The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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 childhood of tortured abuse, and complicated denials emerge from Agnes and Mother Miriam. The second hypnosis constitutes the climax of the play, when there is finally a confession about the baby’s birth and death, as well as a rapturously...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

A play set in two acts, Agnes of God was originally conceived to be performed on a bare stage, with the fifteen scenes moving from one to the next without pause, except for intermission between the two acts. Because John Pielmeier views this as a “play of the mind, miracles, and light and shadow,” his concept allows characters to appear and disappear, to be present onstage when not in a particular scene, and to flow from one context into another. For example, when Mother Miriam is speaking with Dr. Livingstone, telling her about conversations she has had with Sister Agnes, the account to the doctor becomes a displayed conversation between Mother Miriam and Sister Agnes. Similarly, when under hypnosis, Sister Agnes is able to “move” from the context of speaking to the doctor to her room at the convent, where the birth and death of her child have occurred.

The use of transitional scenes and poignant monologues to provide expository reflections is an important device in the play. It allows the audience to understand the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. Livingstone’s sister at the age of fifteen in a convent, and the doctor’s own recognition that she cannot be impartial with respect to her beliefs. She also reveals how she comes to be acquainted with Agnes, how her repressed anger with religion is rekindled by meeting Agnes, what her professional responsibility toward Agnes is, and her ongoing desire to have alternative...

(The entire section is 555 words.)


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. The Body Project. New York: Random House, 1997.

Hutchings, William. “The Equus of Convent: Agnes of God.” In From the Bard to Broadway, edited by Karelisa V. Hartigan. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987.

Pope, Rob. Textual Intervention. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Rasmussen, Karen, and Sharon D. Downey. “Dialectical Disorientation in Agnes of God.” Western Journal of Speech Communication 53 (Winter, 1989): 66-84.

Rosefeldt, Paul. “Dissecting the Divinity: Mothers, Fathers, and Victims in Equus and Agnes of God.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 16 (March, 1995): 61-74.