Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 364

John Pielmeier's 1979 Broadway show, Agnes of God, relates the circumstances surrounding the mysterious stillbirth of a child to a nun who claims that the conception was immaculate. The play explores the nexus between faith, criminality, and insanity.

There are only three main characters in the play. The convicted...

(The entire section contains 549 words.)

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John Pielmeier's 1979 Broadway show, Agnes of God, relates the circumstances surrounding the mysterious stillbirth of a child to a nun who claims that the conception was immaculate. The play explores the nexus between faith, criminality, and insanity.

There are only three main characters in the play. The convicted mother is a novice nun named Sister Agnes, who claims to have no recollection of being pregnant or delivering the child. Mother Miriam Ruth (known as "Mother Superior") supports this testimony, alleging that Sister Agnes had a relatively sheltered upbringing. The third (and primary) character Dr. Martha Livingstone tirelessly investigates the case to determine both the paternity of the father as well the culpability of Sister Agnes. In the course of her investigation, Livingstone develops an antagonist with Mother Superior, who resents Livingstone's avowed lack of faith. At one point, Livingstone herself as a crisis of faith for which she seems, on some level, to yearn. Livingstone is treated poorly by others in the convent as a result of Mother Superior's ostracizing of the investigator because of the latter's atheism.

The lack of pragmatic resolution (as the father is never named) encourages (if not forces) the audience to accept the miraculous nature of the birth. The audience is asked to suspend its disbelief and accept Sister Agnes's final testimony that "God raped her." It is unsettling not to learn the real paternity, but, the playwright suggests, faith means different things to different people. Faith is presented as a complex theme. It is an alienating mechanism for Dr. Livingstone but a powerful, life-changing vocation for the other characters.

The play also explores the ethical implications of hypnosis for the purpose of criminal investigations. Dr. Livingstone hypnotizes Sister Agnes twice in the course of the play (though she is thwarted by the efforts of Mother Superior). It is revealed by means of Agnes's hypnosis that one (deceased) Sister Marie-Paul instructed Agnes to meet God in a bell tower, where Sister Agnes (in her testimony) claims that God raped her. The court finds Sister Agnes not guilty by reason of insanity. Insanity and faith are at first easily confused, but the former is found as sufficient grounds for acquittal.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 185

The important themes and meaning of Agnes of God emerge largely in the private reflections of the characters throughout the play and revolve around the questions of faith, sanity and innocence, and the sanctity of religious life. In addition to the questions raised about the line between faith and obsession, and about miracles, major themes of this play include the ways in which one can be innocent despite blood on one’s hands and the impulse to conflate, or collapse specific events, ideas, or people into one influential symbol that affects choices about belief. For Agnes, this image is that of the Mother—her mother, Mother Miriam, the Virgin Mary, the Lady, all of whom “speak” to Agnes in real and imagined voices and whom she seeks to identify with, please, and serve. She is simultaneously saint and sinner, being rewarded and punished, punishing herself to exorcize the sins from her body, which, from her experiences with her mother and religious indoctrination, can only be sinful, ugly, fat, or made beautiful through suffering. The blood that pours from her body symbolizes both punishment and fulfillment.

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