Contemporary Plays by Mennonite Writers

An Anthology, Part One

The Quest for Common Ground in Recent Mennonite Plays

This issue contains but a fraction of the recent works that might be classified as Mennonite plays.[1] They represent diverse styles and structures that range from the mythic to harsh realism, from the well-made play to experimental styles. In addition, the settings are also widely diverse: Virginia, Afghanistan, Germany, Palestine/Israel and a fabled dominion. Two of the plays are for youth theatre (Vern Thiessen and Doug Reed’s); the rest are suited for mature audiences. While all employ a forward moving plot structure, Talia Pura’s Cry After Midnight separates the plot into three overlapping narratives that have a common context: the war in Afghanistan. Apart from Thiessen’s fabled setting, the plays cover two time periods: World War II and the current conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Despite these obvious differences, there are many factors that unite these works to illustrate a common quest for identity and meaning.

What unites all of the plays and links them to the Mennonite context is a common theme, most obviously, the yearning for peace and justice. In addition—and not so common—are the elements of mystery, ambiguity and the theme of civil disobedience. This essay will illustrate how these factors function as major or minor motifs in each of the works in this issue. The historical link is also worth noting: peace and justice have long been themes for playwrights who have some degree of affiliation with Mennonites.

The history of Mennonite plays is closely linked to the quest for peace in during times of war and injustice, when tyranny abounds. Unfortunately for us, the earliest plays in this tradition by Carel van Mander (1548-1606)—written during the Dutch revolt against the Spanish for the Dutch Chambers of Rhetoric—are all lost. His protégé, Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679), wrote eight plays while he was a Deacon of the Waterlander Mennonite Church. They include Gijesbrecht which was the first production in Amsterdam’s Schouwburg theatre in 1637 and Gebroeders (Brothers). Both are symptomatic of his early work and address a desire for peace and justice during a time of war.[2] Gijsbrecht was viewed as such a powerful clarion call for justice that it was staged each year in Amsterdam from 1637 until 1968, with the exception of the Nazi occupation during WWII. The next notable author in this tradition was Hermann Sudermann (1857-1928), who wrote one play[3] after another extolling the need for justice in an age when injustice reigned.

Nearly absent from all of the plays in this issue are the traditional Mennonite themes one might expect: ethnic celebration, identity, social peculiarities, separation from the world, emphasis on nonresistance (with the exception of the minor character Hochsteder in Reed’s play) or paying lip service to the oft-quoted phrases that are often assumed to be central tenets of the faith. Instead, these plays are authentic studies in character, plot, thought, rhythm and language set against a backdrop shaped by injustice and violence.

To what degree this emphasis on peace and justice is unique to Mennonite playwrights is open to question, as these topics are universally recognized in Western theater. The central theme in Greek drama, according to H. D. F. Kitto[4] is that, “…violence and recklessness will lead to disaster which falls on the guilty as well the innocent.” This notion that Greek drama critiques the violent tendencies of the culture is reinforced by theatre historian Susan Abbotson, who notes: “Despite the patriotism that overtakes most nations as during times of war, it is nearly impossible to find any drama that suggests that war is anything other than bad, although they assert it in varying degrees of intensity.”[5]

Is Mennonite writing about war and violence characterized by a “varying degree,” or should it be viewed along with all the others that declare war to be evil? Secondly, if there is a varying degree, is it accompanied by a different aesthetic, a unique setting, or an alternative ethic? Before we take up that challenge, we also need to investigate, however briefly, a recent development in Mennonite theology that may serve as a guide for our exploration of these varying degrees.

While Mennonites in the past have often relied on theological principles based on biblical certitude and ethical absolutes, recent studies have sharply identified the limitations of those principles and have suggested alternative directions for theology and ethics. The plays in this volume seem to stand in parallel with the theology of mystery articulated by Gordon Kaufman[6] and the exploration of ambiguity in J. Lawrence Burkholder’s Limits of Perfection.[7] While ambiguity[8] and mystery are not synonymous theological principles, they function in a similar manner in dramatic analysis. Especially when we observe that mystery, in performance, has its roots in medieval theatre which explored how the mystery of the Divine can be known and what we are to respond to that knowledge. According to medieval usage of that term, mystery centers on how through suffering we are transformed and recognize Divine presence.

To clarify, the plays in this volume are not wrapped in ambiguity or awash in ethereal clouds of mystery; the opposite is the case. The characters, situations, plots and dramatic tensions are all developed with considerable precision. Some are sprinkled with comic touches while others confront us with harsh realities. Yet, the light they all shed on the human condition is in focus and unmistakable.

The plays are also significant for what they omit. They are not sacred drama the way medieval audiences would have known that term. They are not explorations into orthodoxy, heterodoxy or heresy. Neither are they religious in the manner that O. S. Merchant[9] sought to locate embedded creedal structures as the central spine in plays he deemed religious. Neither do they explicate questions or answers with an overview of biblical or religious history.[10] They stridently avoid religious caricatures intended merely to laud pithy sentiments but fail as a guide for a journey through the complexities of human existence. Instead they shed light on the complexities of life and how decisions, some small and others large, reveal character and shape our identity and guide our experience. They are religious in the sense that art reveals truth. In this sense, art becomes a partner with religion in a common quest to understand and possibly shape human action. Thus, the plays within this volume stand within the Mennonite dramatic tradition by developing complex characters who, in varying degrees, engage in civil disobedience against cultural customs or legal structures that are considered unjust.

The plays collected in this issue explore violence in a variety of forms including sexual abuse (Pura and Schnupp), systemic political oppression (Hostetter and Schnupp), social ostracism (Reed), sadistic torture (Schnupp and Pura), and the inherent violence of obtuse social coercion (Thiessen). In all, the writers have focused on issues that dehumanize and trivialize the individual or even the community in their quest for truth and justice. Only two of the plays have a cathartic conclusion in the traditional Aristotelian sense; the others leave it to the audience to discover a measured response to the violence and injustice they have witnessed. None presents a tightly wound ending that solves all problems and leaves the audience with a mood of sublime self-satisfaction. Even the two plays that emphasize wholeness or reconciliation also challenge the audience to find ways to address these issues in their own contexts.

Mystery and ambiguity are often associated with the study of character and characterization in a play. It is a mystery how on stage a character (Bird Brain) is transformed by placing birds under his hat when he suddenly hears a symphony performed by those birds! Yet, we the audience accept it as a plot device. It is mystery how a small character (Hochsteder) who represents a principle the other characters detest eventually alters the thinking of at least one other individual. The consistency between his beliefs and actions are evident in the only violent scene in this play.

It is perhaps a complete mystery how a woman (Lalzari) who has suffered greatly still hangs onto a thin shred of optimism as she recovers from her litany of suffering when we know that most people would lose all hope. When the Palestinians (Passion) return again and again with nonviolent resistance to the arbitrary and often capricious actions of the Israeli soldiers, we are both humored but also mystified. And when Käthe Kollwitz resists the tyranny of the National Socialists even though it has cost her husband his job and may now lead to the destruction of all of her art work—her anti-war legacy—we marvel at the mystery of such a courageous woman and her resilience in the face of the insidious principalities and powers that engulf her. Both Lalzari and Kollwitz stand in contrast with Antigone who begins courageously but then succumbs to despair.

Many of the characters in these plays, by their own actions, open themselves up to ambiguity. Were there other steps Kollwitz could have taken to protect not just her work but also other people? Is Bird Brain merely stubborn and in the end naively lucky, or is it the complete transformation of his character that results with a comic ending? Why does Hochsteder barge in on a social event and categorically demand the Veterinarian’s assistance when he, himself, is unwilling to alter anything in his words or life to accommodate the values the Vet holds dear? Yes, there is the urgency of a dying cow but a little tact might have gone a long way. As we hear the story of Lalzari’s personal suffering, the attention that Shannon as a physician gives to the wounded, even to Lalzari, and the private suffering of Krista suffers for the loss of her husband? No, he did not die, but he no longer is who he was prior to the explosion that ruined his brain.

War, violence and injustice present us with ambiguities in history and the theatre presents them to us in a compressed and vivid format. In this manner theatre offers us an illusion wrapped in a mystery illuminated by ambiguity. “The tragic poet does not dramatize the course of war, but uses the events of war . . . to present its real significance.”[11] When a play helps us find our own way out of a fog, we become transformed. [12] Accordingly, the theatre offer be a vital arena in the current Mennonite search for meaning and identity that can lift the fog surrounding our dilemmas.

Plays thrive on ambiguity and mystery and without them they would be didactic exercises hardly worthy of any actor or audience. All of these works avoid that trap. Vern Thiessen’s Bird Brain is a delightful tale for youth theatre that is replete with humorous characters who by the end have, a la Aesop, an implied moral for all ages. Even a play with a tightly wound ending such as Bird Brain, the mystery of illusion and the delight in ambiguity propels it to a delicate conclusion. The plot devices, the unexpected impact of music on a character and the final dramatic reversal, when love triumphs over legalism, portray the mystery of how the arts transform and how love can upset conventional expectations. As Kaufman observes “. . . mystery tells us more about our unknowing than about some reality in which we stand in relation.”[13] The other works explore human experience and the ambiguity of human action in ways that shed light on many levels of human endeavor with a contestant eye on the troubling and horrifying nature of war, violence and injustice.

Thus, recent developments in Mennonite theology enable the reader to see these works first as plays and secondly as an extension of the contemporary struggle for a meaningful, although at times, inconclusive faith. The courage of Käthe Kollwitz (Schnupp), the ingenuity of the Palestinian community in the face of oppression (Hostetter), the horrific suffering of an Afghan woman (Pura), the lifting of the fog of war (Reed) and the poetic symphony for a peaceable kingdom (Thiessen) all present us with mysteries that the stage can portray. The connection between the show and the audience is the ultimate mystery where the action survives and, perhaps, transforms.

These plays don’t provide us with a middle ground where we can slink and hide. An effective illusion on stage (ambiguity) provokes an audience to respond more readily and at a deeper level than well-reasoned didactic efforts.[14] In that sense these plays conform to the conventions of the stage and, consciously or not, are at the same time parallel with two major currents in recent Mennonite theology. Thiessen’s work, in particular, begins the journey into the realm of myth and fantasy where even the unnamed characters take all the attributes of living characters. His parable for the stage challenges the viewer to wrestle with real human emotions and situations. This is the paradox of the theatre that frequently the more ambiguous and illusionary it is, the more it seems true to life itself. In losing one’s identity via myth, the characters find it anew.

Beyond themes of identity and meaning, these plays are more specifically linked by their treatment of varying levels of civil disobedience. Each play examines how a character violates social norms or civil laws either unintentionally or by means of conscious decision runs afoul of them. Civil disobedience is not a premeditated action by any of the characters, but emerges naturally within the plot as the dramatic action unfolds. In other words, these plays are didactic works with lessons on the method, tactic, or value of civil disobedience,; rather, they incorporate nonviolent action as one dimension to create, extend or resolve dramatic tension.

Al Schnupp’s Censored explores the complexities of German life and politics in the late 1930s through the eyes of the artist Käthe Kollwitz and her circle of associates. The machinations and inhumane actions of the National Socialists are offset by the struggle of the artist to survive, undermine and even sabotage the regime. Censored illustrates how a government that feels compelled to label some work as degenerate will eagerly move beyond the censorship of art itself and seek to destroy the lives of those who question the actions of a government that devalues life. The progressives who were at home in the Weimar Republic Era were hunted, censored and tortured under the regime that followed. Schnupp also identifies progressive social issues that the regimes wished to eradicate, if not by persuasion, then by brutal force. The art work by Kollwitz stood in their way; not just Kollwitz herself. Her identity as an anti-war artist could not be tolerated during a time of tyranny. Her work was a great act of civil disobedience against the injustices and violence of the time and continues to be so today.[15]

Cry After Midnight by Talia Pura has three characters who gradually but determinedly reveal the horrors of war. Shannon is a Mennonite who volunteered for military service long before the war began in the hopes of receiving a government-funded education. But before her term of service ends, the war begins and she is sent to Afghanistan where her education and her faith are tested by one horrific battle victim after another. Krista worries about her husband who is a soldier in the Afghan war, and the play shows her response when she learns of his injuries. Lalzari, an Afghani woman, suffers not only from the war but from violence against women. Much of the play consists of overlapping soliloquies by these characters until the final scene when Shannon and Lalzari interact.

In an effort to present her complex characters in a desperate situation, Pura has devised a new plot structure to provide these varying perspectives on the war. But more importantly, and consistent with Kitto, she employs this plot structure and this historical backdrop as a means to explore character and shed light on the human condition. Lalzari faces physical and sexual abuse and eventually torture while continually struggling to find hope in resistance—even small acts of opposition such as embroidery (a banned activity). Hers is courageous civil disobedience against prevailing forces that will not tolerate her determination and optimism. She takes action without knowing it will disturb the local authorities but even at the end of the work, after suffering physical harm, she reveals a desire to repeat her teaching role with village women. The actions she takes (protection for herself and teaching a skill to women) are disobedient to the culture and she suffers until the final ending. The other two characters (one with a military spouse and the other a military physician) never seem to question their own acquiescence to a system of war that has also subjected one to personal loss and forces the other to witness minister to unbearable violence.

Robert Hostetter’s Passion takes us to another contemporary conflict zone, the Middle East; more precisely, the Israeli/Palestinian struggle for identity, nationhood and security. Robert Hostetter’s Passion takes a comic-tragic view of civil disobedience. The conflict is between the Israeli soldiers in Palestine who are required to enforce regulations that are often trivial, and sometimes draconian, absurd or brutal. All of these measures appear to have one intention: the oppression of a people. In Passion, Hostetter portrays acts of civil disobedience in response to these laws in a comic light, due in part to the cleverness of the leaders of the community in contrast with the obtuseness of the soldiers. Yet the underlying tone is tragic, because the soldiers hold the military power.

Hostetter’s methodology is similar to Anna Deavere Smith’s[16] in that he interviews persons from all sides of an historical incident and from those interviews constructs a dramatic work. He has developed this interview-to-script methodology from his first major work Cheyenne Jesus Buffalo Dream (Mennonite World Conference, 1975) to this recent play. The title, Passion, if read theologically, implies a work that focuses on suffering, but instead of the suffering of one who is a substitute for all, we encounter the suffering of many.

In the daily drudgery, insults, oppression and violence that persist between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers, Hostetter has discovered a humorous vein which is the focus of the play: how to handle the ownership of cows when new arbitrary laws mitigate against private possession. As the plot progresses the reader discovers the many layers of the passion alluded to in the title: a passion for peace, for justice, for the land and for religious vitality, amid circumstances that militate against all of these. Throughout this act (this issue includes only Act I) Hostetter illustrates how a people can, through humor and careful nonviolent strategies, retain their identity and avoid succumbing to despair. As a result the play accurately portrays the historical context where there still is no resolution to this long conflict.

How the War Started by Doug Reed is a play for young audiences with large themes. It explores the militaristic mood in the United States in 1943 when the drum beat was for war, and how those who questioned, opposed or sought to avoid it are labeled, harassed and even tortured. The first characters we meet are the ones supporting the war, and Reed develops them as sympathetic characters so that when their preparations are abruptly interrupted by Levi Hochsteder, the Mennonite pacifist, we feel his intrusion into their lives. He enters as an alien force and the main characters refuse to even take a minute to listen to his plea for help. His neighbors view his avoidance of military service as disobedience to the national ideals. He is humiliated, judged, brutalized and dismissed. Yet, through this encounter, some characters change and grow. Hochsteder, thus introduces the concept of nonviolence and opposition to war into the discussion. Even after he leaves, the conversation continues. Eventually Ethel shares her newly discovered insight about war and confronts Julia, who is hoping for a decisive early victory in the war. Ethel’s speech is worth noting:

That's not war. That's just what civilians think. There's no winning. There's only brief interludes to stop and reload. You're only starting to learn. War doesn't stop at your doorstep. War's like a fog you can't keep out. It gets in everywhere. And it withers whatever it touches. You think you can keep it out. You think you can barricade it. Sandbag it. And it still seeps in. Destroying. Rotting. Until finally it gets into your heart. And you rot from the inside. Every sunny day is a mockery. Every laughing child makes you reach for a rock. All you have left is the fog. And every breath you breathe out makes more and more fog. All you are is walking fog. And all you want to do is make more fog. More fog and more fog. Until you blot out the sun. That is what war is.

The impact of Hochsteder’s abrupt intrusion on a party is to slowly impact the plot; a the play ends on this note that war is a fog that infiltrates all of life. The ambiguity is clarified, at least for Ethel. The mystery of war, the notion that it is all heroics, is punctured. Hochsteder’s act of civil and social disobedience has rendered a lesson that some learned. Maybe the audience will also gain that insight.

In Thiessen’s play, when Bird Brain refuses to doff his hat , it is due to the embarrassment it would cause by revealing the birds he has hidden beneath. He is not intentionally protesting any laws, but merely protecting his standing among his peers. He has refused to part with the birds because they brought the symphony that has changed his life, and so he will protect them even if he is ostracized or punished for his obstinacy. The dramatic reversal in the play comes when, as a result of his now buoyant personality, he is admired and rewarded for his stand against social conventions and legal regulations.

The final entry in this volume is Ervin Beck’s recent interview with the actor and playwright Stephen Shank. Allow me to provide a framework which will illustrate the uniqueness of Stephen’s contribution to theatre and faith. During the final half of the 20th century various Mennonite institutions began to consider theatre as 1) a legitimate academic area of investigation, 2) an avenue for faith expression, 3) an attractive youth or inter-generational activity, and 4) a festive event. During this time a number of Mennonite youth began to pursue professional careers in theatre. Among all the notable examples one might provide in this area, one and only one seems to embody all of the above mentioned elements in a single vocation: Stephen Shank. Ervin Beck’s interview reveals how Stephen pursued an artistic life deeply immersed in his family's faith tradition which did not find echo in the agency of the church which severed ties with him. His work is a unique coalescence of vision, skill and affiliations that few, if any, can equal. Shank’s statements in the interview are candid and reveal a personal struggle toward artistic expression while maintaining a presence within the faith tradition. He has successfully negotiated multilingual, multiethnic and multi-faith boundaries in his quest for artistic integrity and religious truth. While some might have qualms about the latter phrase, linking theatre and religious truth, it is evident to this observer that Shank’s contribution is classical, even Greek, in its orientation: first seek artistic authenticity and religious truths will also be revealed. Shank’s literary and performance work deserves greater attention by those who seek artistic legitimacy and thereby begin a quest toward a foundation in faith. Finally, responses by audiences in Europe and Americas all indicate that Shank combines a convincing stage presence with exceptional writing and that both are imbued with religious sensibilities.

To return to the plays in this issue, all have intriguing characters, innovative plots and, especially in the case of Thiessen, an inventive use of language. It is with Aristotle’s[17]third category, thought, that distinguishes these plays from many others. Even though they employ the devices of ambiguity and mystery, these devices have a larger purpose and are not ends in themselves. That larger objective, according to this analysis, is to explore the relationships among peace, justice and civil disobedience. It is in this latter category that these plays nearly stand alone in the corpus of western drama. In addition, these dramatic findings will hopefully challenge any reader or audience member to join the quest for peace and justice. May these plays lift the fog of indifference that may also have clouded our eyes to perceiving the realities of our era.


[1] Al Reimer advocates a wide-angle lens or inclusive perspective in identifying Mennonite literary voices. Mennonite Literary Voices. North Newton: Bethel College, 1993, 2. Print.

[2] Readers interested in the history of Mennonite playwriting may wish to consult my 1989 entry in the on-line Mennonite Encyclopedia. The omission of Hermann Sudermann from that article illustrates the recent shift in scholarship that now recognizes the many connections between his work and his Mennonite lineage.

[3] Cf. Honor displays the duplicity of German class structure and sexual double standards, Madga explores the suppression of women and John the Baptist examines the perversity and brutality of the biblical Herod’s reign.

[4] The Greeks, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1951, p184. It is significant that the first play Persians by Aeschylus, is about the horror of war and a condemnation of Greek pride which precipitated it.

[5] Susan Abbotson, Thematic Guide to Modern Drama, Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2003, p241.

[6] Gordon Kaufman, In the Face of Mystery, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993. While I am not equating these two principles mystery and ambiguity, theologically, when applied to aesthetics they function as two sides of the same coin. One refers more to the transcendent (mystery) and the other to that of existence and ethics (ambiguity).

[7] Limits of Perfection, edited by R. Sawatsky and S. Holland, Ontario: Pandora Press, 1996. “… the ethical situation is ambiguous, ambiguity being grounded in nature and compounded by history.” p35.

[8]Ambiguity is the recognition that there may be a plurality of viable choices (ethics) or interpretations (hermeneutics) for any definitive historical circumstance or philosophical query. Ambiguity assumes a plurality of expressions may be regarded as true while avoiding reductionist assertions that truth cannot be found no matter what form the inquiry might take. Cf. David Tracy, Pluralism and Ambiguity, New York: Harper & Row, p31f.

[9] O.S.Merchant, Creed and Drama, London: SPCK, 1966.

[10] Gerald Weales, Religion in Modern Drama, Philadelphia: Univeristy of Pennsylvania Press, 1961.

[11] Kitto, Op. Cit., p184.

[12] Wayne Rood, Theatre and Theology, Berkeley: CARE, 2000, p201.

[13] Kaufman, Op. Cit. p58.

[14] The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (i.e. Berrigan Brothers) had a meaningful run during the Vietnam War years but has faded since largely due to its didactic material.

[15] The Käthe Kollwitz memorial on Under den Linden Strasse in Berlin is a powerful memorial to her anti-war efforts.

[16] Fires in the Mirror (the riots in Crown Heights, NY) and Twilight: Los Angeles (the riots in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict).

[17] Aristotle, Poetics, Gerald Else, Trans., Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1993. According to Aristotle the six elements of drama are character, plot, thought, language, rhythm/music and spectacle.

About the Author

Lauren Friesen

Lauren Friesen, Ph.D., was born near Henderson, Nebraska where he resided until matriculating at Bethel College (Kansas). He received his Ph.D. with honors from Graduate Theological Union and the Department of Dramatic Art at the University of California-Berkeley. From 2000 to 2013 Friesen served as Chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Michigan-Flint. Currently he is the David M. French Distinguished Professor of Theatre Emeritus at the University of Michigan. He was the founding director of the Master of Arts in Arts Administration program for the Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan. He also served as Professor of Drama and Director of the John S. Umble Center at Goshen College. The Kennedy Center awarded Friesen with the Gold Medallion for Excellence in Theatre Education and the Indiana Theatre Association presented him with the Outstanding Contribution to University Theatre plaque. In 2013 Pacific School of Religion presented Friesen with the Distinguished Alumni award. Lauren and his wife, Janet Burkholder, have been married forty-six years and are the proud parents of Erica who was married to Blair Franklin and Eliot who is married to Carrie Meyers. Erica and Blair have two sons, August Emerson and Maximus Grey. Eliot and Carrie have two daughters, Greta Catherine and Alexandra Claire.