Martin Gottfried

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

"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….

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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 the plain and main theme of his play or he chose not to, but it was a mistake. It is the refusal of the Catholic Church to allow priests and nuns to love each other, man to woman, that is this drama's strongest example of a conflict between human feelings and official morality. "The Runner Stumbles" cannot work as long as it plays that down, even though it intends the priest to be incapable of violating his vows.

The courtroom-to-flashback construction of the play is well handled in itself, though the trial scenes are mechanically written. There are several nicely written and playable scenes in the flashbacks and the character of a rectory housekeeper is very successfully written. Curiously enough, in fact, she is the most fully realized of all the play's characters—a converted Catholic more formally devout than the priest or the nun.

As for the solution to the murder, the revelation is a surprise and proves a logical one, both of which are necessary to good mystery writing, but this climax occurs too quickly. The author spent all sorts of time with idle or repetitive conversation only to hurry past his denouement.

These are all lapses in craft, to be expected in a promising play, which is just what "The Runner Stumbles" is.

Martin Gottfried, "The 'Runner' Is Short of Breadth," in New York Post (reprinted from the New York Post; © 1976, New York Post Corporation), May 19, 1976 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. 37, No. 13, June 7, 1976, p. 239).

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