Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 861
The Devils opens in the town center of Loudun, France, with the principal characters commenting on a corpse that dangles from the municipal gallows. D’Armagnac, the town’s governor, and de Cerisay, its chief magistrate, emerge from the cathedral admiring the priest, Urbain Grandier. Grandier appears and converses with Sewerman, who declares that humankind is driven by bodily pleasures. Grandier demurs, noting that at his trial the executed thief had said that his stolen gold had looked cheap on the woman he wanted to please. Following scenes reveal Grandier to be a man of the world, proud, sensitive and caring, yet fundamentally a manipulative man, driven by sensual desire. Among his sexual conquests is Phillipe, the adolescent daughter of the public prosecutor. Tormented by guilt, Grandier cries out to God to release him from his hedonistic life.
Other scenes reveal what are to be the sources of Grandier’s downfall. Mannoury, a surgeon, and Adam, a chemist, envy Grandier’s sophistication and highly placed friendships and decide to gather evidence of his fornications. The ascetic Bishop of Poitiers is offended by Grandier’s elegance. When Grandier supports D’Armagnac’s refusal of King Louis XIII’s request to tear down the town walls, the king’s representative, de Laubardemont, meets with Mannoury and Adam and asks for their evidence against Grandier. Meanwhile, Father Barré, an exorcist, is constantly looking out for devilish possessions.
Grandier’s enemies focus their efforts on a nearby convent where Sister Jeanne, shamed by her humped back and obsessively desiring to be loved, has fixed her attention on Grandier, whom she invites to become the convent’s confessor. When he refuses, her desire and guilt cause her to accuse him of sexual “filth.” Then, before all Grandier’s enemies, a devilish voice declares that it has possessed her—with the help of Grandier.
Act 2 opens in the cathedral, where Grandier attempts to purify his relationship with Phillipe by performing a marriage ceremony between them. Outside, Sewerman charges that the priest is sacrificing Phillipe only to save his conscience, just as Sewerman uses a bird to test the poisonous gasses in his sewer pit. (Indeed, when Phillipe later tells Grandier that she is pregnant, the priest dismisses her with advice to have her father find her a husband.) Sewerman warns Grandier of the nuns’ accusations, but Grandier scoffs at the charges. De Cerisay also doubts the charges and, to protect Grandier and to save the reputation of the town, he and D’Armagnac order Barré from the convent.
Later, Grandier confesses to D’Armagnac that he is spiritually dead and is now hoping that his sins will destroy him. D’Armagnac warns him that in supporting the defense of the city he has made an enemy of the powerful Cardinal Richelieu, and when news later arrives that Richelieu has gained power, Grandier thanks God that he is in danger.
At the convent, Jeanne and the nuns convince skeptical questioners of their possession by speaking in devilish tongues and accusing Grandier of sinful activities. Barré, the exorcist, arrives in regal splendor in the town square, where the nuns publicly testify. Also on hand is the royal agent de Condé, who in turn exposes the possessions as a hoax. Mass hysteria breaks out, and the Council of State meets to consider Grandier’s guilt. De Laubardemont presents love letters, obtained from Grandier’s residence, to prove his fornication. De Condé argues that Grandier should be convicted of opposing his government so that he can be accorded the dignity of being condemned by power rather than by stolen letters.
In the final scene Grandier, who has been away and is unaware of these events, comes upon Sewerman and says that he has discovered that God exists in nature and has found peace. De Laubardemont appears with soldiers and arrests him; as he is led away, devilish laughter sounds from every mouth.
Act 3 opens on Grandier in his cell telling the elderly Father Ambrose of his fear that pain and fear of death will destroy his faith and damn him. Ambrose fortifies his courage by saying that since Grandier has lived by his senses he should die by them. At his trial, Grandier denies his guilt despite de Laubardemont’s promise to spare his life if he signs a confession. Because Grandier is still afraid that torture and burning will destroy his faith, he asks for a more merciful death, continuing to affirm his innocence. Refused, he asks for the company of Father Ambrose, but is told that Ambrose has been sent away. In following scenes, Grandier is horribly tortured but maintains that he is innocent.
The final scene takes place following Grandier’s burning. Adam and Mannoury discuss the chemistry that enables human fat to be rendered into candle wax. Barré extols his victory over Satan. Phillipe, hugely pregnant with Grandier’s child, promises to do “tricks” for her old, drooling husband, who has been sexually aroused by the fire that burned Grandier. D’Armagnac and de Cerisay, drunk, burlesque their failure as civic leaders. Sewerman offers Jeanne one of Grandier’s bones; refusing, she cries Grandier’s name twice.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 277
Whiting provided few directions or character descriptions, choosing instead to present The Devils as a complex narrative in which many characters of varying motives converge against Grandier. So the audience can keep up with such variety, the play contains nearly sixty short scenes, most of which focus on the story’s separate elements, with a few in which all or most of the major characters are present. To accommodate so many scenes, the stage is divided into different areas and levels, with only the barest properties in place.
Whiting’s most powerful dramatic device is the use of silence as a way to show humanity’s inability to know God directly. At times when the characters ask for divine guidance or seek some higher meaning, the stage falls into complete stillness. This device is crucial to the play’s purpose of presenting its characters as infinitely capable of defining their moral lives. It reinforces the tension implicit in the striving for perfection by showing how easily such striving can destroy human lives and values; it also highlights Grandier’s achievement in working out a means by which he hopes to die nobly.
Apart from Grandier, The Devils’s most unifying character is Sewerman. Originally presented as a cynical realist who totally denies humanity’s higher nature and who unmasks the spiritual pretensions of Grandier, Sewerman eventually becomes his confidant and confessor. At their first meeting, Grandier acknowledges that Sewerman occupies “an unholy elevation” and asks for his pity. Eventually, Grandier realizes what Sewerman has known all along: that in order to find nobility in the world he has to employ the lower aspects of one’s character.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 93
Sources for Further Study
Armstrong, William A. “Tradition and Innovation in the London Theatre, 1960-61.” Modern Drama 4 (1961): 185-195.
Brustein, Robert. “Missed Masterpieces.” Plays and Players 8 (February, 1966): 60-61, 69.
Fry, Christopher. “The Plays of John Whiting.” Essays by Divers Hands 34 (1966): 141-151.
Hayman, Ronald. John Whiting. London: Heinemann, 1969.
Hurrell, J. D. “John Whiting and the Theme of Self-Destruction.” Modern Drama 8 (1965): 134-141.
Salmon, Eric. The Dark Journey: John Whiting as Dramatist. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1979.
Trussler, Simon. The Plays of John Whiting: An Assessment. London: Gollancz, 1972.
Williams, Raymond. Drama from Ibsen to Brecht. London: Chatto & Windus, 1968.
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