"And Carl Laughed," a production by Clayton High School, was the talk of everyone this Monday at a regular peace vigil in front of the military recruitment office on Lindell in St. Louis. All gathered expressed their amazement at the quality of the production, the talent of the actors, the fantastic original music, and uncommonly creative script and direction. Perhaps it is no surprise that those standing with signs protesting the war would be enthusiastic towards a play about a priest who has spent his life resisting war and decrying "nuclear insanity." In fact, about half of those protesting are personal friends of Carl’s and part of the Catholic Worker community where Carl dwells when out of prison; a few of us, including myself, are even characters in the play. Yet, from my perspective, this is the most surprising thing about Clayton High’s production: Somehow this wildly creative and artistic play, performed by high school students, and written by those who have never known Carl, adheres so closely to the spirit, personality, and life-story of Carl that those who know and love him most are the most impressed with it. As one of Carl’s dear friends from his seminary days asked, "How have they (Clayton High) come to know Carl so well?"
It all started with an article written about Carl by the Riverfront Times in the wake of his last action in which he and two other Catholic Workers poured blood on and symbolically attempted to disarm an intercontinental ballistic missile silo. Intrigued by the article, a Clayton High student suggested to the drama club that they create a play about Carl. Soon thereafter Kelley Ryan, Clayton High’s drama director, contacted my husband and I who are founders of the Carl Kabat Catholic Worker, a peace-community and hospitality house for the homeless in north St. Louis. Soon thereafter Kelley and her assistant Nick Otten met with members from our community to talk about Carl. Kelley and Nick left this meeting with articles, pictures, stories, and many questions about Carl’s paradoxical personality: What kind of seventy four year old man (or Catholic priest for that matter) dresses as a clown to perform the Eucharist on nuclear missal silos, lives in a shelter for homeless women, avoids Church (when out of the joint), and spends his days between actions both serving and provoking his friends with irritating jokes and behavior? What kind of man, who loves to hang-out, drink wine, and sunbathe, would willingly spend nearly seventeen years in jail, simply to say that nuclear weapons are insane, a sin against the earth and a crime against humanity?
Their response to these questions is brilliant. In And Carl laughed, Carl is played by not one, but two talented actors, generally simultaneously in dialogue or play with one another. One is the priest Carl— passionate, serious, responsible and opinionated. His youthful idealism and righteousness would certainly have been familiar to Carl’s priest-friend (also of the Oblate order) who told me, "Carl was once pretty orthodox." The other is the clown Carl, full of life and silliness and played by a strapping young man who apparently has taken his clowning classes very seriously. While never dominating the stage, Carl the clown is a constant freeing presence pulling Carl the priest out of paralysis and analysis and into action, or in biblical terms, out of the old man and into the new. In a fantastic clown-dance, Carl seems to discover his true self: a fool for Christ and humanity’s sake, as he describes himself.
Besides developing the character of Carl, the play does an impressive job developing the issues at hand: poverty, hunger, military madness, and nuclear armament. Scenes from Carl’s life as a priest in the Philippines and Brazil make clear that Carl’s objection to war is rooted in his love for the poor and for all humanity and his realization that so much poverty in the world is linked to our governments sponsorship of war through the building and selling of weapons (our number one export) at the expense of the poor. Through the narrative of Carl’s life and the lines of an often repeated original song "you can have a one night stand with your dirty little bomb, or you could feed the hungry for years to come," few in the audience could go away without questioning our national history of spending on war and domination rather than humanitarian aid or programs of social betterment. Bringing the issue even closer to home, the student actors ask: "How can we criticize Korea and Iran for their nuclear weapons and turn a blind eye to our own?" I left the play feeling that this question was truly their own, that these young men and women had come to see our times and our nation with unsettling clarity and that they were asking for both answers and conversion from their elders and their nation. This said, the performance was at times spontaneous, joyful, serious, and silly, but never preachy. In this, the play fulfilled its own message taken from the life of Carl Kabat: To live joyfully not out of denial but out of love of life itself and faith that together we can find a way out of this mess.
Upon seeing the play for the first time my husband turned to me and said, "I’ve heard so much about this play. What if it is better than the real thing?" At the time I laughed, but since then the question has become a serious one for me. I question not whether the "Carl Kabat" of the play is more endearing than Carl (impossible!), or the "Carolyn" actor is more sweet and good than me (yet undoubtedly she is), but rather if this production is a more compelling witness to peace, joy, and community, than we, the "peacemakers" have recently been. When I saw the play for the second time, I took note of the energy in the audience (which included many high school students) both during and afterwards. There was a sense of excitement and empowerment that comes from participating in something great and meaningful. My hunch is that for this play will be just the beginning for many. I hope to be meeting activists and individuals of conscience in the near future who tell me they were made conscientious by this play by Clayton High School.
An inglorious peace is better than a dishonorable war.