NEW YORK (RNS) A Tony-nominated play that offered a controversial take on the Virgin Mary reflecting on her life held its final performance on Sunday (May 5), closing after only two weeks as poor ticket sales never matched high expectations.

Fiona Shaw in a scene from The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, directed by Deborah Warner.  Photo by Paul Kolnik/courtesy The Testament of Mary production

Fiona Shaw in a scene from The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, directed by Deborah Warner. Photo by Paul Kolnik/courtesy The Testament of Mary production


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Now the question is: Why?

Shows fold on Broadway all the time, of course, and as The New York Times noted, just 25 percent of them ever show a profit. But was there something about “The Testament of Mary” that doomed it to failure?

After all, biblically themed shows are all the rage on television and especially on cable; the recent History Channel miniseries “The Bible” generated huge ratings, and a host of shows and films are trying to explore — and perhaps exploit — similar territory.

So what went wrong with “Mary”? In the quirky business of the theater, there are always many factors at work, and as Sarah Pulliam Bailey wrote in The Wall Street Journal last week, it is true that a number of religiously themed shows on Broadway have indeed tanked — Kathie Lee Gifford’s “Scandalous” among them, late last year — yet she also cited others that have done quite well.

When it comes to the success or failure of dramas about sacred Christian stories, however, the debate usually comes down to the question of whether the play was too controversial, or not controversial enough.

Critics of “The Testament of Mary” certainly thought the play, adapted from author Colm Toibin’s 2012 novel of the same title, was blasphemous because it imagined an aging Mary venting her anger about her son’s death and voicing her doubts about the stories his followers were telling about him.

So it was no surprise that the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue, who blasted the play when it opened, cheered its closing and chalked it up to a lack of reverence for the subject matter.

“Quite frankly, there aren’t enough people who want to spend their evenings watching a dark performance about a fanciful Virgin Mary who rejects the divinity of her son,” Donohue said.

On the other hand, beyond the Catholic League and a small knot of protesters outside the Walter Kerr Theatre, “The Testament of Mary” actually didn’t spark much in the way of protests — or the valuable buzz that comes with it.

Moreover, there are plenty of controversial shows about religion that do quite well on Broadway.

Exhibit A: the hit musical “Book of Mormon,” a barbed parody about Mormon missionaries that is still going strong on Broadway and on the road. And there was the award-winning play “Doubt,” which dealt with the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and was adapted into an equally acclaimed 2008 movie.

In fact, Toibin himself wondered whether his take on the Virgin Mary simply wasn’t sufficiently provocative. But in a post-mortem interview with The New York Times, the author said he refused to try to spark controversy just for the sake of ticket sales.

“I wanted this play to be a theatrical experience rather than a culture war over religion,” Toibin said. “You could have marketed the show to Catholics and others as ‘the most shocking thing you will ever see,’ and I’m glad we didn’t do that. It would have harmed the integrity of the production and performance. I think we have a right and a duty to put on good theater, and I think we did that.”

Fiona Shaw in a scene from The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, directed by Deborah Warner.  Photo by Paul Kolnik/courtesy The Testament of Mary production

Fiona Shaw in a scene from The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, directed by Deborah Warner. Photo by Paul Kolnik/courtesy The Testament of Mary production


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Whether it was good enough theater, in the end, may be the real issue. That’s what killed Gifford’s reimagining of pioneering evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, which the Times called “generic and dull.”

Yes, “The Testament of Mary” garnered a Tony nomination for best play, but that came off almost as a consolation prize. And some critics, especially those with a theological bent, like Charles Austin of Religion News Service, did enjoy the religious speculations that the drama prompted.

Yet many others saw a theatrical mismatch between a finely tuned book and an overwrought play. “Stiff with its own seriousness, it’s a Broadway show that wants to impress us with its anti-Broadway intellectualism, while straining for a big, tricked-out success,” wrote The New Yorker’s Hilton Als. “One of the greater disappointments” of the Broadway season, agreed Ben Brantley of The New York Times.

In a telling moment at the end of “The Testament of Mary,” the mother of Christ, played by Fiona Shaw, wonders, simply, “Was it worth it?” Her stark answer: “No.”

In the theater world, such verdicts are hardly final, and coming seasons are likely to see plenty of other shows with religious themes — and maybe even enough controversy to keep the curtains up.

14 Comments

  1. Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It’s funny how in the 1950′s and 60′s our culture could produce novels, movies, etc. that probed Christian and Catholic spritual or religious issues without a veneer of what smacks many as a form of Christophobia or anti-Catholic bigotry. And it seems bizarre to lump the unpopularity of this play with the popularity of the History Channel’s the Bible as though the flop of one and the success of another is a great mystery. No mystery!!! There are many more pro-Christians than anti-Christians in this country. But the media and our culture keeps straining mightily to use its power to destroy the religious faith of the American people. The Catholic Church needs more blunt, truth-telling to the media activists. So here’s three cheers for Donohue’s cheering the closing of the “Testament of Mary.”

    • The stories and plays that mock the Blessed Mother are not the same as plays and stories that celebrate the virginity, glory, and blessedness of Her. Duh . . .

  2. I saw the play and I can tell you exactly why it closed. Toibin’s audience for this play is practicing Christians in general and Catholics in particular. Unless you believe in Christ’s divinity, and hold to Mary’s prophecy that “all generations shall call be blessed” there simply is no drama in this play. The drama, such as it is, depends upon your being shocked by its repudiation of these beliefs for its effect. A more nuanced play, one in which Mary’s doubts were presented as organic to her faith rather than merely fueling her anger, might ironically have been able to reach even unbelievers. But from the first words of Mary’s monologue to the last the audience sees a disbelieving, angry, bitter, self-righteous character who never changes or evolves her viewpoint. That is not theater, that is an onstage diatribe. I kept waiting for a moment when Mary’s anger would soften and subside just enough to leave room for her to begin to understand and mourn her son– even if she didn’t believe in his divinity or his sacrifice, but such an emotional revelation never came. What Toibin gives us, instead, is the revelation of her betrayal. Mary flees the crucifixion in fear for her own life. So, his main and only character goes from unlikable to detestable. This is not a formula for filling seats.

    Fiona Shaw is a gifted actress but her performance here was not modulated and lacked real spontaneity. You had no doubt that her character felt what she was emoting–but as an audience member you never felt it too, she never left you room for empathy.

    The playbill for Testament contained a rare addition–a brochure that reprinted beautiful paintings and statues of the Virgin by Bellini, Fra Angelico, Titian and Michelangelo, as well extensive quotes from Marina Warner’s magisterial work on the history of the cult of the Virgin, “Alone of All Her Sex”. Toibin obviously thought that without an understanding of who the Virgin Mary is, and what her role is in the economy of salvation, the dramatic narrative of his play would fall apart. What he didn’t understand is that it was never really there to begin with.

  3. Sadly there continues to be unbelievers who claim their work is valid just because they call it ‘art’. The most painted, beloved woman in the entire world who has survived centuries of critics because she is the Queen of Heaven and the mother of God and her Immaculate Heart embraces all as she continues to appear to us in many placess around the world-with the sole intention of leading us to her Son and our Savior. she would never turn against her Son . Until the so-called playwrites and artists treat her with the reverence and respect she deserves- you will all fail in your efforts to insult her, God, our dear Lord Jesus . and you are wasting whatever creative gifts God has bestowed on you because you are trying to be controversial. God will not take lightly what you are attempting to do to His mother. Though she pities poor sinners- He is a just God and will not reward you in the afterlife if you don’t repent and convert. We will all reap what we sow. Ask God’s forgiveness and convert while there is still time. Your lies will haunt you one day if you continue to abuse God’s mercy.

  4. This “play” is one of many good examples as to why we have the devotion to the first Saturdays. Anyone who has let this devotion to the first Saturdays lapse, now has good reason to reconsider its resumption. Slapping Jesus in the face by desecrating the Mother of God is beyond serious! It is especially so in terms of its consequences on this earth.

  5. I saw this play and was distrubed. it was awful and I’m glad I got free tickets and didn’t spend a dime on it. Mary is “full of grace” this Mary was a smoking, drinking, just BAD Mary this play wasn’t art at all and showed a stupid viewpoint.

    What it was trying to acheive is beyond me in a world now where ppl are being bombed for attending a marathon we should hold on to our faith and the beauty and GRACE of Mary.

    Even the costumes and the props were awful. Mary in the beginning is in an enclosed glass in the blue veil then she comes out in cargo pants and in clothes on this century. Also, the props some of it was of Mary’s time then and some were stuff of now…no thought what so ever. Just a mismatch of stuff thrown at the stage.

    Mary also got “naked” and it was so not appropiate to the play or what she was trying to convey. The audience just stared dumbfounded. This was the so poorly written and I agree what the guy said above more of a diatribe and rant no thought what so ever.

    The man who wrote this is a hypocrite, and just wants to create controversy to get ppl to talk about him and his stupid play. What a pathetic excuse for a writer who has to come up with attaching Mary the Mother of Jesus to get himself in the papers. I’m so happy I did not spend a dime on this and that they closed it down.

  6. Most Christians won’t pay to see a movie that trashes their religion. The Bible series on TV succeeded because it was respectful. The movie The Passion did fantastically well. It’s not rocket science folks.

    Will there be a play that trashes Muhammad? Of course not, they are not courageous enough to do that. Only Christianity, and especially Catholicism, gets bashed.

  7. Mary Bellino

    Praise God that it failed!!! This kind of blasphemy can not stand. Mary is the Mother of all…………….even of those who wrote the play, acted in it or had anything to do with it and she prays for their salvation and conversion as we all should!!! Honor the Mother of Our Redeemer, Our Merciful and loving Mother!!!!!

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