John Whiting's The Devils skillfully transforms Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudon, a narrative chocked with explication, into an excellent drama. However, Michael Cacoyannis, the director, fails to realize that The Devils, although camouflaged as an historical play, stands firmly in the abstract and psychological tradition of modern drama.
Plays based on historical events will often lapse into Romanticism or scuffle along as mere recounting, but Whiting successfully molded his material for the theatre. He deftly compresses the time span between the arrival of Father Urbain Grandier (Jason Robards, Jr.) in Loudon and his cremation at the stake for sorcery. In addition, he juxtaposes crucial scenes with each other. While Grandier refuses to confess under torture, his false accuser, Prioress Jeanne (Anne Bancroft) soliloquizes on her sins at the other side of the stage.
Whiting also creates a character of his own, a sewer worker, whose humble earthiness eventually teaches Grandier to find God in his fellow man. Whiting purposely contrasts the sewerman's habitual obscenities with both the eloquence of Grandier and the blasphemies of the hysterical Prioress. While the sewermen explains to Grandier about the caged bird he holds before him in the sewer to detect poisonous fumes, Grandier steps non-chalantly over an open manhole. Later Grandier will be imprisoned and sacrificed like the bird. Such subtle touches paint a picture of a man who constantly defies fortune and of whom fortune will soon make sport.
Resisting the temptation to use archaic dialogue, Whiting keeps his dialogue modern and even Soc Relish. Detailed arguments in the book often reappear contained in conversational sentences. For example, Huxley insists that men searching for evil do so from a sense of their own sinfulness. When the Archbishop in the play puts a temporary halt to Grandier's witch-trial and the chief exorcist complains that "the Archbishop has made evil impossible in this place," Whiting uncannily reveals the prosecutor's unconscious guilt.
Whiting's characterization reaches its peak with the Prioress. We first see her kneeling in prayer to God the Father like a child before her bedstead. Unresolved Oedipal problems combined with her throbbing sex drives cause her to fall in love with Father Grandier in her fantasy. When he refuses to become her Confessor, her love changes to hatred and she half-consciously destroys him with accusations. Soon the childishness that lingers in every woman, so pronounced in this neurotic, turns credibly and terrifyingly into hysterics.
Aldous Huxley meant his study of an historical incident to be both an abstraction of the witch-trial mentality and a critique of the McCarthy hearings. Whiting thankfully preserves the abstract quality even when tempted by the theatrical. On the night before his death, Huxley's Grandier instantly calms his fear when his older colleague assures him that "God is here." The playwright, however, foregoes the sudden conversion and instead has Grandier change slowly through the last act.
Jason Robards understands his author's intentions perfectly. During the scene when he refuses to confess to sorcery even under the threat of torture, Robards remains so cool and detached that the audience writhes in pain. His subtle transition from arrogance to pride constitutes one of the most masterful performances you may ever see on the stage.
The role of the raving Prioress should rightfully contrast with the sane and balanced Grandier, but Anne Bancroft still overplays it. Her Prioress believes too completely in her demoniac possesion, so we miss that nether-land between consciousness and unconsciousness in which the real Soeur Jeanne acted. Miss Bancroft also plays the unpossessed sequences with an overflowing wholesomeness, while Huxley discloses her character as both bitter and shallow.
The problem is that Michael Cacoyannis has unforgiveably tried to wring emotion from a stone-dry script, presumably to titillate the crowd in the Broadway bleachers. In imitation of Luther, or perhaps even The Sound of Music, Cacoyannis punctuates the play with obnoxious Gregorian chant. His minor characters, whom Whiting wisely kept undeveloped to preserve focus, become caricature roles of great distraction. Cacoyannis also revives The Trojan Woman by turning the Ursuline Nuns into a Greek chorus.
Worst of all, the crispness called for by Whiting gets covered with grease in the slick tone of this production. Even the playwright's brilliant stage directions, where the sinister plotters enter an act on the left side of the stage while Grandier and his friends remain on the right, are overdone by the use of blue and red filters on the left-side lighting. Whiting has embodied a psychological truth, but Cacoyannis turns it into a device.
One can only bemoan the fate of this poor play, too intellectual for Broadway and too epic for anywhere else. Still Michael Cacoyannis, so promising in the past, can shy away from greatness only with shame. For unless this production is reworked to achieve its potential, The Devils will remain a better play to read than to see.