How People Argue "Eristically"



In philosophy and rhetoric, eristic (from Eris, the ancient Greek goddess of chaos, strife, and discord) refers to argument that aims to successfully dispute another's argument, rather than searching for truth. - Wikipedia
You know you're in an eristic or bad faith discussion with someone when he or she does the following ...


  • Your opponent refuses to engage the most important points you're making.
  • Your opponent focuses on issues that are minor or tangential to your main argument.
  • Your opponent demands evidence to support your tangential points, while providing only opinion and no evidence to support his own claims.
  • Your opponent directly or indirectly attacks your motivations, thus moving the discussion away from the issue to your character.
  • Invariably, if you're arguing with an eristic "Devout Catholic", you'll be told (in so many words) to go to confession for defending your position with any zeal, fortitude or persistence; or, in lieu of that, you'll be referred to a Scripture verse that implies that you are lacking in charity for standing up for the truth.
  • Your opponent will completely ignore tone, context and the obvious connection between ideas in anything you say.

It is futile to argue with such a person.  Your opponent is not interested in discovering the truth.  To engage such a person is not only frustrating and a waste of time, it is a sin.  It is casting "pearls before swine" (Mat. 7:6)

Some Clarifications on Love

Mr. O'Brien as El Gallo, teaching our class on The Fantasticks.
Love and the Meaning of Life is a fun class!

Grace F. asked three questions that I answer below.  


1. How can Beatrice and Benedick's relationship in Much Ado about Nothing thrive if it's based on overhearing the "lies" told about them by their friends when they were eavesdropping?


2. How does the lie about the false feud between the fathers in The Fantasticks affect Matt and Luisa?


3. Is the love we have for family members - who sometimes drive us crazy - eros or agape?


These are great questions.  I did my best to answer them below.



  • I think the "lies" in Much Ado that are used to bring Beatrice and Benedick together are not lies at all.  It's fiction.  In other words, their friends are staging mini-dramas that they know Beatrice and Benedick will overhear, and the dramas are telling the truth through a kind of fantasy.  Beatrice and Benedick really do love one another and when they eavesdrop they become audience members in little plays that show them a truth they don't want to acknowledge.  This is how all fiction, especially drama, works.  We may have gone over this in Drama class.  Do you remember in the Bible where the prophet Nathan tells a parable or a story to King David about a man who steals another man's sheep and it makes David furious, and Nathan says, "The man in this story is you"?  Nathan is not lying to David when he spins his yarn about the rich man who steals a sheep; he is using a form of fiction to convey a great and deep truth, the way Our Lord uses parables in the gospels.  

  • In the case of The Fantasticks, however, I think we're dealing more with symbols than real characters.  Matt and Luisa represent sort of Everyboy and Everygirl.  And, in general, eros is intensified when it is frustrated.  We see this especially in Wuthering Heights and other romantic fiction.  The more Catherine is unreachable to Heathcliff, the more he wants her and the more violent he gets in his attempts to get her - including, in a sense, after she's dead.  And so the "feuding fathers" in The Fantasticks is a fiction that is really a lie, a lie designed to make the young lovers more ardent in keeping them apart from one another - because eros is all about the unattainable.  In Much Ado, Beatrice and Benedick really do love one another; in The Fantasticks, the fathers are not really feuding, only pretending - in order to stoke the flame of their children's love.  But, you see, once the obstacle is taken down and the wall falls, Matt and Luisa are still bothered by an unfulfilled eros, a desire to find something greater beyond.  They don't find agape, or the self-giving and humbling love of family life until they both "sow their wild oats" (in a sense) and get hurt by the world in the process.

  • I don't think eros is a term that would apply to the family.  But remember, using these different words to refer to Love is a bit misleading because Love is One.  The face or aspect of love that we call eros is a love that typically seeks something above and beyond.  The face or aspect of Love that we call agape is "condescending", willing to be limited, home bound, humble.  Lewis would say that the love of family is storge - deep affection that is not always the same as "liking".  It's very easy to love your aunt and uncle, for instance, without really liking them very much.  When it comes to family, you typically have to make the best of it and get along.  And this is a good thing and a humbling thing.  Chesterton says, “The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born.”  

A NOTE ON LYING: Lying is communicating something you know to be false to someone else for the purpose of deceiving him or her.  

In drama or fiction, the audience member or reader is aware that what's being communicated to them is "pretend" or make-believe, and so they are not deceived, and therefore fiction or drama is not lying, for the communication does not involve deception.  It's a kind of game whereby a truth is often communicated through imaginary or fantastic means.  

In the case of Beatrice and Benedick, they were deceived in as much as they thought what they were overhearing was a natural and not a staged conversation, but they were not deceived in hearing from others how much they loved one another, for that was true.  In The Fantasticks, Matt and Luisa are indeed deceived by a lie, which is the false feud between their fathers.  And The Fantasticks is not so much about the actual love between Matt and Luisa (who are more symbolic characters than actual or psychologically real ones), as it is about "eros", or our desire for that which we can't have.  When Luisa was unattainable, Matt burned for her; after they're together she's "just the girl next door".  When Matt appeared to be as swashbuckling and romantic as El Gallo in rescuing her from the pretend abduction, Luisa desired him.  When they are brought together, however, they find the reality does not match the romance and the bandit seems better than the boy.  See my Study Guide on Moodle - or the next issue of the St. Austin Review, where I write about this!

Westward Ho!

Today some of my female students in Love and the Meaning of Life were praising Christopher West and his ilk.  

I don't want to post this directly, but here's my response.

Person to Person

Here's an article on Aleteia about St. John Paul II that relates to what we were saying in class in Love and the Meaning of Life about Agape without Eros as clinical and heartless and Eros without Agape
as possessive and consuming ...

In his book Love and Responsibility, he writes, “A person’s rightful due is to be treated as an object of love, not as an object for use.” This holds true for every encounter we have with another person, whether it’s a family member, a co-worker, a friend, a stranger, or an enemy.
The way John Paul II lived his own life is an example of this time and time again. For him, the problem with the rise of technology, politicizing everything, or investing too much time in work is not that they cross some philosophical boundary, but that they objectify people.
To really know a person, we need to pause and take the time to personally connect. The life of St John Paul II shows that a happy life is not about adhering to any ideology or proving ourselves to be right or successful – it’s about people. Every person matters. Every person is valuable. Connection and friendship are the ways we honor that.

Heart Speaks to Heart - with Miraculous Grace

[Next week in my class Conversion of Mind and Heart we will study the conversion of Bl. John Henry Newman.  Here's an article I wrote back in 2015 about Deacon Jack Sullivan, a friend of mine and the man whose healing was the official miracle that led to Newman's beatification.]




From left to right around the table: Dale Ahlquist, Deacon Jack Sullivan, me, my son Colin, my wife Karen, our friend Jane Davies.

I've known Deacon Jack Sullivan for many years.  I got together with him again this past weekend, and he left with me a document that I'll be quoting from.  It's an account of his miraculous healing (I have taken the liberty of emphasizing some of what he says in boldface) ...

This story of mine began on June 6, 2000, when I embarked on a rather incredible and mysterious journey.  You see, I suddenly awoke that morning with excruciating and debilitating pain in my back and both legs.  At a local hospital a CT-scan revealed a serious succession of lumbar disc and vertebrae deformities turning inward and literally squeezing the life out of my spinal cord, causing severe stenosis.  I was in complete agony day and night.  Walking was nearly impossible as I was completely doubled over like a shrimp, only facing the ground.  

Paralysis was a distinct possibility for Jack.  The chief of spinal surgery at a major Boston hospital told him, "Without question, yours is the worst back I've seen in all my years of performing spinal surgery." The doctor scheduled Jack for surgery and told him to scrap his plans to finish his training in the diaconate formation program.  Jack was upset not merely because of his agonizing pain, but because his crippling condition meant he would perhaps never become a deacon in the Catholic Church.

Returning home, I was totally distraught realizing I would have to drop out!  I turned on the TV to get my mind off this calamity.  Switching channels, I accidentally stopped at the EWTN channel.  It was there that I was introduced to Cardinal John Henry Newman.  The program dealt with Cardinal Newman's uniquely difficult life and the crisis he faced in his vocation as an Anglican priest.

The program featured an interview with Fr. Ian Kerr, one of the major biographers of Newman's.  Fr. Kerr explained the great challenges that Newman faced over the course of his life, especially in his conversion to the Catholic Faith.  The program ended with a suggestion that if any viewers were to receive a "divine favor" through Newman's intercession, they should inform the postulator of his cause.  At the time, the Church had been waiting 110 years for a miracle to beatify him.

Jack continues ...

Because of this request, I prayed to him with all my heart, "Please Cardinal Newman, help me to walk so I can return to classes and be ordained."  I didn't pray for complete healing for that would be too presumptuous; merely to grant me this small "divine favor" which at that time was so urgent.  Then I went to bed.  To my amazement, I woke up that following morning completely pain free, when for months I was in constant agony.  Remarkably, I could walk normally with complete strength in my back and legs.

Jack describes how his surgeon was astonished, for the MRI and Myelograms revealed that his spine was just as disfigured as it had been.  There had been no physical change and no reason why Jack was suddenly pain free and able to walk.  But Jack's joy was not confined to his deliverance from pain, as his baffled surgeon made a recommendation ...

He then suggested that I should cancel my surgery and RETURN TO MY CLASSES!

All along, Jack's focus had been on completing his training and becoming a deacon in the Catholic Church.  As the capital letters above indicate, health for him was not an end in itself.  A healthy back and freedom from pain were both good things in and of themselves, but also they were means to an end.  They were gifts from God to be used for the Kingdom.

But as soon as diaconate classes ended, and Jack had miraculously completed the third year of his formation program, the pain returned in full force.  Immediate surgery was required.

My dura mater (protective fibrous lining surrounding the spinal cord housing the spinal fluids) was very badly torn.  It also seemed very unlikely that my badly damaged and compressed spinal cord would decompress to its normal size because nerve tissue normally can't regenerate.  For days thereafter I continued to suffer incredible pain, day and night, with no relief in sight.  Even high dosages of morphine didn't help.  On the fifth day after surgery as I laid motionless in my bed, I was informed by one of the doctors that I "should forget about returning to my classes," scheduled to begin in three weeks, "because it would take many months to recover, if at all!"

And now the miracle continues ...

Upon hearing this tragic assessment, I suddenly felt a strong urge at least to try to get out of bed; to attempt to walk!  Inch by inch I slid to the edge of my bed in horrific pain.  With the nurse's help, I put my feel onto the cold floor, leaning on the bed with my forearms for support.  It was this moment of agony and frustration that led me again to prayer.  The exact same prayer I said the year before and under the same circumstances.  "Please Cardinal Newman, help me to walk so that I can return to classes and be ordained."
Suddenly I felt a tremendous sensation of intense heat and a strong tingling feeling throughout my body.  It seemed to last a very long time.  I also felt an indescribable sense of resplendent joy and peace, the likes of which I had never encountered.  It was as though I was in God's presence and lifted up to heaven!  Then I felt a strong surge of strength and feeling of confidence that I could finally walk!  When I began my prayer I was leaning on my bed in utter agony.  But when this experience subsided, I found myself standing completely upright.  I then shouted to the nurse, "I have no more pain!"  

Jack then began bounding about the hospital room and walking briskly up and down the hall, the nurses worried and concerned, flocking about him and urging him to return to bed.

I was discharged two hours later without any need for pain medication nor rehabilitation!  Within a few days I was walking a mile or two daily.  Oh ... the date of my healing?  This wondrous event occurred on August 15th, the Feast of Our Lady's Assumption, body and soul into heaven.  It was later determined that my recovery and regeneration of the nerve tissue of my spinal cord on that unforgettable day was unexplainably accelerated in one mysterious moment.  And to everyone's astonishment, I returned to classes on time!

To make a long story short, the Vatican assembled a "team of spinal surgeons from all over Europe", who examined "all the films and medical records" and "unanimously voted by secret ballot that there was absolutely no medical or scientific explanation for my recovery."  This became the official miracle that led to Newman's beatification.

Jack Sullivan completed his classes and was ordained a deacon, and served with Pope Benedict XVI at the beatification Mass for John Henry Newman in England in 2010.


Pope Benedict (center) and Deacon Jack Sullivan (far right) at John Henry Newman's Mass of Beatification.

Jack reflects upon his miraculous healing (the capital letters are his) ...

I believe these remarkable events beautifully describe the concept of our communion with the saints in heaven.  I soon realized that THIS COMMUNION IS SELDOM A ONE-TIME EVENT, BUT USUALLY AN ONGOING PROCESS OF GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT IN REVERENCE AND FRIENDSHIP ALWAYS LEADING TO SOME GREATER GOOD, SOME HIGHER PURPOSE, FAR BEYOND OURSELVES!

And included in that is a share in the sufferings of your saint, which is a share in the sufferings of Christ ...

We must often endure similar sorrows, and afflictions of the saint whose intercessions we seek, before we can possibly share in that saint's victory!

***

Now, Newman is not easy for many people to approach.  His writing is formal and his thinking quite deep.  He has a great sense of the need for austerity in religion - even severity - and this goes against our modern inclinations.  So at lunch I asked Deacon Jack, "How do you reconcile the friendship you feel with Cardinal Newman with what is sometimes a coldness in his writing and with his imposing intellect?"

"They key is sanctity," Jack responded.  "You've got to understand Newman through his holiness.  That's the key to everything he wrote and to everything he experienced and stood for."

John Henry Newman stood for the true Faith, a Faith we come to ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem, "out of the shadows and images into the truth", out of Unreality into Reality.  Newman always fought against the False Faith, what Deacon Jack Sullivan describes as man's attempt "to re-create for himself a humanly designed Heaven on earth to replace Almighty God's eternal Kingdom."

Finding this True Faith is finding not only "what a friend we have in Jesus" (to quote the old hymn), but finding what friends we have in one another - our friends here on earth and our friends in heaven.  Communion with this Truth is communion with a Person - with the Persons of the Trinity and with other persons on earth and in the Kingdom.  It is friendship.  It is when heart speaks to heart (which was Newman's motto).

For Deacon Jack Sullivan carries with him not only the effects of his miraculous healing, but also his deep and abiding friendship with the man whose prayer healed him. It is that friendship that is one of the marks of sanctity, of holiness; it is such friendship that is one of the blessed joys of heaven.



***

Here's our short movie on Newman's conversion, filmed on location where it happened in Littlemore, England ...




... and here I am as Bl. Dominic Barberi, the Passionist priest who received John Henry Newman into the Catholic Church ...




Gnosticism - the Perennial Heresy

I sometimes get some really great answers from my students in the form of essays.

Here's a sample from one of my favorites.  It's by student Mary Grace in my class The Big Picture - Connecting the Dots in Salvation History.


St. Thomas Aquinas states that truth is the mind’s conformity with reality, with “what is.” Gnosticism essentially reverses this by denying objective reality while attempting to make its own truth. More examples of this denial and refusal to conform with reality are the transgender movement, homosexual unions, and abortion. Some members of the Church today want the Church to change her teaching on issues such as these. Gnostics think that they can change reality and that it evolves, however the truths of the Catholic Church are perennial.

UPDATE: Also, I really like this from Laura ... 

Where is it today? Gnosticism still crops up all over the place. One kind of new ‘scientific’ Gnosticism puts God entirely out of the picture. The material universe is the only reality but it is a faulty one. Science must attain control over this matter and transform it; this is why the aim of technology often manifests itself in the manipulation and recreation of human nature. Another new Gnostic is bent on eliminating gender and this has deeply colored our culture. This is seen in the defeminization of women; it is a Gnostic notion that being a wife and a mother is a a burden imposed by biology. Gnostics have always wanted to simplify things. The mysteries God has shown us are too much for the human intellect to grasp, so Gnostics seek to reduce all the complexities of reality to a few simple sentences that anyone could understand 

Final Project Videos

Hey, students of THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF POPE ST. JOHN PAUL II!

Here are two great videos that students submitted as final projects.  The first is by Abigail R. and I forgot to show it in class - plus it didn't upload properly to Adobe Connect.  It's worth watching - even though Abigail makes one tiny mistake.  "Theology of the Body" was not an encyclical by JP2, but a name we give to his Wednesday audiences.



And here's the remarkable song by another students, one of my more musical ones.  She has used the opening song of the Broadway hit Hamilton to tell the story of our special saint.  There is no video to this "video" - but the audio is well worth it!


Faith + Reason = Love

Left to right: Joseph Pearce, Kevin O'Brien, Kaiser Johnson, Maria Romine, Christine George, Benjamin Moats at Aquinas College in Nashville for the Theater of the Word production of Scenes from the Merchant of Venice.


Here is something I emailed to one of our students.  I think it might help explain more what I was trying to say in our class on Much Ado about Nothing.

It's interesting to me that even the most devout of the Devout Catholics are confused about basic things such as the connection between Faith and Reason, as evidenced by the comment of our one students who asserted they are opposite to one another.  But Faith, as "fidelity", is simply acting with conviction on Reason - which is another way of saying that Faith + Reason = Love.  We are always making leaps of faith.  The most striking example is our primary vocation, when we get married or join a religious order, but also in smaller ways; for instance, I had to trust that I really was made to be in the performing arts, and that people would pay me to entertain them and that I would be able to support a family in that way - scary though it was to act in a kind of "trust".  Mother Angelica talks about that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you do things on faith-inspired-by-reason - such as starting a television network with $300 in your pocket, as she did.  When Benedick has to say, "My reason tells me that Beatrice is right and that Claudio has wronged Hero.  And since I love her and she is my Lady, I must act on Faith.  I must be faithful; I must show fidelity to what I believe is right - and not only right, but the most important thing in my life."  Otherwise, we're always on the outside, always just treating life the way Cafeteria Catholics treat the Faith, just picking and choosing what we like when we like it, as Don John does.

Little Saints of the Poor

I'm always crabby when I go to Sunday Mass.  If I were the perfect Catholic, this would not be the case.  But I am not the perfect Catholic.

For one thing, I don't like doing anything on Sundays.  For another, the homilies are always insipid and the music makes me want to throw things and hurt people.  "You satisfy the hungry heart with gift of finest wheat" - just typing those words has made me see red and froth at the mouth.  Now I can't get that terrible tune out of my head!

I've tried the Latin Mass, and at least the music is not awful at the Latin Mass.  My wife doesn't like the Latin Mass, so two Sundays ago, when she was out of town, I went to a Latin Mass parish without her.  I noticed the guy five rows ahead of me was "packin'".  He had a pistol at his side, in a holster - two sons and a handgun.  I did not notice, when I walked into this church anything like this ... 




... so I assume it was OK to be "totin' some heat" at Sunday Mass.  I suppose if there had been any Liturgical Abuse ... this guy was prepared!  

Anyway, last Sunday I went to our dreadful little parish church up the road, the one that was designed to look like a shopping mall, only a lot less beautiful.  After the mushy and gooey "music minister" assured me that all were welcome in this place and that I would be raised up on eagle's wings and before he told me to taste and see, someone stepped to the pulpit after the homily.


St. Jeanne Jugan
It was one of the Little Sisters of the Poor.

I love these women.  We toured around with our show Little Saint of the Poor, about their foundress, St. Jeanne Jugan, and performed at over 20 Little Sisters homes across North America.  This is the most amazing group of women on the face of the earth.  Most of them are older than the seniors they care for.  One of them goes out begging every day, at every home, so that they can purchase the food the residents of their homes eat.  They have stood up to the Federal government, who are trying to force them to pay, indirectly, for contraceptives for their employees.  They are amazing.

The Little Sister at our parish spoke.  This is, more or less, what she said ...


I'll tell you a little bit of my vocations story.  I had everything, but I wasn't happy.  There was a hole, a hole that I couldn't fill, a hole in my life, in my chest.  I had cars, a nice job, everything in life - but I was single, I was lonely.  I prayed to God - finally.  I said, "God, please send me the perfect husband."  Well, you have to be careful what you pray for!  Within twelve months, I gave up everything and became a nun - a Little Sister of the Poor.  And He said, "Guess what?  You've got the perfect husband!  It's Me!"
We take in the elderly poor.  We care for them.  We know they all have holes in their lives like I did - family divisions, loneliness, despair.  We don't care if they're Christian or atheist, Muslim or Buddhist.  We take them in and we show them love.  We fill that hole.  They become part of our family.  We give them what they need, and some of them realize that and they're very grateful.  We don't just give them care, we love them.
And then, when the Lord calls them - when they're dying - we stay by them.  We pray with them, we sing, we talk to them.  We make sure they don't die alone.  This is the mission of the Little Sisters of the Poor.  This is what Jeanne Jugan did, and this is what we continue to do today.

And I left Mass actually feeling good.

This is what we're called to do - all of us.  Answer the loneliness of others.  Give them a share of our hope.  Make them part of our family.  

This is what we are all called to do. 

Mr. O'Brien's Conversion Story

Told on The Journey Home on EWTN, first in 2008 here...



and then, in 2012, in more detail, here ...

This was a Great Class!

We had a lot of fun with our class, The Spiritual Life of JRR Tolkien.  Here's a little video to celebrate out last day of the Live Sessions (recorded sessions still available!).





Death and Poetry in New York

Drama Students!!!

I just got back from a great trip to New York City.  I saw two plays, and the review below will appear in the next issue of the St. Austin Review.  I'm posting it here because of what I say about arete (excellence), a virtue that all of you should cultivate, especially if you're drawn to the theatrical arts.


***

Michael Raver as Wilfred Owen (foreground) and Nicholas Carriere as Siegfried Sasson (background) in a scene from 'Death Comes for the War Poets' by Joseph Pearce at the Sheen Center in New York City.





Death and Poetry in New York
by
Kevin O’Brien


“There’s only one way this play will work,” I told Joseph Pearce.  “You’ve got to have an excellent cast.  Without three very talented and committed and hard working actors, this play will be a disaster.”

I was talking about “Death Comes for the War Poets”, a one act drama Joseph Pearce had written that features three characters in an abstract setting: World War One poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, pursued, observed and courted by a lady named Death.  The play combines the poetry of Sassoon and Owen with verse by T. S. Eliot, G. K. Chesterton, Francis Thompson and some of Pearce’s own poetry.  It focuses on Sassoon and his conversion, how, after the horrors of “the Great War” and the despair and nihilism it produced, Sassoon, as an older man, is surprised to find a home in the Catholic Church.  Sassoon writes ...

This, then, brought our new making. Much emotional stress -
Call it conversion: but the word can't cover such good.
It was like being in love with ambient blessedness -
In love with life transformed - life breathed afresh, though
       yet half understood.

This sort of poetry is beautiful, but delicate like all good poetry, and sometimes a challenge to understand even on the page.  How can it work in a spoken dramatic setting - especially in a show whose plot is propelled only by the verse and by the presence of Death, who serves as a kind of mocking Greek Chorus to much of what transpires?  

At one point I had hoped to produce this play myself at the World War One Museum in Kansas City, but the museum had recently featured a show on these same poets, so it would have been a hard sell.  And I was unsure of the project.  Most of the actors I know in Kansas City and St. Louis could not pull this show off.

And this is not merely because of the level of talent in our Mid-western actors, some of whom are quite good.  And it is not merely because Pearce’s play is challenging and anything but “actor proof”.  It’s because of arete.

Arete.

The word is “Greek to me”, but it’s the exact word that describes what I saw in New York.  New York is the city.  It’s the archetypical city.  It is a vivid melting pot of everyone and everything.  It contains all that is good about cities and all that is bad about cities.  And it is the center of the theatrical world in the United States.

Actors who move to Los Angeles (as a rule) want to be famous.  Actors who move to New York (as a rule) want to do good work.  This makes all the difference.   There are two streams flowing in the soul of every actor.  One leads to fame, fortune, attention - the world, the flesh and the devil.  The other leads to self-sacrifice, to Truth, Beauty, Goodness - to God.  Actors (selfish, volatile and puerile as we are) have a priestly function.  Since the beginnings of Drama in ancient Greece, our job as actors has been to bridge the audience to that which is beyond them, to connect them to a kind of communion with “the gods”, to draw back the curtain from the hidden glory that informs all reality.

And this can even be done with slapstick comedy.  The day after I attended the premiere performance of “Death Comes for the War Poets” at the Sheen Center in New York City, I saw The Play that Goes Wrong, at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway, a tremendously funny farce about a play in which everything goes wrong.  Unlike “Death Comes for the War Poets”, this play is not about anything deep or spiritually significant - except in so far as it elicits laughter and produces a kind of joy.  The actors portray actors who bravely forge through a performance of a mediocre murder mystery, despite disastrous and hilarious things going wrong with props and other actors all about them.  There is a kind of metaphor at work, for we all do our best to maintain the illusions we cherish, even when they are collapsing around us.


A scene from The Play that Goes Wrong
But, metaphor or no, what struck me more than anything else is that The Play that Goes Wrong is a kind of ballet.  The physical bits have to be finely choreographed and executed, otherwise it would be very easy for the performers to get hurt.  It’s also physically demanding, requiring the kind of agility and energy and focus found only in professional athletes … and Broadway actors.  

After the performance, I thought, “There is no way there could be a better performance of this play.”  I had witnessed excellence on stage - arete.  

The same can be said for “Death Comes for the War Poets”.  The actors had not only memorized the poetry they were performing, they had internalized it, so that the play was tight and had momentum and so that the intentions of the words could be communicated.  As with The Play that Goes Wrong, “Death Comes for the War Poets” was also well-directed and well-choreographed, also a kind of ballet, with moments of dance and movement that helped lift it all off the page and closer to the heavens.  

Nicholas Carriere as Sassoon was especially effective in his speech to parliament, his entire being expressing anger and frustration at how the war was being waged.  Michael Raver as Owen managed in his short time on stage to embody a shell-shocked and broken young man, and yet one who was at least partially saved by the transcendence of his verse.  Sarah Naughton as Death moved well, sang beautifully and fit in perfectly in a role that is sometimes functional, sometimes interactive.  The only weak point was Sassoon’s conversion scenes, which teetered on a kind of saccharine sentimentality at times, mostly because it seemed to have been harder for Carriere as Sassoon to internalize the complexities of conversion.  The anti-war frustration and rage in Sassoon as a young man shone forth with power and conviction, but the intricacies of joy and the surprise of absolution in Sasson as an old man did not seem genuine.  The latter, of course, is harder to play - though it would have been more effective to have done something to age Sassoon with costuming or make-up.

All in all, though, both plays were very well done.  And most of the actors I work with in the Mid-West could not have pulled off either - not so much for lack of talent, but for lack of commitment - the kind of commitment that says, “This is what I live for.  This is what God made me to do.  I am going to be the best that I can be and cooperate with my peers to produce the best production we can in the greatest city in the world.”  And with that comes sacrifice, loneliness, living in difficult circumstances, uncertainty - all the ups and downs in the life of actors that we pray for in the Fraternity of St. Genesius.  

Arete is excellence - the virtue of being the best, doing the best, fulfilling your potential, sacrificing your own needs and your own ego for something beyond yourself.  Actors in Hollywood want to be known and admired.  But how many Broadway actors are known and admired?  How many New York actors can you name?  I can look at the Playbill and know the names of the actors in the shows I saw, and I can admire what they did, but what they did is a product of who they are and at the same time transcends who they are.  Arete is doing good work, doing the best work you can.  It is producing art, and it is pointing to something beyond yourself.

That is the nobility in art, the arete, that the Church has lost.  So much of our modern church art and architecture, and all of our modern church music and even much of our liturgy has abandoned arete.  And yet the typical New York actor (confused, lonely, emotional, insecure, sexually promiscuous, needy) … the typical New York actor, in so far as he gives everything to the excellence of his craft, gets it.  

“Lift up your hearts,” we are told in the Mass.  “We lift them up to the Lord,” we respond.  And that is what art - especially acting - is all about.
Joseph Pearce delivers an introduction to his play "Death Comes for the War Poets" at the Sheen Center in New York City.


Humor in Literature Course Description and Video



(Literature) Humor in Literature

Class dates: Tuesdays, March 6 through April 17, 2018. No class Mar. 27 for Holy Week.
Total classes: 6
Starting time: 3:00 PM Eastern (2:00 Central; 1:00 Mountain; Noon Pacific)
Duration: 45 minutes
Prerequisite: None
Suggested grade level: 6th to 8th grade
Suggested credit: ½ semester Literature or English
Fee: $95 if you register on or before November 15, 2016. $115 if you register after Nov. 15 for all 13 classes ($135 after Feb. 26).
Instructor: Kevin O’Brien
Course description: From light verse (funny poems) to the works of the American Humorists; from funny plays to comedies with serious themes, we will examine the role of Humor in literature - and in life!  Our Final Project will be a fun poem, story, play or video that each student will make, to be shared in class.
Course outline (week by week):
  1. Old, Old Jokes - Humor from Ancient Greece to Modern Times
  2. Funny Poems from Then til Now
  3. Mark Twain and American Humor
  4. Humor on Stage: from Gilbert & Sullivan to Vaudeville and Beyond
  5. Stand-up Comedy as a form of Literature
  6. Final Project Highlights
Course materials: PDF’s provided by the instructor.

Homework: Reading assignments, regular quizzes, Final Project (graded by the instructor).  Expect about two hours of prep (on average) for each class per week.