Catholic Taste: Bill Cain

Photo: Jenny Graham

Jesuit priest Bill Cain spun his Lower East Side teaching experience into the 1989 play, Stand-Up Tragedy. His second major play, Equivocation, is a “speculative history” of the Gunpowder Plot—an attempted 9/11 of 1605 England, when Catholic terrorists tried to blow the House of Lords to kingdom come—starring William Shakespeare and a few of his mates, dressed in modern clothing and speaking in modern slangy English. After sold-out West Coast runs, Cain’s bold, sprawling creation comes to New York next week. Cain spoke with Tim Appelo.

Your play has subplots on top of subplots—it’s The Da Vinci Code for smart people. Why did you write it?
I’d been teaching in the South Bronx and writing TV pilots, and I needed a break. I went to London during the whole discovering-there-were-no-WMD-in-Iraq time. I was reading about the Gunpowder Plot, and went to the Tower and saw what the tortured plotters carved into the walls. The government used this plot to take control and suppress the minority—the parallels were so intense, the play fell into my lap.

What does “equivocation” mean to you?
Miep Gies, the woman who protected Anne Frank, died at 100, three weeks ago. She said, “We are hiding no one.” That’s what equivocation is. The Diary of Anne Frank is my favorite book. She told the truth in difficult times.

You invent the idea that Shakespeare— or “Shag,” as you call him—was hired by one of the King’s ministers, a Cheneyesque flunky, to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot. Once Shakespeare realized it would be used for propaganda, he turned it into a coded allegory called “Macbeth.” Garry Wills suggested something similar in his book about Macbeth, noting that the Bard used the word “equivocate” only seven times, six of them in Macbeth.
I didn’t realize that. But the witches are equivocators. They always, always tell the truth, and Macbeth is undone by it. The Porter’s equivocation speech is about Henry Garnet, the real Jesuit Priest who was hanged as a ringleader in 1606.

Your play reminds me of A Man for All Seasons put through a Stoppard blender—fascinating real stuff stitched together with witty fabrication.
A Man for All Seasons was the first straight play I saw as a kid. I loved the theatricality, but that’s a heroic drama. This is more about how theater people live. It’s about a bunch of hairy, quarreling guys in Shakespeare’s company telling stories.

New York City Center.
Previews Begin February 9.

Catholic Taste: Bill Cain