So remember at the beginning of this whole blog process when I was all “I’m going to work on the play EVERY DAY!” Sigh. I remember those days . . . I was so young and naive then . . . anyway, my intentions were good but I am SPECTACULARLY lazy, and many things got in the way, such as:
–the Halloween party at work
–Planning for a beach trip
–Making rosaries for a youth group fundraiser
–watching The West Wing
. . . and other such vital activities. So I haven’t done much on the script in a little while. But today I finally made it back to my playwrights’ group and – oh, I haven’t told you about my playwrights’ group. Because I haven’t been in like a month and a half. So I’m in this playwriting group. I came once, volunteered to help them organize all their stuff for Fertile Ground, and then life exploded and I had nary a free Tuesday night for like months. But tonight I cleared the old schedule-a-roo so I could make sure I had time. We covered a lot of Fertile Ground logistics tonight, but usually we just read each other’s stuff out loud and talk about it. I brought two Molly and Magnus scenes that I feel are mostly solid but have been longing to hear out loud to see how they sound. Obviously it’s not entirely the same as hearing it from the actor who is going to actually inhabit that role, but it’s a huge step up from just reading it on the page. No one else had stuff to read, so the floor was all mine, BWAHAHAHAHA, and it was awesome. They liked the scenes, they had good comments and notes, but mostly it was great because I got to talk about Magnus.
I love Magnus. He is so by far my favorite character. Rebecca, one of the other writers, said, “I don’t know a lot about Catholicism, and I’ve never met a monk or a priest, but I would imagine if they were doing their job exactly right, this is what they would be like.” Which is my greatest hope for that character. Andrew, another one of the writers, agreed but said that he doesn’t fall victim to “good-guy syndrome,” and that you warm to him immediately but he still feels real. They had some great thoughts about the way the conversation flows between him and Molly – like, how long can he talk without losing her? If he has a little moment of soliloquizing every once in awhile, which I think he’s entitled to have, what keeps her paying attention to him? I think it’s important that he be a really appealing, magnetic, warm character; there has to be something about him which pulls Molly in, so she can open up to him. Anyway, it warmed my cold dead heart that the other writers in the group responded so enthusiastically to him.
It’s funny how Magnus came about. Originally the main monk was Father Pascal, who was going to be loosely based on a real priest that I know (also named Paschal) who has my absolute dream job, which is teaching Shakespeare at Mount Angel Seminary. I would gnaw off my own arm for that job. And Father Paschal is one of the most delightful human beings on the planet, and the kind of person about whom plays should be written – a jolly, witty, urbane, highly literary Benedictine monk with a Santa Claus laugh and a deep, heartfelt love for the quirks and foibles of human nature. I absolutely adore him. He was a good friend of my mother’s; I saw him once after she died, and he told me he prayed for her every day. Still. Even though she was gone. Every day at 6 in the morning, he prays for my mother. Because that’s what monks do. So anyway, the genesis of the play was going to be the relationship between a Father Paschal-ish character and this girl whose mother used to be his friend. But I figured pretty quickly that I am not one of those people who has the gift of writing a fictional character that resembles a real person. I couldn’t get it right, and I felt so limited and constrained by trying to figure out what Paschal would say or do that the character was sort of a mush and had no real vitality or individualism. He wasn’t developing as a character on his own. So Pascal and Dominic sort of receded into the background, leaving the field open for a new main character.
Then I thought maybe the main character should be Leo. I love Leo. I like the idea of this monk who is brand-new to the monastic life, and full of zeal and joy and giddy enthusiasm for what that means, while still not quite being able to shed his old life. So he likes Molly because she has tattoos, and she curses, and she doesn’t give a crap what anyone thinks of her, and she’s both a completely alien creature to him and a little bit of an echo of the basketball-playing, beer-drinking dude he was before he became a monk. So I thought maybe Leo was going to be her guy. But Leo’s young; he couldn’t have known her mother. And the monk that would be her guide and her mentor and pull her out of the pit would have to be someone who could tell her what really happened to her parents, otherwise the mystery wouldn’t unfold properly. For awhile I was weighing having a cute single guy in school at the seminary getting a theology degree, who wasn’t studying to be a priest or monk but was friends with Leo, and they would fall in love blah blah blah . . . but as my astute friend Jenny rightly observed, “You can’t have the end of the play be, like, ‘the right man came along and fixed her.'” So true. So goodbye Nicholas I-can’t-even-remember-your-last-name-because-you-were-only-in-the-script-for-like-a-week.
So through all this, there was Magnus the librarian – a character not based on someone (like Pascal) or created to fit a specific archetype (like Dominic or Stephen or the Abbot) or needed to fill another role (like Leo). I was working busily away on the final scene of the play where Molly is trying to get the truth out of her dad, and Pascal was driving all the action, just kind of hammering away in this interrogation of Molly’s dad Ray, and then all of a sudden this happened:
Molly, you’ve been carrying around this burden for far too long, and you need to hear the truth from your father. And from us.
Pascal, I don’t think . . .
No, she needs to know. (They all look at him.) Quit yelling at Pascal, Ray. I’m the one you should be mad at.
Which was like the first time he’d spoken in the whole scene. And I did not plan that, it just popped out. It felt like one of those moments where like you’re in a crowd and someone says something and everyone’s head swivels to look at them at the same moment. Or like in a Western (or, more accurately, in a Sesame Street spoof of a Western starring Forgetful Jones) (which I totally just referenced so I could use my “muppets” blog tag a second time), where a stranger walks into a saloon and everyone turns to look and the piano player stops playing. Like, “Who’s this guy? What’s he about to say?” I had no idea. And then all of a sudden, from that moment, it was like, “Okay. This is Magnus’ show. He’s going to be the one who knows the truth, and he’s going to be the one who finally tells her.” Which meant that Magnus emerged out of nowhere as the main character, the one who was going to be guiding Molly on her path. Magnus wasn’t based on anyone or created to accomplish a specific purpose. He just kind of . . . showed up. I think that’s why I like him. He, more than any other character in the story, created himself with the least help from me. So he immediately and instantaneously felt real. It took a long time, pages and pages of cuts, hours of rewrites, and a lot of work to make Dominic and Pascal fully-realized characters. And the abbot too, to some extent. But Magnus just was.
I hope everyone loves Magnus like I do. Here are some of my personal favorite Magnus moments to entice you to come see the play and hear more.
#1. MAGNUS AND MOLLY DISCUSS THE NAME OF THE ROSE, UMBERTO ECO’S MURDER MYSTERY ABOUT MONKS
(Thoughtfully) He got a lot right though, Umberto Eco. I mean, he did his homework for sure. And there’s something about the idea of a serial killer murdering monks because of a forbidden book which is . . . I don’t know.
Good grief, no. Not directly. But the lure of knowledge . . . purely for its own sake . . . it’s still such a part of who we are. I would like to believe that in Heaven I’ll get to read all the books that were lost when the library of Alexandria burned. (Wistfully) I dream about it sometimes. I’m a man of books. That’s who I am. And if someone said to me, Magnus, I’ve unearthed one of the lost works of Cicero, and you’ll be the first to read it in five thousand years . . . Not to have it or own it, but just to read it . . . Yes, it would be hard to say no to that. Would I murder for it? I cannot imagine that I would. But would I commit other sins for it? Would I lie, cheat, steal? I don’t know. I would like to believe that I would not. But if the alternative was that the book be destroyed, or hidden away where no one could read it? I don’t know what I might do.
I’m a monk. Not a saint.
#2. MAGNUS EXPLAINS WHAT REAL LOVE MEANS
You strip everything else away. You’re blank and empty. Then you can start over, to let yourself be filled. To come to God for renewal is like standing before a great and terrible mirror. Everything shows. You want to hide, but you force yourself to stand there and look . . . Then you realize that God sees those things too, sees straight through to the core of you, and madly, passionately loves you anyway. Right there in the dark, inside your brokenness. Not in spite of those dark places – not by ignoring them – not on the condition that you erase them – but because of them.
Don’t. This is bullshit, Magnus.
No. It’s the only thing in the world that isn’t bullshit. You are loved, Molly. With passion, with fire, with deep devotion. Jesus doesn’t want to pat you on the head and say, “What a good girl.” He wants to kick the door down to pull you out of the burning building. (MOLLY looks away, unable to meet his eyes. MAGNUS slowly lifts a hand to her face, cradling her cheek. MOLLY closes her eyes.) He wants to be the light in your darkness. He wants to be the broken piece of wood you cling to after the shipwreck. That’s love. That’s who Christ is. And if you’ve never felt that way yourself, then you’ve never loved anyone.
#3. MAGNUS AND LEO MEET JEREMY, MOLLY’S JERK EX-BOYFRIEND
You dated this creep for five years?
Were you high the whole time?
More or less.
Who the hell is this guy? Are you fucking him?
Wow. It’s like every time you open your mouth you turn into a bigger pig.
If I find out that you’re boning this guy after you accused me of –
He’s a monk, you shithead. He’s celibate. He doesn’t have sex. He’s a Latin-chanting, no-sex-having librarian monk, and he’s still a hundred times more man than you will ever be.
(Laughing) Oh man. That is cold.
Moral of the Story: Monks are awesome.