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A new dramedy mines history and religion for laughter and enlightenment
In 1987, Scott Carter suffered a severe asthma attack that landed him in the hospital for a week. When he was finally discharged, he walked out onto a bustling New York City street and the gravity of his health scare truly hit him -- he could have died. A stand-up comedian at the time, Carter wasn't a religious man and he hadn't really thought much about the afterlife. But after that brush with mortality, he decided to get in touch with God or, more precisely, to remain open to spiritual enlightenment.
Though he went on to work with one of TV's most outspoken atheists as the executive producer of Real Time with Bill Maher, Carter never abandoned his religious curiosity. And he combines that decades-long quest with his voracious appetite for historical knowledge in his heady one-act dramedy The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, which is enjoying its New York premiere courtesy of Primary Stages.
Discord finds the titular figures stuck together in purgatory. When they realize they've all written their own individual takes on the Bible, they surmise that the only way out is to collaborate on a shared interpretation.
The seed for the show was planted shortly after Carter's epiphany, when he saw Bill Moyers interview a minister who mentioned the Jefferson Bible: a pared-down, no-nonsense interpretation of the King James Bible by the Founding Father. Carter had never heard of the text, and he became fascinated by the concept of a play revolving around it.
"Like most first ideas, you think it's going to be so much easier than it turns out to be," says Carter, who's been working on various iterations of the play for decades. "If I had known it was going to take 30 years to finish, I never would've started it! I thought it was going to be very easy to write, but that delusion allowed me to persist. Time can be more generous than it has any right to be."
Then in the mid-'90s, Carter came across a copy of Charles Dickens's The Life of Our Lord in a bookstore. Unsurprisingly, the Victorian author's version of the Gospel was quite different from Jefferson's, and Carter transformed his script into an argument between the two men about whose Bible was "right." While delving into Dickens, Carter discovered Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy had written his own take, too: The Gospel in Brief. "I was excited when I found out about Tolstoy, but my heart sank because I knew it meant I was now years away from having enough research to finish this play," Carter recalls.
Research was crucial to Carter, who attended Bible study for eight years while working on Discord, which had its world premiere in 2014 in Los Angeles with a different cast and creative team. But while Carter was careful to make the show accurate, it's also infused with relatable humor and conflicts so theatregoers who know nothing about these men can enjoy it as much as historians and theologians.
For as exceptional and successful as Jefferson, Dickens, and Tolstoy were, they were also deeply flawed. Despite his wholesome family-man persona, Dickens had a troubled marriage and a longtime mistress. Tolstoy was also a hypocrite, preaching about the virtues of a penniless existence while indulging in a wealthy lifestyle. And Jefferson wrote eloquently of freedom and equality, but owned hundreds of slaves. It was important to Carter that the dichotomy between the men's ideals and their actions be addressed head-on. And -- though the audience's sins may not be quite so prodigious or public -- chances are most of us have a bit of a gap between who we are and who we want to be.
"They were three men who did the best they could to be the best they could for the world," Carter says. "And in that attempt, we see the failure. As we see America's failure to be a more perfect nation. Some people want to make it simple and have people be either perfect or terrible. What I want the play to convey is that we're both things."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord. Go here to browse our current offers.
Top image: Michael Laurence, Thom Sesma, and Duane Boutte in Discord. Photos by Jeremy Daniel.