The Broadway Bound Theatre Festival, showcasing 18 world premiers at Theatre Row 42nd Street, is on until Sunday, August 25th. One of those premiers is “Heloise,” by Michael Shenefelt. A historical figure of fascination and feminism, Heloise has transfixed illustrious writers for nearly a thousand years. From Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad:
“This is the grave of Abelard and Heloise — a grave which has been more revered, more widely known,
more written and sung about and wept over, for seven hundred years, than any other in Christendom save only that of the
In short: in Paris 1116, a teacher fell in love with his student. In Shenefelt’s play, Heloise (Sophia Blum) is in her late teens/early 20’s; nobleman Peter Abelard (Sean Edward Evans), a prominent scholar in his day, late 20’s. Unable to locate a birth date, scholars have argued over the age of Heloise, putting her anywhere from 15-27, and late 30’s for Abelard. But it is not their age difference that matters as much as the betrayal of Heloise’s sole family member, uncle Fulbert (Michael Sean McGuiness), who hired Abelard to tutor his literate, brainy niece. Tutor. Not fall for. Not fornicate with. And certainly not impregnate. But all that does happen. Tragedy ensues.
Fulbert was a canon of the cathedral of Paris. The cathedral schools, overseen by the church, were where Abelard had risen to the highest possible teaching position. Desperate to keep his job and his reputation, he spirits Heloise away to Brittany, where she gives birth to a son. Though Heloise protests, they marry in secret. In order to protect her, Ablelard disguises Heloise as a nun, though she does not take the veil, and hides her in a convent. Through an arrangement with the nuns, they are able to continue their relationship. When Fulbert hears of this, he mistakenly believes that Abelard is trying get rid of his niece. When Abelard returns to Paris, an enraged Fulbert hires thugs to castrate him. Abelard becomes a monk, and implores Heloise to take the veil. She does, under duress. She never stops loving Abelard. She never stops thinking about him.
There are love letters between the two that survive.
Shenefelt smartly bookends his 90 minute, intermission-less play with an older Heloise, who has risen to abbess, in a conundrum: what to do with a young nun who has run away to be with a man, now returned, disgraced, seeking to be forgiven and accepted back into the fold. She is reminded of her own history, and the play moves backward in time.
Heloise, an “alluring but empty vessel,” as her uncle describes her, lives in a world ruled by men. She can make few decisions on her own – except whom to love. That does not change, no matter what happens to her or to Abelard; no matter where each winds up. And this is the crux of Shenefelt’s play, what stayed with me. Shenefelt, a philosophy professor as well as a playwright, has not only chosen a brilliant metaphor, he has also explained it in layman’s terms, so we learn along with Heloise. During an early lesson on substance in the sense of substrate, when Abelard is getting nowhere, he cuts up a wax seal of his father’s to illustrate the meaning, then says, “Yet even if the qualities of your soul should change and even if later you should think of other things, there will still be something that remains—the somethings of which your soul is made. And this, too, is a substrate. An immaterial one, an eternal one, but a substrate no less. It’s something made by God, and it’s part of you wherever you go. It’s that which carried all the qualities of Heloise.”
This also describes the love she had for him that endured.
Under the able direction of Ezra Barnes, the cast across the board is excellent: in particular, Anthony Michael Martinez’s snake in the grass Alberic, Sean Edward Evans’ tormented Abelard, Sophia Blum’s strength and resignation as Heloise, and Damani Varnado in a trio of roles, Bishop of Paris/Pope/Workman. His benevolent presence is one I’d like to see onstage more often.
There is always a risk with material like this to turn Heloise into a sex object; Shenefelt, to his credit, has crafted a romance and a bond between Heloise and Abelard without resorting to nudity, rape, incest, etc… which is a much harder play to write. But the payoff is tenfold.
My only qualm, really, is that I would have liked more of Heloise’s point of view. Though I realize this is a historical play, it is titled Heloise and it is fictional. Once the play moves backwards in time, it’s the men who do the talking. A lot of talking. Heloise is mostly mute until her affair with Abelard begins. Playwrights have a lot of room: with voiceover, with narration, with breaking the fourth wall, with non-linear ways of telling a story. If it is Heloise’s play, then I want more of Heloise’s thoughts and feelings from the get-go: how she feels about her uncle, his molding her into a scholar, his total control over her life, her hopes and fears for what is in store for her future – the latter which is what most 17 year-olds worry about, actually.
Blum’s strongest scenes as Heloise – and I am so thrilled that Shenefelt included this language – are when she is apart from Ablelard, in the convent, and he in a monastery. Even when she is unsure of his love, her thoughts and feelings are clear: “Now in this convent, in this stronghold built to the glory of God, I still think of the things we did, and of the times and places. I’m condemned to the life of a hypocrite, Peter, I direct the spiritual life of others, but have none of my own. How can I ask God’s forgiveness when I think him cruel? How can I offer God obedience when I came to this place, not for love of God, but only because I was in love with you? Even during Mass, Peter, I can’t banish these thoughts, and instead of holy images I see your face, and hands, and body. Are you freed from these reveries? They torment me, Peter. I believed the more I humbled myself on your account, the more you’d be grateful to me. I believed in coming to this place I’d still be with you—in spirit. Even now, Peter, it’s not God I worship but Abelard.”
Love is Heloise’s religion. Perhaps that is why her story continues to captivate novelists, librettists, composers, and talented playwrights such as Shenefelt. It is Heloise’s great, grand, tragic love that endures.