Gibson Girl Vintage, Durham
Auto Da Fé wasn’t a comedy when Tennessee Williams wrote it in 1941. The two-character one-act that Monkey Paw/Monkey Claw chose for its modest inaugural production documents the decaying orbit and final conversation between the rock-ribbed Madame Duvenet and Eloi, the adult son she’s raised to be even more of a religious fanatic than herself. Apparently, that project started at birth: Why else would anyone name an infant after one of the agonized last words of Christ, an Aramaic term meaning “My God”?
As with many of Williams’s characters, mother and son live in reduced circumstances, taking in boarders in the once smart but now scuzzy Vieux Carré section of New Orleans. But Eloi’s been taught that the community is sinful and that sin is contagious. “We can’t help breathing it in here. It gets in our nostrils and even goes in our blood,” he rails, before calling their neighborhood a “primary lesion” which can be purified only by fire.
As you’ve guessed by now, this won’t end well. The sheltered Eloi has become unhinged after accidentally viewing an homoerotic photograph of two nude men, which fell out of an unsealed letter at his job at the post office. In 1941, that would be no mere contretemps; under the Comstock Act, even consenting adults faced five years of hard labor for sending photos deemed pornographic through the mail.
Eloi describes the trauma of confronting his own long-denied desires via the photo: “I felt as though something exploded, blew up in my hands, and scalded my face with acid!” Obsessed with the photograph, Eloi tracks down the sender in a “private investigation.” Days later, deeply troubled by his awakening sexuality, Eloi looks for the words to tell his mother that he has become the thing their religion has condemned.
Convinced he’s become “infected” with homosexuality, Eloi has also determined the final steps that must be taken to purge the supposed disease. A house and two lives will literally go up in flames as a result, in an uneasy mirror of the historic auto-da-fé, or burning at the stake, which the Inquisition embraced as a spiritual disinfectant against the corruption of heresy.
So why was Friday’s audience at Gibson Girl Vintage laughing? Under company founder Nancy (Merle) Merlin’s direction, stage veteran Madeleine Pabis made Madame Duvenet a vinegary vision of religious rectitude in iron-colored hair and a blue-and-white housecoat as she folded clothes and read from a battered Bible.
But, whether because of Merlin’s direction or the actor’s inexperience, Howard Wood only believably conveyed the peevishness of an ever-fretting man child in Eloi. Omitting the agonies of a soul on fire from Williams’s play made it closer to a one-act comedy than a tragedy. Was the goal to simply mock and be done with the religious—and definitely melodramatic—self-homophobia that Eloi’s character evinces?
It would be understandable if it were; some schadenfreude’s certainly appropriate for a character who has self-righteously condemned gays, along with the rest of the sinful world, only to discover, to his growing horror, that he’s gay himself.
But when Eloi is so tormented by that knowledge that he’s driven to take his own life by self-immolation, that plot development merely reflects a sobering historic truth: that for centuries, gays have been tormented with religious intolerance to the point of suicide. During the actual auto-da-fé, we’re told, some who were convinced that their iniquities were inexcusable went willingly into the flames. It’s hard to find a punch line in that, but this production did.