Conference Call: Playwright Michael Shenefelt and Director Ezra Barnes: "Heloise" at Broadway Bound Theatre Festival
When I read the press release for Michael Shenefelt’s play Heloise that is part of the Broadway Bound Theatre Festival, I was very intrigued by this complicated love story based upon the true life story of French philosopher Peter Abelard and his student Heloise.
I love getting the double angle in this interview with both Michael, the playwright, and Ezra Barnes, the director.
Heloise is a young woman when she meets Peter Abelard—the most famous philosopher of 12th-century France. He is shrewd, ambitious, and politically threatening to conservatives of the Church. But when the two fall in love, her family then exacts a terrible revenge. The tale of Heloise and Abelard is one of the world’s great love stories, but it is also a philosophical story, because the two lovers press a crucial question with great force against the Church: the proper relation of reason to faith.
Heloise will play in the Broadway Bound Theatre Festival on August 7 at 5pm, August 9 at 8pm, and August 10 at 2pm. Click here for tickets!
1. This August, your show, Heloise, is being presented as part of the Broadway Bound Theatre Festival. What made you want to have this show in this particular festival? The festival is extremely supportive. They give you help at every turn, and they want to do whatever they can to make it easier for you to produce your best work. Also, they have Theatre Row for a venue—right on 42nd Street in Manhattan. It’s impossible to imagine a better venue than this.
2. Heloise tells the love story of famed French philosopher Peter Abelard and his student Heloise. What was it about their tale that made you want to write a play? I began teaching the historical letters of Heloise and Abelard in my classroom at New York University. I was astounded by the sensitivity and eloquence of their letters, especially those of Heloise. Rarely are we given the opportunity to hear the voice of woman from 900 years ago. And I wanted to focus on bringing this intelligent and independent-minded woman to the stage. I was also stunned by the story itself. The story has love, passion, political struggle, and, regrettably, violence. The violence is of course horrible, but there’s no denying that all four of these elements are dramatic and theatrical. I wanted to write a play immediately.
3. What was the easiest scene to write? The easiest parts were those where the real, historical Heloise has already written out the words for me—in her letters, which have come down to us. For those passages, all I had to do is cut and paste. But then there’s also an astrolabe scene, and astrolabes were the cutting-edge scientific devices of the age. They were imported to Europe from the Islamic world, and they allowed one to orient oneself in the celestial sphere, locate particular stars, and in certain ways, find one’s place in the universe. Astrolabes had a special meaning for the historical Heloise, and once I started to play with this idea, the scene was a lot of fun for me. Heloise and Abelard are talking about an astrolabe in the scene, but they’re also using this talk to discuss, indirectly, something more personal and intimate. And I had help with this scene from my friend and former teacher Michael Zam.
4. Which one gave you the most trouble? There’s a delicate moment when Abelard goes too far with Heloise. His conduct becomes disrespectful, insulting, and indefensible. And real people do indeed make mistakes like this. The hard part, then, is to restore their relationship after the mistake. For this to happen, Abelard must feel the full enormity of his actions; he has to be morally stricken—as if he has inflicted a wound not only on Heloise, but on his own higher self. Only then can Heloise forgive him. And the thing about the real Heloise was that she was indeed a person who believed in forgiveness. Abelard too. And this is an aspect of their personalities that I want to capture. But it can’t look in any way like an endorsement of Abelard’s conduct. Instead, it has to be the interaction of a couple who see each other’s frailties and are able to forgive—and each perceives this forgiving quality in the other. I should add that I had much help in this scene from my director, Ezra Barnes, but also from the two principal actors—Sophia Blum and Sean Edward Evans. Sophia’s and Sean’s insights helped me to revise the scene and sharpen it.
5. What about this story do you think will resonate with audiences today? I think there are at least three themes from the real Heloise and Abelard that continue to be central questions for us.
First, there’s the question of the role of women in society. Heloise is everywhere fenced in, and the fences are built entirely by men. It’s hard to imagine any human being having her life more heavily policed and controlled than Heloise—except for those who’ve been reduced to chattel slavery. Otherwise, she is almost entirely at the mercy of men. Yet within these narrow confines, the historical Heloise carved out a place and became one of the great intellectual and literary figures of the Middle Ages. She was strong-willed, but also clever, and her legacy lived on in the life of her nuns. After all, we have the heart of the story of Heloise and Abelard only because of her nuns. Men remembered the scandal, of course, but it was the nuns who preserved the letters, and the letters are the true window into their inner life.
Second, we now spend a lot of time asking who we are as people—and what makes us who we are—and how this connects with the idea of gender. Today we say gender identity. But this was also a crucial question for Heloise and Abelard. Heloise has her gender held against her at every turn. And Abelard faces a profound personal crisis after the great tragedy that befalls him. He wonders whether he is still a man. Heloise and Abelard had a lot to say about this, and what we sometimes forget is that the medieval generally had an extensive analysis here. For them, it was never your body that made you who you are. It was your soul. I believe that after nine centuries, their ideas still speak to us.
Third, Heloise and Abelard were locked in an intense struggle within the Catholic Church over the proper relation of faith and reason. We’re still struggling with that question today. Does reason undermine faith? Can reason strengthen faith? And when does religious faith become unreasonable—and an opening to fanaticism and cruelty? For their belief in the role of reason and in the ability to question, both Heloise and Abelard suffered greatly.
Even today, you still find flowers on the tomb of this doomed couple, Heloise and Abelard, in Paris, left by anonymous admirers.
More on Michael:
Teaches philosophy at Liberal Studies, New York University and is the author of The Questions of Moral Philosophy (Prometheus) and co-author of If A, Then B: How the World Discovered Logic (Columbia). An earlier version of HELOISE was a semi-finalist at the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center.
1. How did you get involved with directing Heloise? Michael reached out to me, sent me the script, and I loved both the epic and personal dimensions of the story he is telling.
2. What do you relate to most about this story? Like most people, I struggle with the balance of faith and reason. I'm not religious per se, but there does seem to be a certain amount of letting things take their course and trusting that things will unfold and be revealed that is akin to religiosity. But what I really respond to is the great courage manifested by Heloise and Abelard is pursuing their love for each and the strength they draw from that love.
3. Which scene was the most fun to put into motion? Whatever scene was the last one we worked on! But more specifically, I love how he has managed to make accessible, visceral and moving the scenes where Heloise blossoms under Abelard's teaching. These scenes, which encapsulate the richness of their relationship, are remarkable.
4. What should audiences know about this show prior to attending? That they have in store for them, a gripping, dramatic recounting of the love that two courageous people had for each other during a brutal time. By the same token, they need not "know" anything, as it's all in the play, the medieval world, the close-mindedness of the church at the time, the struggle for progressiveness, the courage it takes to deviate from the norm when it's unjust. I hope that the play will encourage them to "know" more about Heloise and Abelard afterwards.
5. How do you feel your artistic visions line up to present this show? We both like the same movies: Lawrence of Arabia, Fellini's Roma, Tom Jones, and as far as TV goes, the English House of Cards, which is concise and brutal and funny in its examination of how corruption manifests. Much like Michael Shenefelt's play Heloise, which is a must-see as far as I'm concerned!
More on Ezra:
Founder of Shakespeare on the Sound and served as its Artistic Director for thirteen seasons. He received the 2018 Connecticut Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Director for The Diary of Anne Frank at Playhouse on Park. Actor with numerous Off-B’way credits (Breakfast With Mugabe, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc).