New York's newest play to debut this month, "The Glory of the World," only happened after a onetime Episcopal monk, Roy Cockrum of Knoxville, Ky., bought a Powerball ticket at his local supermarket in 2014 and won $259 million. Written by Charles Mee, the production takes a silence-and-strife-filled look at the life of Thomas Merton, the 20th-century American Catholic thinker who remains a spiritual inspiration and guide for many people.
From experimental showings of the play in Kentucky during last spring to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, "The Glory of the World," begins in New York Jan. 16 and runs through Feb. 6.
As a monk, Cockrum lived at the Society of Saint John, the Evangelist's monastery in Cambridge, Mass. He said he kept a prayer by Merton framed on a dresser in his cell.
The back story of "The Glory of the World," includes Mee's childhood, in a Catholic home where the living room shelves were lined with dozens of books by Merton, reports The New York Times. It also involves Cockrum's time as a monk, when while living under a vow of poverty, he decided he would fund theater if he ever had money.
Merton was born in France and lived from 1915 to 1968. He has been called the most influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century. His autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain," sold more than one million copies and has been translated into 15-plus languages. He wrote more than 60 other books and hundreds of poems and articles on topics ranging from monastic spirituality to civil rights, nonviolence and the nuclear arms race.
Les Waters, the British-born artistic director of the Actors Theater of Louisville, Ky., read 10 of the roughly 70 books Merton wrote. In 2014, he called Mee, regarding 2015 being the centennial of Merton's birth, reports The Times.
Mee, who said had been raised in a family with several priests and nuns, and who had a fondness for Merton's work, agreed to collaborate, but with a warning. "I think I know Merton pretty well. I'd love to do that, except, you know I'm an ex-Catholic, so whatever I do might get you thrown out of Louisville."
The play is set at a 100th birthday party for Merton, at which celebrants quarrel over how to describe a multifaceted man who was a Trappist monk, a prolific writer, a champion of nonviolence and a friend to Eastern religions before dying at 53 of an accidental electrocution in Thailand.
All of the actors are men, reflecting the community in which Merton lived. The play begins and ends in silence.
Reception of "The Glory of the World" in Louisville was positive, but reportedly left some theater-goers stumped. The Louisville Eccentric Observer described it as a "collective sense of confused delight that most audience members felt upon exiting the theater." The Courier-Journal called it "perplexing but fascinating."
Even Pope Francis appears to be a fan of the play, after unexpectedly referencing it during his address to Congress last September.