Last night I saw a terrific college play, based very loosely on the premise of a real life 1950s experiment in which three delusional psychiatric patients who each believed they were Jesus Christ were made to live together to see whether it could break their delusions. Before I share my reactions to the play, here is a brief summation of the true experiment’s facts from a 2010 article in Slate:
In the late 1950s, psychologist Milton Rokeach was gripped by an eccentric plan. He gathered three psychiatric patients, each with the delusion that they were Jesus Christ, to live together for two years in Ypsilanti State Hospitalto see if their beliefs would change. The early meetings were stormy. “You oughta worship me, I’ll tell you that!” one of the Christs yelled. “I will not worship you! You’re a creature! You better live your own life and wake up to the facts!” another snapped back. “No two men are Jesus Christs. … I am the Good Lord!” the third interjected, barely concealing his anger.
Frustrated by psychology’s focus on what he considered to be peripheral beliefs, like political opinions and social attitudes, Rokeach wanted to probe the limits of identity. He had been intrigued by stories of Secret Service agents who felt they had lost contact with their original identities, and wondered if a man’s sense of self might be challenged in a controlled setting. Unusually for a psychologist, he found his answer in the Bible. There is only one Son of God, says the good book, so anyone who believed himself to be Jesus would suffer a psychological affront by the very existence of another like him. This was the revelation that led Rokeach to orchestrate his meeting of the Messiahs and document their encounter
The Three Christs of Ypsilanti is ‘sRokeach’s documentation of the patients’ responses to the experiment. Based very loosely on the book, Ariadne Blayde has used the premise of Rokeach’s experiment to craft a deft, multi-layered, richly satisfying exploration into philosophy, psychology, politics, and theology. The three Jesus Christs were rendered with a great deal of pathos, humanity, humor, and tragedy, both by the writing and by the great performances of Justin Hashimoto, Jake Ahlquist, and Ben Diserens, under James Presson’s terrific direction.
Ariadne, Presson, and the actors did a remarkable job of presenting crawling-the-walls-crazy people in a way that affirmed their dignity and elicited a non-condescending form of compassion and identification with their plight. Throughout the play, they were clearly sick and nonetheless clearly relatable, and in both dimensions were uncompromisingly presented. Their delusions were in some ways just the extensions of our own. Their passion, their narcissism, and their pain was just like ours, but, by turns comically and tragically, it was poignantly magnified and shot through the prism of serious delusion.
Their god complexes were ultimately much less about sectarian religion as they were about the universal search for personal importance, love from others, and the feeling of being special—which tragically lead to sectarian religions. Their neuroses were sometimes political, sometimes paranoid, sometimes personal. Their struggles with reason, reality, and religion were nuanced and exaggerated takes on normal people’s difficulties in wresting themselves from comforting religious delusions, or in trying to believe in, and live up to, impossible idealism.
And each Jesus Christ’s eventual fate in the narrative was a natural and satisfying realization of the fundamental truth of his specific character, which culminated and resolved the tensions within him in the most honest way. There was neither tragedy for tragedy’s sake nor happy resolution for a happy audience’s sake, but an ultimately inescapable set of realities guiding their outcomes–whether the characters could cope with them or not. Ariadne also boldly, poetically, and viscerally effectively tells the climax of one Christ’s story completely within the terms of his delusional experience of it, without ever bothering to go back and condescend to the audience with a banal and literal explanation of what transpired in reality. The transition from reality to delusion, here and elsewhere, is completely felicitous and artful.
For a play so well driven by characters, tantalizing, competently treated philosophical and psychological questions were always working their way into the script. One of the most especially difficult ones explored was whether truth or happiness or purpose is the most important thing for psychological health in cases where all three seem mutually exclusive. Ariadne ultimately plays her cards close to the vest when it comes to answering such questions in the play. She seems to say, in the end, that in some cases the truth sets people free, in other cases people would rather die than face harsh truths, in others cases shrewd people eschew ideal truths for practical realities, and in still other cases, for still other people, the truth has nothing to do with the real world but only with idealism. Though she is sometimes blunt about putting up neon signs that she wants to talk about certain big ideas, Ariadne pleasantly surprises in the end by rarely putting any answers in neon signs but instead leaving a lot of well-crafted jigsaw pieces on the table for the audience to sort out themselves.
Her one under-developed character is in the psychoanalyst with a god complex (Jenna Grossano), who is behind the whole experiment. Initially the idea of the psychoanalyst suffering from a comparable (though more functional and socially acceptable) form of delusion to her patients is devilishly promising and introduced with dry, understated implication and humor. But ultimately her arc is predictable and she becomes more of a one-dimensional villainess crucial to plot points and to advancing ideas than she is a full-blooded human character following out an interesting and unique destiny, as the three Christs are. Ariadne seems to have more sympathy for the tortures of madness than the tortures of genius here (though not in the case of Hashimoto’s Christ’s mixture of madness and genius). The psychoanalyst’s assistant (Bianca Crudo), who is charmed by and tempted to believe in, Hashimoto’s handsome sensitive charismatic Messiah spiel, is much more interesting as her counterpoint. Her resolution is nuanced and true in a way almost up to the standards set by the three Christs.
All in all, Ariadne shows an impressive fluency with philosophical ideas and a rare knack for telling a story filled with ideas that avoids being too didactic. She is able to give voice to a range of competing perspectives and to advocate for the mentally ill by treating them so humanely herself. And that she does all this in a story that is so good at matter-of-factly interweaving and critiquing theological symbols and ideas—also without didactically preaching—makes her achievement all the more impressive. She even manages an honest-to-goodness deconversion to atheism scene for one of the characters that itself feels natural and agenda-free. At her best, Ariadne lets honesty about people’s characters tell us all about the border regions between madness and reason, madness and purpose, madness and love, and madness and pain.
As Nietzsche wrote, “There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.” The next time I need to explain what Nietzsche meant, I hope I have Ariadne’s script handy.
Ariadne’s philosophical skill is not a complete surprise. She has already published an article on philosophy, co-writing with her father (philosophy professor and Nietzsche specialist George Dunn) a piece for True Blood and Philosophy: We Wanna Think Bad Things with You. I am quite proud to say Ariadne was also my student while I taught at Fordham, but I assure you confidently and sincerely that I taught her little to nothing of the wisdom found in her play and that I would have been as impressed with her work here had I not known her.
But since I do know her, I do feel special urgency to plea to any directors out there interested in a play that irreverently explores the borderlines between religion, madness, reason, and philosophy to look into Ariadne’s script for “Go Down Into Silence”. Because I will be pretty damn disappointed if this play itself goes down in silence with no more performances ever again after the one I saw last night. It really just wouldn’t be right.