus falsehood, sanity versus madness, sin versus redemption.

Dzieci treats the narrative in a very Grotowskian manner. Just as Grotowski's last production—Apocalypis cum Figuris (1969)—used a textual montage of various sources, The Devils of Loudun uses a variety of texts, including some from Milton, Goethe, Donne, Martin Luther, Swami Viveka-nanda, Baudelaire, and the Bible. Mitler (the director, designer, adapter, and actor of the role of Grandier) and music director Bob Strock create a churchlike atmosphere, complete with dim lighting supplemented by votive candles placed on the floor and much choral singing of liturgical music. Yet, just as in Grotowski's theatre pieces, the sacredness is blasphemed against: we see the priest Grandier seduce young women and Cardinal Richelieu transformed into the devil himself. The production strives, through these juxtapositions, to create what Grotowski called (in Towards a Poor Theatre) the "dialectic of mockery and apotheosis."

This dialectic is particularly evident in the production's treatment of Grandier as a Jesus figure in a spiritual battle with Satan/Cardinal Richelieu (played by Johnny Melville). Though Grandier's sins are touched upon, the production becomes a kind of ritualized passion play depicting his martyrdom by the forces of evil. This is something of a departure from Huxley's book, which takes care to describe in exhaustive detail the mostly petty motivations of Grandier's enemies and makes clear that, while involved, Richelieu was by no means the chief instigator of the plot against the priest. Grandier, a garden-variety lecher only somewhat ennobled by the ordeal he had to go through, makes a poor candidate for the archetypal sacrificial hero treatment that Cieslak gave to the Simpleton in Apocalypsis cum Figuris or Fernando in The Constant Prince. The character who fascinates Huxley more than Grandier is Sister Jeanne, a woman who whips her entire convent into an orgy of demonic role...