Nick Spencer looks at whether there is a future for electric nuns 09/06/2022
“One thing they’re in the hospitals, the shops, now they’re in the churches.”
So protests a knife–wielding “Luddite”, driven to violence in a recognisable future when robots have assumed traditional roles in society, rendering unemployed – unemployable – human workers.
The scene is from the last moments of Tim Foley’s play Electric Rosary, which ran last month at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester but which, I hope and trust, will go on to play elsewhere.
The plot is simple. The scene is a failing convent, St Grace’s, reduced to five nuns after the death of their Superior, enduring poverty and facing oblivion. In the unseen background, Luddites hunt and destroy automata, not for taking over society in the familiar sci–fi sense of becoming conscious and crushing their human masters, but for the all–too–mundane and credible reason of being versatile, cheap and therefore eminently employable.
In the midst of this, the convent takes on Mary, a council–funded robot (who comes with a sizeable bursary) in order to help revivify their common life. Is this working with the times or being co–opted by the powers that be? The sisters are divided, their reactions varying from the indignant (“Father O’Gorman will come along, douse the thing with holy water, hopefully rust the circuits”) through the defensive (“We’re children of God… no hunk of metal could replace any one of us”) to the welcoming.
Mary’s appearance hardly transforms the material fragility of the convent. St Grace’s remains poor and in decline. The senior sisters remain in conflict over who will succeed the Mother Superior. And the long hoped for visit to sistren in Ecuador a point of contention and uncertainty. But her presence within the community of Grace does effect a change of sorts.
The play lingers and explores the borderland between the human and the machine. Binary code hangs in the background throughout the play, like the digits in the Matrix. The first scene opens with the novice staring out of the window exclaiming “Oh!” in surprise. At the mid–point, Mary breaks down uttering “I am no one. I am no, 0, 1, 1 0 0 0 1…” to the alarm of her sisters. And at the end, one of the elders laments “I am, I am no one” before seeing something that causes her to exclaim in the manner of the novice at the start. Meaningless digits coalesce into meaningful identity and thence into moments of transcendence.
Questions of language curl around human conversations with Mary (“Is there anything else?” “Yes” “That’s a polite way of saying ‘go away’”) and plunge into theological depths (“You say you will be ‘closer to God’ in Ecuador. I don’t understand.”) Science and religion – or logic and miracles – rub against one another like tectonic plates (“You’ll never understand. No comprehension of what a miracle is. It’s something, outside science, and you are bound by science, your mind’s a… a closed circuit”).
And beyond all these, there lies the twin motifs of physical presence and of sacrifice. In the production I saw, each of the main characters had her own distinct physical presence on stage – the cautious, hesitant Acting Mother; the bitter, severe Sister Constance; the vulnerable, shuffling Sister Philippa; the buoyant, naïve novice, and of course the rigid, formal robot Mary. Except that Mary’s physical stiffness softens as they play proceeds, and she becomes less tense, less proper, more human as the drama unfolds. To be human, the play seems to suggest, is to have a bounded, vulnerable, fragile physical existence.
And then there is sacrifice. I cannot say much here for fear of spoiling the plot, except to indicate that the act of sacrifice – not only what we sacrifice but for whom and why – is central to the play, and in particular its climax, as the drama moves from its opening on Shrove Tuesday to its culmination on Easter Sunday.
So it is that Electric Rosary, from a faintly absurd premise, draws out the themes and questions that are anything but absurd, and invites us to consider who we are and what we owe to one another. It is sometimes said that art is much better at predicting the future than science. Perhaps so, but Electric Rosary is no prediction, nor even a warning. It’s an invitation to a common discussion on what makes us human, and what must we do in consequence.
Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos
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