The Last Priest explores the life of Jean Meslier (1664–1729), a French Catholic priest and the author of a bitter atheistic testament. He was a little-known hero of the Enlightenment, and an instigator of the socialist ideals of the French Revolution.
The story follows Jean as he leads a double life, conforming by day to religious fundamentalism, and passionately composing his legacy in private by night.
The Last Priest began life as the shorter play Meslier, which was performed in Edinburgh the year before the debut of The Last Priest in Islington’s King’s Head.
Guardian blog (link)
Good heavens – some decent atheist drama
Non-believers these days seem so zealous and shrill. Fortunately, two plays deal the subject in a sympathetic and balanced way.
The prospect of an evening of pro-atheist drama does not normally fill me with joy. Although a fervent non-believer myself, I find advocates of godlessness are more often than not a shrill bunch of didactic zealots. But last night, for the second time this year, my fears were gloriously unrealised.
There seems to be something about producing compelling theatre which forces people with otherwise very strong views to both humanise their opponents and show the flaws in their own position. The Last Priest, which had its press showing at London’s King’s Head yesterday, dealt as much, or more, with the ties of love and friendship than matters of doctrine. True, the atheist priest, Jean Meslier is portrayed as both intellectually right and morally upright, but the only character not willingly living a lie was the devout housekeeper Delphine, and even the obviously hypocritical priest Fr Claude Butler was portrayed with sympathy and compassion.
In On Religion, which ran at the Soho Theatre at the turn of the year, philosopher AC Grayling and director Mick Gordon were actually brave enough to make the ardent atheist the least sympathetic character in the play. Grayling says that he did this because he didn’t want to load the dice, and he trusted the audience to see that the right view does not always have the most likeable of advocates. I thought it also had a quite different effect: the complex emotional interactions between the characters seemed to be a demonstration of the fact that as long as dangerous extremes of belief are avoided, the love and understanding we show each other is more important to living a good human life than the beliefs we intellectual subscribe to.
Grayling admits that he originally thought the play would show that the atheism v religion battle was no contest, but he quickly realised that to make a good drama, you need more balance and shades of grey. The Last Priest’s writer David Walter Hall made a similar point when I congratulated him on creating such a humane work out of material that could so easily have become a secular sermon. “That’s the difference between the synopsis I was given and the play I eventually wrote,” he replied.
What a contrast these plays make with much of the recent atheist non-fiction, which continues to be produced at an unprecedented rate. Devoid of concrete portrayals of human life, they drift towards the abstract, where believers are left as poor, deluded fools and atheists appear no more than dried-out, heartless rationalists. These works fail to convince for precisely the same reasons that On Religion and The Last Priest do: if you are going to change the values that people live their lives by, you need to show a sympathetic understanding of how they actually live them now.
Listed in Top 5 plays in the week it opened – Benedict Nightingale
Independent Catholic News
Atheist and priest: a new play on the life of Fr Jean Meslier
Lovers of intellectual thought and religious dissention are gathering at The King’s Head Theatre in Islington.
The Last Priest, a new play by David Walter Hall, focuses on the life of Father Jean Meslier, a little-known 17th century French Catholic priest who wrote a bitter atheistic testament at the end of his life after serving his parish well for 40 years. It was only after his death when the manuscript was discovered that the utter contradiction of his life as a Catholic priest was revealed. Not only did he denounce all religion, he argued the superiority of atheist morality.
The play is a vivid and thought-provoking realisation of Meslier’s socialism and atheistic beliefs played out through discussions with his closest friends and juxtaposed by dream-like discussions with Voltaire, who in his time had praised Meslier as a hero of the Enlightenment.
Julian Bird as Meslier delivers a passionate and absorbing performance, strongly supported by Angela Koo and Maxwell Hutcheson, who both bring vigour and warmth to their roles.
The performances are accompanied by cellist Deborah Chandler and the team deserve a mention for the atmospheric design of the production in this cosy theatre.