John Pielmeier’s play explores the death of a newborn baby in a convent. It raises issues about miracles, child abuse, and sin, among other topics. The baby girl was found dead in a wastebasket in the closet of the room of Agnes, a young sister. The Mother Superior looked in the closet because there was blood all over the room and Agnes was clearly in distress. Although they called the police and Agnes was arrested and arraigned, she was allowed to stay in the convent while waiting for trial. She at first denied all knowledge of the baby, including her very existence, so a psychiatrist is called into determine her mental health and ability to stand trial.
The psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingstone, is portrayed as a lapsed Catholic who has issues with the church that largely stem from the death of her own sister. In her conversations with the convent’s Mother Superior before meeting Agnes, she discerns that the older nun is hiding things, although she claims only to be protecting the young woman. As the play progresses, the doctor’s numerous interviews with Agnes indicate that Agnes is disturbed, as she claims to have been having visions of a “Lady”—who seems a combination of the Virgin Mary and the crucified Christ—since she was ten.
Livingstone develops some ideas about how the young woman might have become pregnant and the greater involvement of the other nuns in knowledge and concealment of her pregnancy. There is a secret entrance to the ancient convent, by which a man could have entered or Agnes sneaked out. The senior sister had also been aware of the pregnancy but was more concerned with the scandal than helping the distraught young mother.
Nevertheless, Agnes continues to insist that God gave her the baby. She is either incapable of understanding how the pregnancy occurred or is blocking it out of her mind—or, perhaps there truly was a virgin birth. She does admit to killing her to return her to God. Livingstone comes to a point where she cannot continue on the case. As she does not reach a conclusion about the “miracle,” the playwright suggests that neither can the reader/viewer.
Agnes of God is a tragedy. Sister Agnes, a twenty-one-year-old nun, is accused of strangling her newborn child and discarding it into the wastebasket in her convent room. Her pregnancy and the birth of the child were kept secret, until Agnes is discovered unconscious and bleeding profusely outside her room. Sister Agnes professes no knowledge of the baby’s birth or death, offers no reason for the presence of the body in her room, and, until she is hypnotized, claims to have no recollection of ever conceiving. Mother Miriam believes Agnes exists on a different spiritual plane from others, shrouded in an innocence that she views as miraculous.
Mother Miriam is also highly protective of Agnes, afraid of how court-appointed psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingstone might dissect Agnes’s psyche and diminish or destroy her fragile spirit. Mother Miriam tells Dr. Livingstone, “I don’t want that mind cut open.” The psychiatrist comes to the convent to evaluate Sister Agnes’s sanity. As a trained professional Dr. Livingstone wants to help the “hysteric” Sister Agnes; she is convinced that this pregnancy is not an immaculate conception, that Agnes is a seriously disturbed person who is psychologically scarred from childhood trauma, and that a sexual encounter produced the pregnancy. She is initially open to the idea that someone other than Agnes may have killed the baby, as she seeks to uncover a logical explanation to the crime and to help Agnes confront realities not rooted in religious doctrine, but in the doctrine of psychological well-being that emanates from love and the empowerment of self.
The play portrays two different hypnosis sessions in the second act. The first session reveals a...
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- Critical Essays