“Call me nono,” says Pius IX with a wink at the start of Edgardo Mine. “It has a nice ring to it.” After all, he coyly confides to the audience, “I’m practically a saint. I’ve already been beatified.” In the hands of playwright Alfred Uhry, Pius IX, one of the most vilified popes in history, emerges as a ham—an autocrat with all the moral certainty and charm of Ronald Reagan.
Uhry’s play, which made its debut this fall at Hartford Stage, is based on David Kertzer’s critically acclaimed 1995 book, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. It is the story of a six-year-old Jewish boy who was forcibly taken from his parents in 1858 after word got out that a servant had baptized him as an infant. At the time it was illegal for a Catholic to reside in a Jewish home, so the young Edgardo was taken to Rome, where he became the pope’s pet, hiding beneath his robes and popping out to surprise the cardinals. Edgardo went on to become a celebrated priest, touring the world until he died in 1940 in Belgium, at the age of eighty-eight—just a month before German troops began rounding up Jews, as the final words of both book and play starkly remind us.
The Mortara case had extraordinary historical ramifications. International criticism of the abduction fueled growing republicanism in Italy and alienated the Europeans whose armies propped up the Papal States. The pope’s insistence on his own infallibility led to the church’s retreat to Rome.
On stage, Uhry pits Pius IX (played by Brian Murray) against Edgardo’s mother, Marianna (Randy Graff). Although a minor character in Kertzer’s book, she provides the play’s fulcrum, telling the pope to go to hell and demanding that the actors reenact her version of the events. When the pope offers to house the entire family in Rome—if they will convert—she refuses flat out.
“You would give up your child just to remain a Jew?” he asks.
When her husband weakens, she lambastes him. “We’re Jews. . . . The way we eat, the way we think, the things we do, [they] all go back to Abraham.”
“You compare your faith to mine?” Pius asks her incredulously. “I was chosen.”
“That’s funny,” she snaps, “because I talk to God all the time and he never mentioned it to me.” To the pope’s exhortations that he suffers the world’s pain, she retorts: “You don’t suffer; I do. You babble on about faith, but what you really mean is power.”
As the play closed in November, rumors flew of a Broadway run and even a film. If Uhry’s previous success is any indication (Driving Miss Daisy and Last Night of Ballyhoo won him an artistic Triple Crown: a Pulitzer, an Oscar, and a Tony), the battle for Edgardo’s soul is likely to be fought hard in the public eye.
Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM’s managing editor.