The Controversy of Valladolid
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 25, 2005
LAS CASAS: I hate the word "conquest." It
makes me think of scattered entrails, stolen lands, triumphant soldiers. I
SEPULVEDA: Christ loves this fight! He loves this conquest! Or why else would He allow it?
Jean-Claude Carriere's play The Controversy of Valladolid considers, specifically, the question of whether the natives whom the Spanish and Portuguese found when they "discovered" and subsequently conquered America were actual human beings or not. The Papal Legate sent from Rome to the Spanish capital in 1550 to settle this question suggests two other possibilities at the outset—that the Native Americans might be "a distinctly other species, or even subjects of the devil himself."
No one in this play—no one who gets to talk, anyway—suggests that any faith but Christianity is a "true" one or that any God but theirs is the right one; the fate of the Indians (as they call them) will either be extermination, enslavement, or conversion. If they are descendants of Adam and Eve, then they are destined to be Christians, goes the argument. Sepulveda, the philosopher who pleads the case in this tribunal against the Native Americans, reasons somewhat speciously that the Indians are not human—but if they are human, they are an inferior race with an inferior intellect and inferior soul—and if they do have soul, whatever its character, surely it must be claimed for Christ, but only at the discretion of their European masters.
Brother Bartolome de Las Casas, a priest who has lived in the New World for many decades, argues for the defense. He knows that the Indians are as human as himself, and mourns the horrors perpetrated against them by his fellow Spaniards that he has witnessed but—an important, understated point—never actually prevented.
The Legate, with a scientific single-mindedness that's as refreshing as it is surprising, begs both men to stay focused not on "the war" (which has already happened, as he rightly points out) but rather on the issue at hand—are these Indians people? He listens to Sepulveda and Las Casas and also to a colonist from Mexico who turns up unexpectedly to make the case for the common man, or at least the common entrepreneur whose economy is at stake, with the fledgling empire's, in the New World. And he examines the best evidence he can conceive of, a family of Indians who have been shipped in for his edification: in the play's most jolting scene (save its conclusion), the Legate watches these three immigrants as he would caged animals in a zoo, evaluating their humanity in a series of tests the last of which—is it Carriere who has such a darkly awful sense of the absurd, or was it the original Legate 450 years ago?—is a performance by a ridiculous court clown, to find out if the Indians can laugh.
In the end, I was struck by two things. First, that for all talk about Christian beliefs and faith, none of the so-called Christians in the play behave as Christ was supposed to have done: lessons of charity and tolerance and virtue and constancy all seem to be lost, on these men as on so many of our contemporary leaders. And second, though religion is offered as the guiding spirit and purpose of the decision that is made to resolve the Controversy of Valladolid, it is the god Mammon who triumphs. Here, too, Carriere reminds us that nothing is new in the world of 2005: men were ruled by their purses, then as now. Distressingly, as the play ended a young woman behind me announced loudly that she thought this the worst thing she'd ever seen in the theatre. People don't like to look so uncompromisingly in the mirror as Carriere makes us do here: half a millennium of ugly arrogance, greed, bigotry, and entitlement—all justified under the trumped-up labels of "evangelism" or "civilization" (see the quote above)—is reflected back at us as we watch this brutally honest drama. The outcome decided upon by the Legate shocks even Sepulveda in its ruthless efficiency. Yet who among us today would speak up against it, as Sepulveda does not?
Worthy and important as the play is, I'd be remiss not to add that this production is not all it could be. Richard Nelson's translation—here billed, tellingly I think, as an "English version"—feels more loosely modern, as opposed to accessibly contemporary, than strictly necessary. David Jones's direction seems sloppy, too: moments that seem like they should have great import, like one where an African servant is ordered to mutilate a statue of an Indian god, fail to register, let alone resonate; there's a kind of lethargy and timidity in the staging that suggest an unwillingness to commit to the play's subversive spirit—the dark absurdity of the situation, in particular, is mostly missing; this is a funnier play, I think, than we're seeing here.
Josef Summer gives a masterfully centered performance as the Legate, but neither Steven Skybell as Sepulveda or Gerry Bamman as Brother Bartolome does his character justice; Bamman stumbles badly over his lines, and rushes through and overplays them, as though he doesn't want to be here. Herb Foster (as the Superior of the Monastery at Valladolid), Graham Winton (as the New World Colonist), Gbenga Akinnagbe (as the black servant), and Ron Moreno, Monica Salazar, and Jeremy Michael Kuszel (as the Indian family) are eloquent and effective in smaller roles. I question, though, the casting of William S. Huntley III as the Clown—his mean-spirited, modern persona seems to upstage, and therefore undercut, the brilliantly heartless absurdism of the moment.
That said, this is a play that deserves to be seen, and I applaud the Public Theater for giving it a home. The playbill works harder than it needs to to try to make it "relevant," inserting references to the War in Iraq and the Abu Ghraib scandal on an events timeline to make sure we get the point. I think all thoughtful folks who see the play are bound to wince in pain at the evils perpetrated, yesterday and today, for the sake of wealth, in the name of God. Now if we can just take some of what we feel to heart.