University play proves controversial

Karlee Weinmann

Playwright and 1997 literature Nobel Prize recipient Dario Fo’s production satirizing Catholicism has drawn both heavy criticism and critical acclaim since it was written in 1989.

This time around, the criticism is aimed at University administration for sanctioning and supporting a spring 2007 production of “The Pope and the Witch” on campus.

Dr. William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, wrote a letter to University President Robert Bruininks requesting the cancellation of the upcoming performances slated to begin March 1.

Donohue cited Fo’s “well-known Stalinist and anti-Catholic” tendencies in the Aug. 10 letter and questioned whether the presentation of such satire aimed at other groups, namely “blacks, Jews and gays,” would be authorized.

The play details the pope’s nervous breakdown and the infiltration of the Vatican by unsavory women. Among other things, a Vatican security officer with mafia ties and several heroin addicts pepper the controversial show.

Bruininks responded Sept. 8 with a letter that acknowledged Donohue’s concerns but still backed the play.

“Universities are places where people with very different, and sometimes very unpopular, points of view can present their ideas, and where others who disagree with those ideas can join in the critical dialogue and the debate as it ensues.

“That is as it should be in a University committed to the free exchange of ideas and academic freedom,” Bruininks said in the letter.

“The play is basically an insulting statement (to Catholics),” Donohue said. “A line has been crossed.”

He also said Catholic taxpayers should not be forced to fund productions at a public institution of education that could offend them.

Donohue, a former professor of sociology, said that although he respects academic and artistic freedom, Bruininks created a double-standard for offended Catholics by betraying the University’s commitment to “establishing and nurturing an environment Ö free from racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice,” as stated in Bruinink’s response.

“The president acknowledges that not all ideas are welcome on campus, but then the theater department’s Web site openly admits the anti-Catholic nature of the play,” he said. “Why couldn’t (Bruininks) issue a statement that anti-Catholicism is not welcome?”

While Donohue freely admits his opposition to the play, he said the production itself is not the most upsetting aspect of the issue.

“It’s the duplicity that’s bothersome,” he said.

Donohue and the Catholic League, a national organization based in New York City, have engaged in numerous battles with universities over the ethics of purported anti-Catholic conduct.

Most recently, controversy erupted between the organization and the University of Virginia after the school’s student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, published two comic strips, the first of which depicted Christ on a Cartesian plane.

The debate about whether the publication of the cartoons was appropriate and whether the paper should issue an apology to Christians spurred nationwide attention.

According to The Cavalier Daily, the newspaper and university administration received almost 2,000 letters expressing outrage over the paper’s publication of the comics and its refusal to apologize.

The comics in question were removed from the paper’s Web site.

“There is a tolerance for anti-Christianity, not just at (the University of Minnesota), but in this country,” Donohue said. “How the hell can (Bruininks) justify this play?”

It’s just another case of hypocritical liberals creating this double standard, he said, where it is acceptable to offend Catholics but not other groups.

Dan Wolter, a University spokesman, defended the production.

“It’s fair to say the ‘The Pope and the Witch’ is a mainstream production,” he said.

Wolter said the Library of Congress as well as 167 colleges and university libraries across the country house the play in their collections, including the Catholic University of America and the College of the Holy Cross.

He said Catholic University has more than 60 works by Dario Fo in their library.

Robert Rosen, the production’s director, said he does not believe the production violates University policies of tolerance or prejudice, nor is it written or performed in poor taste.

“Some people get offended, some people don’t,” he said. “I love theater and I think it’s great when something raises issues and generates discussion.”

Chemical engineering sophomore and Catholic Molly Rusk said though she had not heard about the play, she was not surprised by the uproar surrounding its subject matter.

“I know Catholicism gets a bad rep a lot of the time, and there’s no reason for it,” she said. “I believe most of the stuff you hear is not true; it’s the truth of Catholicism with a twist.

If that’s what (the play) is, I won’t be seeing it.”

Rosen said he anticipated a backlash of unknown proportions due to the controversy that seems to follow Fo’s work. As of Friday, he had received one e-mail in opposition to the upcoming performances of Fo’s play.

” ‘The Pope and the Witch’ is not a derogatory title and it is not a derogatory play,” Rosen said. “Don’t we have to laugh at ourselves a little bit?”