For his first play, 26-year-old Matthew Barbot decided to dig up a bizarre bit of 1,000-year-old Church history: the Cadaver Synod.
Barbot first learned about the little-known trial of a dead pope in his freshman year Church history class. The story stayed with him ever since.
The Cadaver Synod took place in January of A.D. 897 when Pope Stephen VI held a posthumous trial for his predecessor, Pope Formosus. Stephen had the corpse of Formosus dug out of its tomb, dressed in papal garb, and propped up in a chair in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. A deacon knelt behind the corpse, providing its voice. (Needless to say, Formosus was found guilty. Three fingers were chopped off, and his body was eventually flung into the Tiber River.)
In college, Barbot began writing about the story of the deacon. He wrote a few drafts, which were also influenced by ideas of faith, hope, and power that were swirling during the 2008 U.S. presidential election and the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as pope.
What emerged was Infallibility, a meta-theatrical look at the faith, ambition, hope, and power entrusted to leaders. The play is now in performance at the New York International Fringe Festival.
The play takes place in a jail cell with two characters. Carlo is a 18-year-old deacon and wannabe actor who thinks he’s getting his big break in Rome. Instead he’s tricked into playing the voice of a dead pope at the Synod trial and is subsequently thrown in jail. Carlo decides to perform his life story for the prison guards, accompanied by St. Genesius, the patron saint of actors.
For Barbot, the play affords him an opportunity to look closely at his own questions about faith and his relationship to the Church.
“Everything from Carlo’s questions to St. Genesius’s answers are sort of reflective of my journey writing the play and contending with my own Catholic education and upbringing,” he said.
Barbot grew up in a Puerto Rican family in New York City and attended a Jesuit high school. It wasn’t until Barbot was taught by the Jesuits and exposed to Church history that he said he found an accessible “window into Catholicism,” one he could interact and converse with. Barbot became more interested in ideas of faith and questioning identity—themes that consistently show up in his work.
“I think [these themes] will show up a lot, whether I’m adapting a story like this from history or from the Bible, or dealing with it in more abstract terms,” Barbot said. “Faith is so tied to identity that it will inevitably show up again.”
In Infallibility, each character understands God and faith differently, a tool Barbot uses to reveal more about each character. The ancient characters also speak to contemporary anxieties, hopes, and ideas of relating to the Church and hierarchy, Barbot said.
“I was able to use this historical event as a sort of lens through which to view the present,” Barbot said. “It looks at the laity’s relationship to power both in relationship to the church and to the political structures. It also [addresses] the question of what does our faith in those structures mean? And how do we maintain it?”
Infallibility will wrap on the August 22, 2013. Barbot hopes to visit a chapel to St. Genesius to pray during the show’s run. The saint has also stuck with Barbot all these years; he continues to wear a pendant of St. Genesius around his neck that he prayed with before high school performances. He’s also started a Twitter account for the saint.
“I’m having fun looking at theater through a faith lens,” Barbot said.
Our guess is he’ll continue to do so.