Image: Merton Painting

The unveiling of a painting of Thomas Merton by artist Ruane Manning. 

In the middle of the last century, Thomas Merton was a kind of cultural superstar, minor league division. For those of a religious bent, however, there was nothing minor league about him: Merton was major league all the way.

A convert to Roman Catholicism at the age of 23, Merton soon took the full plunge into his new faith and took vows as a Trappist monk. Trappist monks usually don’t become cultural superstars, but this monk also happened to be a first-rate writer. A gifted poet as well as a writer of inspirational works, his popularity started to spread among people from different faith backgrounds looking for spiritual nourishment in an unsettled time. His acclaimed autobiography, The Seven-Story Mountain, became a best-seller and a standard text at both Catholic and secular colleges all across the country. In all, he spun out over 50 books within 27 years.

Image: Rendezvous in Bangkok … Who Killed Thomas Merton 3

Steve Gulick plays the Franciscan Provincial Trappist monk.

In his writings, Merton was also a strong voice for racial and economic justice, as well as a severe critic of America’s war in Vietnam. These pronounced political stances landed Merton in trouble with many in the Catholic hierarchy who felt that priests and monks should not get too involved (at least publicly) in controversial political issues. Even so, Merton never wavered in expressing his deeply felt views on the burning issues of the day.

His personal life also became a serious problem when he fell in love with a young nurse while recovering from back surgery. The nurse, Margie Smith, was not yet out of her teens while Merton had already ploughed into his early fifties. The two carried on a furtive relationship for a couple of years, and Merton seriously contemplated renouncing his vows and turning the relationship into a full and open involvement with marriage looming at the end.

While attending a monastic conference just outside of Bangkok, Merton met his end, just 53. The official reports claimed that he died of an accidental electrocution after stepping out of the shower and coming into contact with either a defective electric fan or a defective electrical cord juicing the fan. However, like the death of blues legend Robert Johnson (which I wrote about in the last issue) there are several loose ends concerning Merton’s demise, and some of those loose ends are strangely twisted.

Such a fascinating life and bizarre death invite artistic treatment, and that’s just what local writers Sabina Clarke and Thom Nickels have devoted themselves to. Clarke and Nickels have taken some key elements of Merton’s life and how it ended and given them dramatic treatment.

Their play, Rendezvous in Bangkok … Who Killed Thomas Merton,  had its first public staged reading this past Sunday. Clarke and Nickels’ focus in the play is on Merton’s strange death and what might have led up to it. The writers take a thorny conspiratorial trail and build their case from what they can find scattered along the trail.

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Kirsten Quinn who played Joan Baez

In this telling of the tale, Merton was actually murdered because his social and political activism had become too troublesome for some people in power. The question of who ordered the murder remains murky in this account, though a number of unusual suspects are given a glance: President Lyndon Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover, the pope, or maybe just a powerful bishop or Trappist abbot uneasy with a monk who was too fond of flirting with heresies of various stripes.

As co-author Thom Nickels says, right now the piece is “a big fat trial balloon”. In other words, it’s still a work in progress. The progress so far has turned out a promising piece of drama that is largely engaging in its late draft stage. A number of the scenes work very nicely and maintain our interest in the story of this tragic figure. The playwrighting pair succeed in capturing the tortured person who was persistently riven between his deep commitment to the monastic life and the temptations of the world, the flesh and the tipple. These painful internal struggles come through most clearly in those scenes where Merton spills out the confession of how he has been torn between his love for God and the monastic life which sustains that love and his love for the young nurse that pulls at him to return to the sensual world outside the monastery gates.

As I say, at this stage, the script is certainly promising, but there’s still work to be done. Some of the dialogue could be sharpened. This holds especially true for two important minor characters. First case  in point: the psychoanalyst who treats Merton should employ more of the jargon and waffle that was once an occupational hazard for that profession. In the 1950s and 60s, when Freudian and Jungian approaches were still highly popular, this kind of psychobabble was rampant among psychoanalysts. Right now, the doctor sounds more like a friend offering commonplace advice.

Second case in point: the shadowy figure who makes a sinister phone call shortly after Merton’s death would be more believable if he used the coded language that people engaged in professional killings usually rely on. Not only would the shadowy figure be more credible in his first appearance, but this change would give the character’s short confession at the end, rendered in straightforward language, that much more of an impact. Right now, the confession comes off as mere repetition.

Image: Tom Bregatta

Tom Bregatta who played Father Moses

Playwrights Clarke and Nickels can also give some attention to tightening the structure slightly in the next rewrite. Part of that task might be to expand the play a bit. At the end of Sunday’s reading, I wanted more, I felt there was a bit more of the story to be told here.

In fact, one key player in the Merton story was entirely missing here – Margie Smith, the nurse whom Merton fell deeply in love with towards the end of his life. One friendly suggestion I would offer Clarke and Nickels is to replace the generic, nondescript narrator they now have with Margie herself. This woman who played such an important role in Merton’s last years could assume a role similar to that of the Common Man in the original stage version of A Man For All Seasons. Like the Common Man, Margie could be both narrator and framing device for the play, giving it an intense edge it doesn’t yet have. I’m sure I was not the only person in the audience who wished to see Margie herself make an appearance.

As to the actual reading we were treated to, though it was still in what could be called a late rehearsal stage, there were some performances that clearly stood out. In the role of the young Thomas Merton, Robert Daponte demonstrated an assurance that seemed like he was ready to go on for the full-throttle performance right now. Kirsten Quinn looks nothing like Joan Baez, but her performance was also first-rate, one of the highlights of the reading. And, quite fittingly, Bill Rahill delivered a strong, convincing  presentation of Thomas Merton in his last years and post-mortem.

There are a number of directions Who Killed Thomas Merton can take before its next iteration. There was enough to appreciate in this staged reading that we can only look forward with anticipation to the final product.

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