Critical Context

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Agnes of God was produced in several American cities before its acclaimed debut on Broadway in New York City in 1982. The staging of the play elicited many comparisons to Peter Shaffer’s 1973 psychological drama, Equus, about a psychiatrist’s treating of a young boy who, in a moment of uncontrolled rage, blinded several horses. One primary difference in the plays seems to reside in how belief and passion are emphasized: Agnes of God emphasizes belief while Equus emphasizes passion.

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Pielmeier adapted the play into a screenplay in 1985 for Columbia Pictures, and many encounter the story first through the film, which should not be the stopping point for exploring Agnes of God. The screenplay omitted monologues and “extraneous dialogue,” and added new characters and that which Dr. Livingstone so desperately seeks: a happy Hollywood ending. In 2000 a new sound recording of the original play was introduced and received mixed reviews.

Pielmeier’s subsequent work continued to focus on the tensions between what is deemed rational and irrational, what is real and imagined. For example, in his trilogy titled Haunted Lives (pb. 1984), each one-act play addresses a story of murder or murder-threat. Voices in the Dark (pr., pb. 1998) is a suspenseful thriller about a therapist from a television call-in show threatened while vacationing in a remote, inaccessible location. Another thriller, Sleight of Hand (pr. 1987), is about a murdering magician. The Boys of Winter (pr. 1985, pb. 1988) is probably his best-known play after Agnes of God. The play is based on the My Lai incident during the Vietnam War, when unarmed Vietnamese civilians were killed by U.S. soldiers.

Agnes of God is an important play that becomes even more fascinating to consider in the light of modern-day issues, including the Roman Catholic Church’s stand on abstinence for clergy, the ways that functional and dysfunctional sexual energy gets directed, and the ways that young women’s unhealthy body images can result in a variety of eating disorders and pathological behavior.

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