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Loyal Daughters’ promotes thought and awareness

Letter to the Editor | Friday, November 17, 2006

Margot O’Brien’s letter in Wednesday’s Observer (“Play ‘problematic’ for campus community”) is a dispiriting revelation of her inability to understand what a play is. Some plays tell you what to think. But many great plays – including, for example, plays by Shakespeare – take a different route and demand that you think, without telling you what you ought to think.

They present characters who speak and whose actions are dramatized. They do not present us with the author’s views or require us to agree with a single moral position. Like so much else in the world, but heightened and intensified in the way that drama so effectively achieves, they question us and ask that we work hard to determine how we react to their events, their characters, their language. They force us to be aware of our ethical response but they do not prescribe what that response must be.

What O’Brien perceives as “morally neutral” may be anything but an abdication of ethical engagement or a form of implicit approval of the events of the play. It can be a superb way in which drama places the responsibility on us without offering us the easy way out of telling us the right answer. Great drama may be neither quiz nor homily.

Like O’Brien, I have read the script of “Loyal Daughters”; unlike O’Brien, I shall be at a performance tonight to discover how the play in performance engages with my beliefs. (By the by, I am not for a moment saying that “Loyal Daughters” is as good as Shakespeare, only that it appears to work in the same way that Shakespeare’s plays work).

For every single one of us at Notre Dame, the Church’s teachings on a wide range of sexual acts are perfectly clear and present in our thoughts. Our task is to think through how the Church’s teachings and our own ethical beliefs (which may or may not be the same as the Church’s teachings) connect with the realities of the experiences of those people on campus which form the basis for the drama that has been created as “Loyal Daughters.”

For O’Brien there is no difficulty: her acceptance of the Church’s teachings leads her to find a response of prayer and compassion that she eloquently describes in her letter. That the people whose lives the play dramatizes may find ‘nothing wrong with consensual sexual activity’ does not mean that the play (or the playwright) finds nothing wrong with sexual activity that is ‘homosexual, bisexual, fornication, masturbation, or contraceptive sex’ (I quote from O’Brien’s letter).

“Loyal Daughters,” on my reading of the script, seeks to be true to the material it has gathered. It asks us to judge what is right and what is wrong. It leaves open whether we might, say, disagree with the Church’s teachings on masturbation but accept its position on fornication. It never requires that we approve of all the sexual activity it documents. And, above all, it asks what we can do, as members of a community, to prevent the kind of violence that men and women alongside whom we study, work, and live have experienced.

That is a moral demand we should praise Loyal Daughters for asking of us all.

Peter Holland


Shakespeare Studies

Nov. 16