James Martin, SJ, unexpectedly became a “theological dramaturge” when playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis and his cast sought help in developing the characters for Guirgis’ play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. The play portrays Judas’ trial in purgatory for betraying Jesus. For six months, Martin and cast members embarked on late-night conversations about not only the historical and theological contexts surrounding Jesus and Judas, but also such weighty questions as, What is sin? and Why does God allow despair? In A Jesuit Off-Broadway, Martin recounts how the experience enriched his understanding of the dramatic aspects of Jesus’ work and story.
When the lights went down on the closing night performance, the audience stood up to cheer and stamp their feet on the risers. The cast assembled for the last time to accept the audience’s praise. Stephen was called onstage, took a well-deserved bow, and exited the stage with the cast. In my seat in the front row, I found myself tearful, hoping that no one would see. This was it, I thought. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot would never again exist in this form, with this cast. What everyone had worked for all these months was now finished.
Now I better understood how the show had influenced my faith. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot began its first readings in January, just a few weeks before Lent began that year. The play opened for previews the day before Ash Wednesday. The run continued throughout the season of Lent, and the play closed shortly after Easter Sunday. This timetable meant that during the run, the stories of the final days of Jesus’ ministry—his entry into Jerusalem, his last meal with his friends, his betrayal at the hands of Judas, and his capture, trial, and crucifixion—were being read during daily Masses. At the same time I was thinking about Jesus and Judas onstage, I was thinking about them while I was in church.