Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You Analysis

Christopher Durang

The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The play unfolds in a single setting: a simple stage containing a lectern, a potted palm, a few chairs, and an easel. Standing at the lectern and addressing her remarks directly to the audience, Sister Mary Ignatius, an old-fashioned nun and parochial-school teacher, begins a loosely structured lecture on Roman Catholic principles concerning the proper conduct of life and the ways in which such conduct will earn one eternal reward or punishment after death. Illustrating her points with drawings on the easel, she speaks first of the nature and purpose of the divinely ordained regions that lie beyond the physical universe—heaven, hell, purgatory, and limbo—and then of doctrinal matters, including the meaning of the Immaculate Conception and the question of papal infallibility. This monologue is not completely coherent, however, and Sister Mary Ignatius digresses frequently, weaving into her prepared remarks autobiographical reflections and abrupt requests for water and cookies. These requests are satisfied by Thomas, a second-grader at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows School. The opening lecture concludes with a vivid description of Christ’s suffering on the Cross and a final digression, in this case involving bitter memories of her parents and her oppressive childhood.

In the play’s second scene, Sister Mary Ignatius answers questions on Roman Catholic theory and practice. Reading wide-ranging questions from file cards supposedly submitted to her by the audience, she responds in a variety of ways or not at all, depending on how the questions strike her. Asked, for example, whether nuns go to the bathroom and whether Jesus was effeminate, she answers tersely, “Yes.” On the other hand, she refuses to answer questions that call into doubt God’s goodness in view of the great suffering in the world and that ask her to detail the exact nature of the sins committed at Sodom. Her most detailed responses come when she is asked about situational ethics and about her own life. Her speeches on the former reveal a strict, morally simplistic, even outmoded, orthodoxy; on the latter, a nightmarish childhood spent with twenty-six siblings, an alcoholic and abusive father, and a mentally unstable mother. This...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Although, like all drama, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You reveals its themes through the playwright’s manipulation of language and spectacle, the emphasis here is decidedly on the former. The only physical action in the play occurs near the end, when Diane Symonds pulls her gun on Sister Mary Ignatius and when Sister pulls her own gun and shoots Diane and Gary Sullavan. That the self-righteous nun should have a concealed weapon is ironic and bitingly amusing; that she should use it is also ironic and quite shocking. This surprising scene provides a sudden and effective climax to the relatively flat action that precedes it.

Christopher Durang’s technique is far more reliant on language, particularly verbal irony, than on physical movement. Sister Mary Ignatius’s commentaries on life and religion are especially noteworthy in this regard, continually revealing as they do her insensitivity about the human condition (thus supporting Diane Symonds’s accusations) and her ignorance. That ignorance is especially acute when it comes to the matter she professes to know best—religion—and this is where Durang’s subtle satiric thrusts are most evident. In one speech, for example, she twice alludes to biblical passages. In the first, she says that Christ wanted the little children brought to him, but then adds, “I don’t remember in reference to what.” In like manner, quoting Christ’s exclamation, “Oh ye of little faith,”...

(The entire section is 490 words.)


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Brustein, Robert. “The Naked and the Dressed.” The New Republic, December 9, 1981, 21, 24-25.

Durang, Christopher. “Day by Day with Christopher Durang.” Dramatist, Spring, 1997, 34.

Lauder, Robert. “Theatrical Catholics.” America 145 (December 26, 1981): 417-418.

Savran, David. “Christopher Durang.” In In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.

Weales, Gerald. “Father Tim, Sister Sade: Anguish and Anger.” Commonweal 109 (January 29, 1982): 50-51.