Any of us who streamed straight from our adolescent angst phase into an Existentialist period will probably be familiar with Jean-Paul’s Sartre’s play No Exit. It was, after all, an easily digested, entry level text into the murky depths of Existentialism.
Sartre’s play has three drearily departed souls consigned to spend all eternity locked together in a drawing room as their mode of damnation. The three characters form a perfectly mismatched trio as they keep rubbing each other the wrong way. Towards the end of the piece, one of the characters spits out the play’s most famous line: “Hell is other people.”
Author Scott Carter must have had Sartre’s No Exit in mind when he sat down to write The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy: Discord. But whereas Sartre’s forlorn trio was composed of totally made-up characters, Carter has enlisted three towering historical figures for his opus. He’s put our third president, the most celebrated Victorian British author, and the Russian literary dynamo together in a locked room and then let the inevitable frictions start sparking. But Carter’s internees are driven to a slightly different conclusion than Sartre’s: Purgatory is other people. Or even better, Purgatory is other people and an unvarnished look at one’s true self.
The narrative thrust of Carter’s Gospel proceeds this way: finding themselves locked up in a room together, the three figures start questioning why it’s the three of them there. After all, Dickens breathed his last 44 years after Jefferson, while Tolstoy didn’t join the other two until 40 years after Dickens died. No problem there though: it’s established early on that eternity, being timeless, can somehow twist to throw these three together a short time after each one’s demise.
After combing through a number of possibilities for commonality, the triad discovers that they had all penned their own personal versions of the Gospels. Jefferson then comes up with a good suggestion for how they might keep themselves busy during this early segment of eternity: they could put their heads and their writing skills together to produce a joint Gospel. Such a collaboration might even help them escape the locked room earlier if they do a really good job.
The three soon discover that their agreeing on a Gospel is a hopeless task, as the different ways they view divinity and the historical Jesus are just too divergent to ever allow compromise. They also quickly discover that the personalities of top-tier geniuses such as themselves are anything but compatible.
As in Sartre’s No Exit, the three characters expend some energy picking at each other, before each is forced to admit that they may not actually have earned the revered status they enjoyed.
As you might expect with a work that throws three famous authors together in a small, locked room, this is most definitely a “talky” play. In theatre, talkiness is often considered a major flaw, but in this play, where the talk is so rich and vibrant, it becomes a virtue.
Another virtue: this is a diligently researched play. (Playwright Carter tells us that he spent 20 years just on the research, and another ten years writing the play.) It’s packed with historical and biographical tidbits that not only provide depth to the characters, but enhance the interaction between them. You’ll definitely enjoy Discord more if you know something about the lives and careers of the three historical figures. But even if you’re admirably familiar with the lives and works of these three men, you’re likely to be surprised at some of what comes out during some of the barbed exchanges.
The script is not only well-researched, it’s also well-written. (Carter claims that he has scratched out almost 200 drafts of this play.) The playwright has given us three sharply defined and nicely differentiated characters, and those sharp differences allow for the dramatic fireworks to eventually erupt.
The three are also defined by their speech. You can hear echoes of Jefferson’s writings in his dialogue, float on the brisk waves of Dickens’s prose in his speech, and get braced by the insistent preachiness in Tolstoy’s speeches. More, the author has sprinkled in some sly, well-placed humor in the script, not surprising considering that Carter has served for many years as a writer for Bill Maher’s satirical TV shows.
It’s not only Scott Carter’s script that allows us to see the triad as three clearly distinct personalities, it’s also the compelling performances of the Lantern Theatre cast and the discerning direction of Armina LaManna.
All three performances are powerful and only strengthened by being played against the other two. Gregory Isaac plays Jefferson as a polished Virginia patrician with a serene Southern accent and a poised sense of noblesse oblige. You’re almost ready to take this Founding Father as a man incapable of even a blip of hypocrisy or inequity – until another character pokes deep holes in his shining image.
At first, Brian McCann’s Dickens struts about posing as a supremely confident literary lion who is also the epitome of the British husband and father. Later in the play, he’s revealed to be a wounded hero showing the emotional sinkhole in his confidence. But then the focus shifts, and we see Dickens as quite ready to deliver wounds to others, even those closest to him. (That English accent could use a little more work though.)
Charles McMahon plays Tolstoy as a fervently truculent son of Mother Russia convinced that he has uncovered the secret formula for saving the world. His conviction splinters when he’s forced to admit that the formula hasn’t worked so effectively in his own personal relationships. McCann does an admirable job of showing how the inner turmoil of his character appears in the outward agitation.
Salutes are also due to set designer Lance Kniskern; costume designer Millie Hiibel; lighting designers Shon Causer and Isabella Gill-Gomez; and sound designer Christopher Colucci, who also provided the very appropriate original music.
Admittedly, this is not the kind of show that will excite everybody. But if you are a fan of the theatre of ideas, especially when you can see how the ideas infuse and define strong characters, The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy is a play you’ll quite enjoy.
The digital Lantern Theatre’s production of The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy is available now through Dec. 19. After purchasing your ticket from the Lantern website, you’ll be able to choose when to launch the stream, after which you’ll have 72 hours to finish watching the show, ending on Dec. 19.