Milan Stitt 1941–
American dramatist and screenwriter.
Stitt is the author of The Runner Stumbles (1974), the story of a priest on trial for the murder of a nun whom he loved. Both a murder mystery and a tale of forbidden love, the play explores the conflict between human nature and the restrictions imposed on it by Catholic doctrine. Stitt wrote the first version of The Runner Stumbles as a drama student at Yale University in 1964 and rewrote it several times before it opened on Broadway to generally favorable reviews in 1976. He also wrote the screenplay for a film version of his play, which was produced in 1979. Stitt has written several other plays, but only The Runner Stumbles has been widely produced.
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"The Runner Stumbles" is an unevenly written Catholic whodunit with an undercurrent of deep and heartfelt humanism. That undercurrent regularly gives life to the play …, but the work is too frequently undermined by awkward writing and construction…. Milan Stitt's drama is sincere in its anger with the official Catholic Church, as it seems devoted to the idea of Catholicism, but that ambivalence is reflected in the work itself….
The play is a courtroom trial and a flashback narrative. A priest has been accused of murdering a nun. She had come to his out-of-the-way parish to teach and, under contrived circumstances, moved into the rectory. The closeness of these living circumstances inevitably leads to romantic attraction.
An inevitable romance is merely a badly described one, but that is as much as one can draw from the story. Stitt has not delineated the nun at all—she is merely an enthusiastic and evidently successful teacher. The priest's character hasn't many details, though the author means for him to be a man more concerned with humanity than with ecclesiastic formality….
There are several … examples given to indicate his conflict with the official church but though they may all be realistic ones they seem … contrived and trivial….
The priest's main collision with the church, of course, is the romance with the nun. Either the author was reluctant to make this...
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Milan Stitt's "The Runner Stumbles" is, simultaneously a love story about an impossible love, a psychological mystery and a reflective study of the strictures of religion…. [It] offers some sobering judgments on the relationships of men and women whose lives are devoted to God….
Mr. Stitt draws upon fact—an actual case in Michigan in 1911 when a priest was accused of murdering a nun—and filters it through his own imagination. This is no dusty court record, but a play about people who are entrapped by their own and one another's obsessions….
As the play begins, the priest is awaiting trial. The scene moves from cell to courtroom to mind and shadowy memory as we, and Father Rivard's insecure lawyer, try to piece together the truth.
That defense attorney and other minor characters are stock figures and their scenes, as well as some of the courtroom interrogation, have a stiff, unyielding quality….
Despite flaws, the play has a strong emotional impact. The writer avoids overstatement and melodrama. In this, his first play, Mr. Stitt has the restraint and sureness of an experienced dramatist.
Mel Gussow, "'The Runner Stumbles' Marked by Fine Acting," in The New York Times (copyright © 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 19, 1976 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. 37, No. 13, June 7, 1976, p. 238).
[In "The Runner Stumbles"] Mr. Stitt has fashioned his material well. It is a mystery story as well as a psychological and moral study. In a series of flashbacks the play moves expertly back and forth from courtroom scenes at the trial of the priest to events from the past. Individual scenes are highly effective, especially those among the three principals—the priest, the nun and the housekeeper—and the climactic scene of revelation between Father Rivard and Sister Rita is a model of what books on dramatic structure call the "obligatory scene."
The play is not flawless: the character of both the priest and the nun are a bit ambiguous and it takes them longer than necessary to discover their problem, but by and large the play is forceful and at its high points, electrifying. It combines a concern with humanity with a searching look at moral problems, and proves by its effect on today's audiences that questions of love versus the strictures of society or religion are not confined to the past or to one particular faith. (p. 239)
Edwin Wilson, "A Moral Dilemma in a Parish House," in The Wall Street Journal (reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal; © Dow Jones & Company, Inc. 1976, all rights reserved), May 25, 1976 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. 37, No. 13, June 7, 1976, pp. 239-40).
["The Runner Stumbles"] is a new, serious, well-made, and continuously interesting American play, all the more worthy of our attention because it comes at a time when most of what is new on Broadway is not serious, most of what is serious is not well made, most of what is well made is not interesting, and most of what is interesting is not American. Let us therefore praise the author, Milan Stitt, for providing us with what amounts to an event as well as a play; I know nothing about him except that he appears to be named after a city, but if he is fairly young—anything under forty passes for young with me—then I predict that he has many more plays to give us. "The Runner Stumbles" has a pleasing richness of emotion behind the calculatedly spare nature of its language, and that is almost always a promising sign, especially at the beginning of a writer's career, as the opposite situation—a richness of language with little emotion behind it—hints at a talent that will burn itself out early….
Mr. Stitt has taken astute advantage of our assumption that we know something about the harshness of the religious life as practiced in that far-off time and place: when Father Rivard, a stern young intellectual, and pretty, passionate Sister Rita meet and fall in love, we perceive that something horrible is bound to befall them in consequence. Today, when a priest and a nun fall in love they marry and go off to Bermuda on a tennis-playing honeymoon. No doubt Mr. Stitt could have made a comic trifle out of this contemporary commonplace; instead, looking back, he has written a tragedy in the form of a courtroom melodrama, and guilt, punishment, despair, and death are all grimly present at the final cintain of "The Runner Stumbles."
Brendan Gill, "Up in Michigan," in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LII, No. 15, May 31, 1976, p. 51.
The crux of [The Runner Stumbles] is not so much the inevitability of the priest and the nun falling in love, which it is clear will happen from the start despite his effort to resist it, but the conflict between formality and humanity. "The church is for rules," he didactically insists. "God is for people," she counters, at another moment asking, "Have you ever been human?" At still another point, one of them speculates: "Maybe God is only hope…. Nobody gets what he wants."
Obviously, there is nothing new or in the least theologically profound about this as religious dialogue, though it is a bit surprising to find it in a Broadway theatre these days—and perhaps a mistake to have put it there. The situation is striking in itself, as well as the death that results and the way that happens. For Sr. Rita, by the end, is passionately in love with the priest; she thinks they can have a life together. As she looks down upon the town, where there has just been a fire, she tells him: "We're not so different after all." But he feels, "I must be worthy…. I can't be a husband." He insists he hates not only God, but also her.
Does he kill her? You're not going to find out here. Despite its lapses into melodrama and some needless repetitiveness, you could do far worse than a visit to the Little Theatre to get the answer. (pp. 518-19)
Catharine Hughes, in a review of "The Runner Stumbles," in America (reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc.; © 1976; all rights reserved), Vol. 134, No. 23, June 12, 1976, pp. 518-19.
[The Runner Stumbles] seems at first to worry about the role of the church in relation to its parishioners and about the struggle between the two ways of approaching God that Charles Williams called the Ways of the Affirmation and the Negation of Images, but the doctrinal differences are revealed as a vehicle for suppressed sexuality…. The Runner Stumbles is about a tiny Catholic community, isolated from the alien and hostile Protestant town near which it is situated, the town itself cut off from the larger world by geography, weather, prejudice and platitudes. (p. 464)
The community consists, for dramatic purposes, of Father Rivard, Sister Rita and Mrs. Shandig, the priest's...
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