November 13, 2006

The Pope and the Witch (Il Papa E La Strega): Commentary on the Script by Dario Fo (translated from the Italian by Ed Emery)

With all the hullabaloo about the University of Minnesota's planned production of The Pope and the Witch in March 2007, I decided to buy a copy of the play and read it.

It took me over a month to read. It's a mere 123 pages but it may as well have been 1,230 pages. The Pope and the Witch is an awful play. It exists solely to ridicule the Catholic church. Defenders may say it is biting satire. No, Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal is biting satire. Some of the works of Evelyn Waugh are biting satire. C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters is biting satire. The only people who will enjoy The Pope and the Witch are the people who think the Catholic church, the Pope and all the clergy are inherently ridiculous solely by being leaders in a church that is: "out of touch with modern times".

Artistically, the play is quite dated. It was first produced in Milan in 1990 and copyrighted in 1989. It has references to Panama and Manuel Noriega. "Hot" topics back then, but the average U student is probably too young to remember them.

The fact that the script is dated, as well as the fact that anyone with an ounce of respect for someone's faith would not produce it, is probably why it's rarely staged. The opening scene involves a Cardinal appearing on stage with a mobile phone sticking out of his cassock in such a way as to suggest his genitalia. Think of the size of today's cell phones versus the big mobile phones of 16 years ago, and you wonder how Director Robert Rosen is going to handle this scene so someone in the back of the auditorium can "get it".

The Director of this play will have a lot of room to tweak dialogue, add it, or cut it in order to update it. It will be interesting to see what Mr. Rosen does with dialogue and staging. I think what Mr. Rosen does, or does not do, will be revealing of what his opinion of the Catholic church really is.

Only one member of the Cast of Characters has an actual name. The Pope is not named but it's clear that he is meant to be John Paul II. The only Character with a name is the Second Nun/Healer/Witch; her name is revealed as Elisa. The Witch also has the longest speeches in the play.

The action takes place in the Vatican and the witch's home (possibly Burundi since that's where the Witch is from).

The play opens in the Vatican with the Pope hiding from mobs of children from IMPAC (International Movement of the Protection of Abandoned Children) demanding to see the Pope and receive his blessing. Sounds somewhat benign does it not? But, it is clear from the dialogue between the characters in the First Act that it would have been better if the church would just relax its positions on abortion and contraception so these children would never have been born.

The Pope ends up being hypnotized by the Witch and he believes the children are invading the Vatican and swarming all over. He believes he is killing them with daggers and other weapons. He expresses remorse but the implication appears to be: it is the Pope's fault these unwanted children were born and now he does not care about them. He refuses to see the children.

The Pope ends up suffering from a "crucifixion stroke" (that's what it's called in dialogue) brought upon by the Witch's magic. He ends up strung up on ropes over a table with most of his clothes off. I'll spare you the rest but you get the idea.

The Second Act takes place in the Witch's home. The Pope goes to visit her. The Witch is a drug dealer but she's supposed to be sympathetic. She administers heroin to alleviate the "suffering" of the street children who are ill, or would steal it anyway, and to help them forget their sad existence. She tricks the Pope and injects him with heroin. He ends up talking more nonsense (trust me; the Pope speaks nonsense, if not outright gibberish, thru much of the play).

The rest of the play takes place in the Vatican. The Vatican is all a-tizzy because the Pope has just decided to issue an encyclical calling for the legalization and government distribution of heroin. The Pope now fears for his life and much of the last act involves most of the people around him dying. The play ends with the Pope being shot dead.

There is a line in the play spoken by the Pope: "The best Popes are always the Popes who don't last long...In fact, the best Popes die more or less straight away."

Is Mr. Fo suggesting it would have been best if John Paul II had died when the attempt was made on his life in 1981? Or, is Mr. Fo referring to Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I? People who love a Catholic conspiracy, like DaVinci Code, will get the references in the play to Pope Paul VI supposedly being injected with substances that paralyzed and weakened him. Is the play Pope’s encyclical a veiled reference to Humanae Vitae? The conspiracy buffs will also "get" the references to Pope John Paul I supposedly being poisoned. Dissenters and conspiracy buffs like to think that Pope Paul VI and John Paul I were really going to "liberalize" the church, but then they were killed by conservative elements in the Vatican.

There is dialogue in Latin towards the end of the play. Mr. Fo’s notes say it is meaningless Latin, that he made it up. I don’t know enough Latin to tell if the supposedly made-up Latin dialogue truly is meaningless or not.

The primary theme of the play is: it would be better for some children not to have been born at all. And those children would not have been born if not for the Catholic church's insistence on abortion and contraception being wrong.

The University of Minnesota is producing this play during Lent 2007. The Pope and the Witch has what is called a "crucifixion stroke". It makes the leader of one of the world's largest religions a buffoon. It has a Pope who really was shot, being shot and killed at the end. Our current Holy Father, is receiving death threats. It advocates the culture of death. I have a healthy sense of humor, and, yet, I'm not laughing.


Anonymous Kate said...

Thank you for taking the time to read and discuss the play. As an alumni of this institution I am very sad that the current President of the University is allowing the production of the play to continue.

Pax et Bonum

November 13, 2006 3:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great commentary on the play which just reinforces what we have heard and the indictment of the University for allowing it to be produced with our taxes on our campus.

November 13, 2006 3:49 PM  
Blogger Adoro Te Devote said...


Thanks for reading this and posting such a comprehensive review! And thank you for taking on the suffering of reading through such complete and offensive garbage. I'm quite certain you have just worked off some purgatory time (although only you know how many bad words and uncharibable thoughs you had to suppress....) :-)

I do not see how the U thinks they can stand behind this. If this involved Mohamud, or his daughter Fatima, or any tenants of the Islamic faith, the U would have been blown up by now.

November 13, 2006 7:22 PM  
Anonymous Jennifer said...

As a Catholic and a theatre student at the University of Minnesota who has been involved with the production of The Pope and The Witch, I fully support the production. I have read the script of the play several times, and I find that, although it does harshly criticize the Church's stance on abortion and birth control (so do many Catholics I know), Dario Fo is using the Church, and specifically the Pope, as a vehicle to further broader social criticism. I find that the theme of the play is summed up quite well in the last line: Woe betide the man of power who takes the side of those who have no power. The Pope figure works particularly well to convey this idea because the Church is universal, and also because of the great power that the Church has. There are very few other officials in the world that have the power and recognition the Pope does. While I can see how some people would be offended, especially if they are staunch supporters of the Church's beliefs about birth control etc., the play is certainly a satire not intended to belittle the Catholic church. Fo probably knew of the side effects his play would cause, and probably found them amusing, because the people who can only focus on the controversy surrounding the play will miss the real message of the play. Perhaps that is the larger satire. That said, I have not yet seen the production, as it has not yet opened. I'm sure that it is possible for the play to be skewed to convey a more anti-Catholic message, but I do not believe Bob Rosen will perform it that way. In my experiences with him as a teacher and friend, he is a very understanding, tolerant and compassionate individual, but he does love to test boundaries and try new and different things. I guess we will just have to wait and see how the production shapes up and discuss further, but I do encourage you to come see the play and hope that you will.

February 27, 2007 10:53 PM  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

jennnifer: Thank you for your comment.

The play is offensive. Catholics must follow the Church's teaching on birth control in order to be considered Catholic. A Catholic may be critical of the teaching but they must be, finally, obedient to the Magisterium-the teaching authority of the Church.

There are dissenters of any Faith. I used to be one.

I think Mr. Fo chose an "easy" target. Anti-Catholicism IS, truly, one of the last acceptable prejudices.

I have a ticket and I will be there.

February 28, 2007 4:13 AM  
Anonymous Jennifer said...

If the Catholic Church were to change its stance on contraception, would that change how offensive the play is? I'm sure you already know this, but before Pope Paul IV issued Humanae Vitae, he set up a commission to examine the question of contraception within the church and the commission as a whole voted to accept artifical contraception. Even the bishops appointed to oversee the commission voted 9-3 for accepting it. But the Pope decided to reject these findings and instead support the minority position of the commission, which is obviously his deal, but I still find it important (and interesting) that so many people high up in the ranks of the Church supported contraception. The Church has changed its teachings in the past, and it will probably change them in the future as well. If the Church were to change its teachings on contraception, would you change your current beliefs just because it did?

Assuming Fo wanted to make a statement about contraception, abortion, population control, or something similar, in addition to his social commentary about people in power, I struggle to come up with another system that would be as effective for him to use to convey his ideas than the Catholic Church. I know it has been said hundreds of times that the U would have been destroyed and Rosen would have been shot/otherwise killed if the play had used Islam instead of Catholicism, but Islam would not have worked in the same way in regards to contraception because their stance on the subject is much more lenient and not entirely solid and straightforward. Neither does Islam have the power that the Catholic Church does. Also, the fact that Dario Fo was Italian and had much more contact with Catholicism than Islam (or any other religion, for that matter) probably played a huge role. He probably chose to write a play about what he knew and dealt with on a daily basis.

I look forward to hearing what you think of the play.

March 01, 2007 12:15 AM  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

jennifer: Birth control is not the only thing offensive about the play. Did you read my commentary?
Because you focused on "life control" in your first comment I focused on that in my response.

The Church will never reverse its decisions on contraception, abortion or euthanasia. They are non-negotiables.

Pope Paul VI did absolutely right. Faith is not a popularity contest put to a public vote. We are not Protestants.

March 01, 2007 3:59 AM  
Anonymous epiphany said...


Thank you very much for your extensive and well articulated critique of this play. I found it helpful in my understanding of the debate. I also find it quite curious, insincere and even idiotic that anyone in their right mind could possibly think that a play as vile, baseless and completely ridiculous as this one could really be the instrument of any sort of honest and serious dialogue on important issues.

Give me a break.

If I'm interested in serious dialogue on important issues with someone that I disagree with, I don't start by attacking and ridiculing them and basically saying that I wished they were dead.

This sort of play, which is a very low form of art if it should be considered art at all, does not help honest dialogue, it only hinders it.

I will be attending the play and "Talkback" session on March 8th, not because I hold out any hope for a serious, honest and intellectual discussion of ideas (which is hard to do with people who simply hate you for what you believe), but because the Catholic faith deserves representation from someone who actually believes in the Faith he professes.

And because it will be a great Lenten penance.

- Jeremy, Founder & Director of Epiphany Studio Productions

March 02, 2007 2:06 AM  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

Mr. Stanbary: Thank you. I'm really happy you will be at the forum.

March 02, 2007 6:58 AM  
Anonymous Michael W. Bird, U alumnus said...

In the Nov. 6 Star Tribune, U spokesman Dan Wolter says "the university will hold several forums next year that will offer opportunity for debate." Mr. Rosen says in the same article, "I welcome discussion and debate." Now one "forum" is planned, on a Thursday night, after the play, around 9:40 PM or so. Sounds like they Mr. Rosen is trying to schedule the SINGLE discussion for as inconvenient time for his critics as possible, and at the most advantageous time and place for himself. I sent several emails to Mr. Rosenstone, Mr. Rosen and Mr. Wolter reminding them of this fact and requesting a Saturday morning 9-11 AM discussion, and only received a single response that there would be only one. In any case, it doesn't sound like the U or Mr. Rosen is welcoming the vaunted debate or discussion that they claim is the hallmark of the U.

Another point. Last year the U Film Society had a very interesting documentary called "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West." As if to show how Jews were portrayed in a bigoted fashion in some Muslim countries, there was a clip of a movie on evening television in which an adult Jew kidnapped a Christian boy, slit his throat, and used the blood to make "delicious matso ball soup." I suppose the producer of this film could respond to criticism using Mr. Rosen's words, "It's funny, irreverent, and to the point." If the movie was made on a Muslim university campus, their U spokesman could say, like Mr. Wolter, "Academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas are the hallmarks of higher education." If Jews complained, I suppose they could say "the Jews are a powerful people, and we won't cave in to censorship."
Should I judge that movie by the single clip that I saw, or should I have to see the whole thing? Would Mr. Rosen like to take a look at that script, and pay the author, with other people's money of course, for the right to perhaps adapt a play for performance at the Rarig Center?

All this is reminiscent of the row a few years back about Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ." If someone was to take an NEA grant and use it to make a beautiful crucifix, the ACLU or Americans for the Separation of Church and State would be trying to recind the grant on the grounds that it broke the Establishment Clause. But take the crucifix and put into a jar of urine, and suddenly it's "art" to the same people.

March 03, 2007 12:24 AM  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

Mr. Bird: Good comments, thank you.

I was at the play last night and it ended about 10:00 p.m. It occurred to me that's really late for most people and people are tired and possibly incapable of rational thought at that hour. Maybe that's the point too.

March 03, 2007 7:57 AM  
Anonymous Michael W. Bird said...


Now that you've seen the performance, do you have any other thoughts or comments?

March 04, 2007 9:37 PM  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

Yes, one of my more recent blog posts is a review. Go out to my main page.

March 05, 2007 4:16 AM  
Blogger jpbenney said...

Your question

"Is Mr. Fo suggesting it would have been best if John Paul II had died when the attempt was made on his life in 1981?"

is interesting for one reason only: I have never seen anybody ask the question and I have read a great deal of opposing opinions about the recent history of the Church.

From what I have read, however, I will definitively say Mr. Fo is utterly misguided to assume someone less conservative might have been elected at a 1981 conclave. Some historians believe a reason for the election of Karol Wojtyla was the fact that he would be a strong doctrinal leader in times that in the short period between the August and October 1978 conclaves.

As to who would have been elected at a 1981 conclave, he main October 1978 papabili apart from Wojtyla were Giovanni Benelli and Giuseppe Siri. Benelli would not only have been viewed too liberal in an atmosphere of papal murders, but also was in very bad health (he died in 1982).

The possibility a 1981 conclave would have chosen Siri is in no way to be dismissed, especially given his powerful conservatism. The only problem I can see with that idea is that Siri was already seventy-five. John Paul II dying in 1981 would have made the cardinals strongly desire a younger candidate. I have imagined Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) being elected as he was in 2005, but on reflection I feel a definite possibility he would have been considered too inexperienced in 1981 when he had not become prefect of the CDF.

The next most likely possibilities I feel would have been Sebastino Baggio or Ugo Poletti - especially Poletti, who got something like 30 votes in October 1978. I cannot imagine a Poletti papacy having been radically different from what actually happened, though.

(As a sidelight, would speculation on a 1981 conclave resulting from John Paul II being assassinated, even if dome more carefully and respectfully that I have tried to here, be considered blasphemous by Catholic authorities?)

December 16, 2008 8:42 PM  

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