The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt is a play that was written by Michael Marc Bouchard and translated into English by Linda Goboriau. The performance here at the University of Florida was directed by David Young.
Inspired by the actual actress Sarah Bernhardt, The Divine is about the nature of art itself as well as the kind of moral ambiguity that we encounter daily. This work is extremely self-referential, to the point where it seems as though the plot of the play is being written by the actual characters. Its other themes surround conflicts with religion, the socially oppressed and privileged, and the very nature of truth. Through its many unique and fully-fleshed out characters and the difficult, paradoxical questions that it poses, The Divine forces its audience to think carefully about how their own actions and beliefs might be mirrored by the narrative portrayed onstage.
It is clear that Bouchard intended to impart the importance of theater to his audiences, especially through this work. Dissatisfied with the unwillingness of people to express their controversial and subversive beliefs through art, he once declared that "most of our elite produce joylessness and bland comfort...sabotage hope...dominate our culture...art gradually abandons the sublime for the acceptable" (Bouchard). The Divine purposefully presents alarming and uncomfortable controversies as well as problems that we as a society would rather turn a blind eye to in order to force us to confront the issues and form opinions and beliefs about possible actions to take. Bouchard therefore uses his own play about plays to demonstrate the power of the play as a form of cultural arousal and free expression. Those who get to see this work are usually left thinking hard about its implications about reality and how it applies to our own lives.
I had the privilege of seeing this play myself at the Good Life showing on January 24th. Overall, it was a riveting and eye-opening experience that I would like to share here.
The theater environment itself was distinctly different from your average movie theater or auditorium. The seats are set at a sharp incline, so that all members of the audience feel much closer to the stage, and so that they can clearly hear the voices of the performers. Moreover, there were special walkways that surround the audience and even cut through it so that actors and actresses can perform in the middle of the audience for interesting effects. This was demonstrated at the very beginning when Ms. Bernhardt (played by Christie Robinson) made her grand entrance along with a glamorous entourage of die-hard fans and reporters.
Interestingly, Sarah Bernhardt was the one to use these walkways the most, but only when she was acting out the play scenes within the play itself; the use of the external stage makes it clear that her character is acting out the fictional plays within The Divine, which is further clarified by her even more exaggerated personality and its contrast to her personality as portrayed on the internal, "real" stage.
The internal stage depicts the actual action of The Divine; here, specialized props such as the beds that convert into sewing machines or the large wardrobe are all used to portray several different settings. These settings include the seminary school, the factory, and Sarah Bernhardt's room. Lighting is also critical to achieve special effects such as mood, thematic significance, or dramatic emphasis. Finally, there are interchangeable backdrops that further make a believable depiction of the settings that they are meant to represent.
These elements of spectacle are critically important for making it easier for viewers to immerse themselves in this representation of reality while still acknowledging the fact that it is still a fictional (probably allegorical) play. The Divine's seems keenly aware of the fact that it is a play, and the audience can clearly see the explicit parallels between the fictional action of the play and the play that Michaud is writing. This sort of self-awareness is integral to Bouchard's argument about the importance of plays as an art form and as a form of cultural/social expression.
While I initially intended to be a social butterfly and attend this play with some friends, schedule conflicts and Good-Life only restrictions forced me to go to this play alone. While I was surrounded by plenty of peers and fellow students who were there for the same purpose I was, I found that most people did not appreciate the play as much as I did. It was a little saddening to see that the interest in stage-plays has died down in popular culture, but not surprising. Anyways, it wasn't really important for me to talk to the people who wanted to sneak out during intermission as much as it was for me to focus on the significance of the play.
Cultural and Intellectual Experience
This play focuses chiefly on the moral and ethical complexity that all people of all backgrounds run into every day. It uses the internal and external conflicts of the characters to point out the gray areas that most people like to shy away from. Bouchard is keenly aware of this sort of moral ambiguity and stresses it often in this work.
For example, early in the play, we discover that Talbot (played by Diego Zozaya) stole a large amount of expensive silverware to give to his mother (played by Kristina Johnson) as a gift. Immediately we see some distinct moral ambiguity. It was clearly wrong for Talbot to steal the silverware and could easily lead to the waste all the time and effort that Talbot's family invested in order to get him into the seminary school. That said, Talbot stole those goods in order to get his family more money for food or possibly getting Leo (played by Tyler Ellman) out of the factory-Talbot clearly cares about the welfare of his mother and Leo, even if his means of showing it are flawed. We later find out that Leo stole the silverware as a form of petty revenge against a priest who molested him as a child. This provides a form of justification for his thievery, but we still see that this act of revenge leads to poor consequences for Talbot and those who surround him.
The Divine also stresses the importance of art in society as a medium through which we can express our feelings about issues that would otherwise be considered indecent, taboo, or even blasphemous. As the well-known French playwright Yaszmina Reza once said, "theatre is a mirror, a sharp reflection of society. The greatest playwrights are moralists" (Day). The effect of this "mirror" is that we as audience members are forced to confront major issues that might parallel the tragic conflicts of the play.
For example, we in the United States might relate the airtight control that The Boss (played by Samuel Richardson) has over his workers to the inability of the modern working class to rise in our own society of wealth inequality. Another example of a parallel might be the way that the fictional church of The Divine tries to force Sarah Bernhardt to cease the production of her "blasphemous" work; this might be equivalent to the recent executive order by the Trump administration to subject all scientific findings that are federally funded to a "gag-order" before being approved for political purposes.
The best themes that we find in drama are almost always universal in that that they can be applied to our lives no matter the time or place. The play is one of the rawest form of human expression, and its effects on society have nearly unparalleled potential.
One of the most central themes in The Divine is our human need to express ourselves. The greek word Katharsis describes the feelings that we get from getting to express our dissatisfaction, our grievances, or admissions of guilt.
It is apparent that plays are all forms of catharsis; a play is an open expression of what the playwright might think or believe about certain issues and debates, or even questions about humanity in general. Bouchard sought to explore this form of self-expression as well as the many other ways that people reach catharsis. He regards plays as strong mediums for social or cultural narratives, but also acknowledges that they can be flawed when trying to depict perspectives that the playwrights simply do not have. As stated by Talbot near the beginning of the play,
"actors wear funeral-home makeup. They fake their emotions. They cry through their mouths...They talk to themselves, question themselves, and answer themselves back! Theatre's just a bunch of stories invented to make rich people cry" (The Divine).
This conflicts with the purpose of the play itself and points out the paradox of making a social-commentary play about emotional expression; it is unlikely that any of these actors have experienced the exact same things that this fictional characters have, and they could not possibly know how these characters would actually act in these situations. While the play is effective in its delivery of opinions about these central issues, Bouchard acknowledges the flaws of this sort of artistic expression.
Catharsis also appears as an element of the plot and deep characterization of several figures in the work. At one point, Talbot finally admits that he has been emotionally and mentally traumatized by the rape that a priest of the Church committed against him, and how that has been undermining his ability to accept his role as a seminary. In an emotional, tear filled admission of anguish, Talbot seems slightly relieved to have someone else know about this grotesque incident, but he is still plagued by the fact that he cannot make this information public; he is still tortured by the inability to fully expose the truth of his suffering. Brother Casgrain (played by Everett Yancey) is an exemplifies a person that has repressed his internal conflict for far too long, and can no longer be relieved by catharsis and the truth; when the truth behind his own molestation by the priest is given to the police, Casgrain chooses to end his own life due to shame and humiliation. This might also offer a type of commentary on the role of society and pressure to avoid embarrassment or ridicule for being victimized in such ways, or the inability of the lower class to speak up without suffering major consequences.
The play makes it clear that catharsis is critical for people to release emotional anguish that might be built up from a history of grievances, but it is not always possible to reach catharsis due to societal circumstance. These circumstances often include, but are not limited to social class, wealth, race, and religion.
All photos were taken by the author, Kevin Ling