Friday, October 27, 2023

The Devils at Dartmouth

Program cover for Whiting's The Devils
“This play is based upon historical fact.” So begins the text of a program we found recently for a play written by John Whiting and produced by Dartmouth in 1974. “The Devils,” itself an adaptation of a book by Aldous Huxley, tells the story of the Loudun possessions, in which a 17th-century convent of nuns claimed en masse that they were being possessed and harassed by demons. These declarations led to the trial and execution of a local priest, Urban Grandier. Huxley’s book asserted that the accusations against Grandier were motivated by the Mother Superior’s own personal obsession with him.

Huxley’s book (and John Whiting’s play) served as the basis for a controversial 1971 film also called The Devils. Rendering the story as an epic drama filled with sexuality, violence, blasphemy, and a depiction of the Catholic Church as deeply corrupt, The Devils was largely panned, heavily censored, and condemned by the Vatican as “an insult to cinema” and “a crude lynching of the Church of yesterday, of today, of all time, as a political instrument of oppression."

As such, we’re a little surprised to find that the play, though somewhat separate from the film, was put on at Dartmouth three years later. Notably, and perhaps as part of an effort to create something more careful in its depiction of the Church, the program thanks multiple members of the clergy for their assistance with the play. The director’s note consists, in its entirety, of a quote from William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, which had been adapted into its own controversial film the year before. The director, Robert Pridham ’74, stated “I know it sounds like we’re climbing on the ‘Exorcist’ bandwagon, but I’ve actually wanted to do this play since my freshman year, which was before the ‘Exorcist’ was even published.”

It’s difficult to find much more information, with the exception of some photos from the production and a couple of favorable reviews in the Dartmouth student newspaper. When referenced there, the film is described only as “widely hailed.”

To see the program for “The Devils” and a press release, ask for DA-694 Box 4082 Folder “The Devils.” To see photographs, ask for DO-60 Box 6560 Folder 9. If you want to do a deeper dive, you can find our copy of Whiting’s play (Williams/Watson PL4413) and Huxley’s book (Huxley BF1517.F5 H8 1952). If you want to see the film, you’ll have to look elsewhere.