I'm grateful that my introduction to The Divine Sister, a comedic play written by Charles Busch, came from a review by Lawrence Toppman, a theater critic and culture writer with The Charlotte Observer. Had I run into the predictable story line and characters elsewhere, I may have been less than amused with this comedy and missed its actual intent. In general I cringe at most forms of nuntertainment (and all forms of nunsploitation) though happily there are some films and plays out there that do well at comedy and drama around Catholic sisters and nuns.
Toppman points out that there is nothing new in The Divine Sister that we haven't seen in the movies about nuns, except that this play excels at "the art of overacting" and its laughs are intentional. The play intended to put into bold relief how Hollywood has dealt with nuns, which Toppman outlines briefly in his review.
Once upon a time, Hollywood loved nuns. They were courageous (“A Nun’s Story”), psychologically healthy (well, all but one in “Black Narcissus”), good-humored (“The Bells of St. Mary’s”), wise and tolerant (“The Sound of Music”) or strong-willed in a holy cause (“Lilies of the Field”).
But by 1966, they were outwitted by the likes of Hayley Mills in “The Trouble With Angels.” From there, the decline was swift: We saw stoned nuns, demonically possessed nuns, oversexed nuns, temptress nuns, deranged nuns ...
Source: ‘Divine Sister:’ The mother (superior) of all nun comedies in The Charlotte Observer (June 6, 2013)
Considering the play, Toppman says, "Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s set in 1966, the beginning of the cinematic end." It's this statement that leaves me hoping that the play is meant to be a bit of a commentary on nuntertainment -- making fun of how entertainment has made fun of nuns. (As mentioned above, not all comedy involving nuns is bad, but some versions are disrespectful and gratuitous.)
But Toppman's assessment does not seem far off from how Hollywood and indeed popular culture has portrayed nuns. What happened in our popular imagination to account for this shift in how we wanted to see Catholic sisters and nuns portrayed? Why did we feel the need to turn them more into playthings rather than human beings? I suspect that this is an issue not just regarding sisters and nuns but also of women in general. Dr. Bren Ortega Murphy of Loyola University in Chicago has done great work in this area of the image of nuns in the popular culture -- including the documentary A Question of Habit, which "examines the depiction of Catholic nuns in contemporary U.S. popular culture.
Why is it in popular culture -- and even in some Catholic circles as well -- we like our nuns buttoned up, predictable, and contained? Why is it that we don't mind outbursts of singing and giddiness, but we have a problem with normal, accurate displays of strength, balance, relationship, compassion, and zeal for God's mission?
Like the play, I overstate these issues intentionally and in the hopes that we might take more care with how Catholic sisters and nuns and religious life in general are portrayed.
P.S. Below is a video featuring Charles Busch on his play, The Divine Sister. I do hope it'll make its way to Toledo!