“When a single person breaks the rules of the game, thus exposing it as a game, everything suddenly appears in another light and the whole crust seems then to be made of a tissue on the point of tearing and disintegrating uncontrollably.”
So wrote Vaclav Havel in his 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless” in which he explored life under communist rule and the power of ordinary citizens to challenge the system. Havel was one of the most the notable dissidents of the Cold War era who would go on to serve as President of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic.
But for Havel, who led his country’s peaceful revolution and was instrumental in changing the face of Eastern Europe, such a transformation was made possible not by force but by the pen. For it was in the theaters of Prague where Havel would write plays challenging the status quo and daring to do something different.
Similarly, a young Karol Wojtyla was drawn to performing long before he became a priest or Pope John Paul II. Writing in Nazi-occupied Poland, the theatre became a means of expression and exploration of ideas during a time when thought was controlled and speech was silenced. Theatre, for the late pope, served as a bridge that allowed for the human person to gain a glimpse into the mysteries of the transcendent world—and to reach a new audience in the process.
Writing in Witness to Hope, his biography of St. Pope John Paul II, George Weigel ponders the question: “If drama could unveil the deeper dimensions of the truth of things, might there be a dramatic structure to every human life? To the whole of reality?”
In that same tradition, later this month a groundbreaking new play will debut in Washington, D.C. at the Catholic University of America. The Loser Letters, based on the book by Mary Eberstadt and adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Fiske, chronicles the story of a young girl, A.F. Christian, and her conversion to faith from atheism.
(Full disclosure: I serve as managing director of the production.)
Set in an institution, A.F. feverishly writes letters to the new atheists with advice on how they can improve their strategies and convince believers to join their ranks. Along the way, she is haunted by her inner demon who flies around her (literally!, as played by World Champion and Olympic Gymnast Chellsie Memmel).
Directed by Fiske, who also adapted and directed the critically acclaimed production of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters that played Washington and New York in recent years, this production is a spiritual quest in a world divided into ideological and moral warring camps.
And while the subject matter and the themes explored can often prove grim, The Loser Letters is ultimately a tale of hope—offering D.C. an unexpected form of redemption during an otherwise depressing election year cycle.
Like the works of Havel and Wojtyla, The Loser Letters is experimental and uses a non-conventional narrative as a vehicle for probing a young woman’s worldview that is relativistic, reductionist, materialistic, and ultimately devoid of any real hope.
At the heart of the play is a mediation on Oxford scholar Alister McGrath’s key question: “Does religious belief damage the health of a society, or is it necessary to provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy society?”
In seeking to answer this question, the play serves as a new form of apologetics for the Facebook and Instagram generation. Moreover, it’s a counter-cultural alternative to plays like The Vagina Monologues, The Laramie Project, or The Book of Mormon that often ridicules or caricatures people of faith.
Regrettably, traditional believers have largely abandoned the realm of theater in recent years and surrendered the task of culture making to those intent on relegating them to the wings. But in breaking the rules of the game, as Havel observed, The Loser Letters is penning a different—and winning—strategy.