The story of Thomas Merton and a lottery-winning ex-monk

The New York Times expresses the absurdity well:

It sounds like the setup for some kind of droll joke: A lottery winner and a rhinoceros arrive at the birthday party for a dead mystic. Art, and a blowout brawl, ensues.

An unusual stew of ingredients, some onstage and some off, has resulted in this strange spectacle’s move from Kentucky to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which, beginning Saturday, Jan. 16, will present “The Glory of the World,” a new play by Charles Mee that takes a silence-and-strife-filled look at the life of Thomas Merton, the 20th-century American Catholic thinker who “remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people,” as Pope Francis put it in an unexpected shout-out during his address to Congress in September.

The play has been made possible by the financial support of a former member of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Roy Cockrum, who now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.

But the play’s genesis lies with Les Waters, artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville (where Cockrum was once an intern, in his pre-monk, pre-ex-monk life).

Les Waters, the British-born artistic director of the Actors Theater of Louisville, strolls through that city’s downtown each day on his way to work and passes a plaque commemorating the street corner where Merton once had a revelation. Merton went on to spend much of his life at the nearby Abbey of Gethsemani, and Mr. Waters, whose theater’s mission includes the mounting of works inspired by Louisville and its inhabitants, was intrigued.

Mr. Waters set about reading, or trying to read, 10 of the roughly 70 books Merton wrote, and in 2014, he called Mr. Mee, a New York-based playwright and author who had often worked at the Actors Theater. The next year, 2015, would be the centennial of Merton’s birth; would Mr. Mee be interested in a commission to write about the mystic for the theater’s 39th Humana Festival of New American Plays?

Enter Cockrum, who won $259 million in the lottery in 2014, who had always been involved in theater and was particularly struck by a production he attended at London’s National Theater:

He found himself simultaneously amazed and depressed, because he realized that nonprofit theaters in the United States could not afford to mount shows with such a large cast and elaborate set and score.

“I promised myself then that if ever I had a pile of dough for some reason, that’s what I would try to make happen,” he said.

And he did, establishing a foundation, providing stipends for interns at the Louisville theater and supporting productions including “The Glory of the World.”

“It has a monastic resonance for me that I recognized — the conversations that these men had between each other onstage were not unlike the conversations that happen in a cloistered environment,” he said. “That kind of examination, that kind of deep, philosophical, what is sacred, what isn’t sacred, goes on all the time in religious communities.”

But, he added, “I’m not doing this because it’s religious; I’m doing it because it’s a great play that spoke to me.”

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