The murder of Christopher “Kit” Marlowe is still as shrouded in mystery and
conflicting theories as that of John F. Kennedy. “The School of Night” by Peter
Whelan explores all these possibilities with great panache in this production at the
Mark Taper Forum. Peter Whelan is a British playwright who has had many of his
works produced in London by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The School of
Night was first performed there in 1992. The Mark Taper production in 2008 marks
its American debut.

“Kit” Marlowe was baptized in 1564 and was only 29 when he was murdered in
1593. But during those years he had written several important poems and at least
six plays which remain classics of Elizabethan theater to this day. Probably the best
known is “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus,” but only “Tamburlaine the Great”
had actually been produced before his untimely death. Tamburlaine was a
commercial success and Marlowe was hailed as the greatest English playwright
until William Shakespeare. Marlowe created the genre of epic plays written in blank
verse, the style which was later adopted by Shakespeare – who may have been a
friend and colleague. We know that several of Shakespeare’s plays are  largely
rewrites of Marlowe’s earlier dramas.

Marlowe, Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, Sir Walter Raleigh, and another playwright
named Thomas Kyd were all living and working in the small world of London Theater
at the same time, and some were known to be involved with the queen’s secret
service organization. It was a time of great religious upheaval and paranoia. The
devoutly Protestant Queen Elizabeth had replaced the equally devout Catholic
Queen Mary shortly before Marlowe was born, and anyone suspected of Catholic
sympathies was regarded as a traitorous atheist. Spies were everywhere. Only 58
years later this broiling theo-political animosity between Protestants and Catholics
would erupt into a bloody civil war.

It is thought that Sir Walter Raleigh created a cabal of freethinking intellectuals and
republicans which is known today as “The School of Night.”

When Marlowe was in grad school at Cambridge on a scholarship, he was at first
denied his Master’s Degree because of rumors that he was planning to move to
France and study for the priesthood at the Catholic University of Rheims. Queen
Elizabeth, however, intervened on his behalf because of his “extraordinary service to
the crown.” So his degree was finally awarded. Those “extraordinary services” were
never spelled out, and this is considered to be evidence that he was working for her
as a spy.

In May of 1593 certain posters began appearing around London which were
deemed to be blasphemous and suspected as the work of Marlowe or his
associates. His roommate, Thomas Kyd, was arrested and their room was
searched. Certain heretical works of literature were found. Under torture, Kyd said
that they belonged to Marlowe, and furthermore, that Marlowe was a Sodomite. An
arrest warrant for Marlowe was issued, and on May 20th he reported to the Privy
Council for arraignment. Ten days later he was murdered in what the press reported
as a drunken bar fight. The coroner’s report, however, said that Marlowe had spent
the day in a private home in the company of three men known to be members of the
secret police and involved with the London underground.

At his trial Marlowe had been accused of being a member of the atheistic “School of
Night,” and believing, as the heretical work called the
Toldoth Jesu says, that Jesus
was the bastard son of a prostitute.

Those are the historical facts. Armed with this information, Peter Whelan weaves an
elegant plot involving Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, young Will Shakespeare, Sir Walter
Raleigh, and Sir Thomas Walsingham, a patron of the arts, member of the
freethinking cabal, and cousin to the Queen’s spymaster.

The play opens with Kit Marlowe delivering a satirical prayer to “Dog” while serving
as “artist in residence” at the country estate of Sir Walsingham. All the aforesaid
characters come into the estate to discuss atheism, republicanism, and the nature
and function of literature, as the plot develops. There are several long speeches in
praise of the kind of atheism we know today, as well as the glories of the scientific
way of thinking and the necessity for the separation between church and state. As
Marlow awaits his trail, he says he doesn’t even know what the charges are. Is he
being accused of atheism, sodomy, or treason? Perhaps someone in the Queen’s
Court didn’t even want such matters publicly discussed.

Altogether it was a very satisfying intellectual feast. Even if the play closes its run at
the Taper on December 15th, it will probably be revived elsewhere. See it if you can.
The School of Night
Theater Review of play at the Mark Taper Forum, Dec, 2008
Despite the unfortunate name, this one-man show by Matt Besser is not an
imitation of the redneck routines of Jeff Foxworthy. On the contrary, it’s a
sophisticated and hilarious rant about the idiocies and hypocrisies of religion,
rivaling anything by George Carlin or Bill Maher. Perhaps the show could best be
described as the male equivalent of Julia Sweeny’s “My Beautiful Loss of Faith.”
But whereas Julia’s humor is wistful and sympathetic toward her Catholic
upbringing, Besser is flat out furious about the way he was treated by the Christian
community of Arkansas, as the child of a Jewish father and Protestant mother.

The title of the show refers to the cheerleading chant for the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Besser equates devout fans of sports teams with religious sectarianism, and he
claims that rooting for the Razorbacks is the closest he ever comes to participating
in some pietistic ritual. His show has played in various theaters under a variety of
names including: “God vs. Matt Besser”; “Besser in Satan’s Service”; “John the
Baptist, Matt the Atheist”; “Vatican’t”; “RU There Kobe, it’s Me Matt Besser”;
“Religious Experience Required”; and “The Bible Belch.”

He says that neither of his parents was particularly religious, but they wanted him to
understand his dual heritage, so they took him to both types of service. He found
both of them equally baffling. He goes into detail about a Bible School summer
camp he once attended when he was about ten years old. Supposedly it was non-
sectarian. But all the boys and their counselors singled him out as the only one
among them who was “unsaved.” They held special prayer meetings beseeching
him to “see the light,” and “come to Jesus.” Meanwhile, the same counselors were
sneaking out at night to screw the counselors at the girl’s camp across the lake.
Particularly poignant was an “anonymous” letter to his mother, calling her a
heretical backstabbing slut for marrying a “dirty Jew.” But Matt was easily able to
recognize the letter as having been written on his own grandmother’s typewriter.

I heartily recommend this show. The only caveat is that parking is by valet only, and
it always makes me very nervous to turn over my keys to some kid who looks like
an archetypal car thief.
Theater Review of Play at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, Nov 2005
Woo Pig Sooie!
Despite the unfortunate name, this one-man show by Matt Besser is not an
imitation of the redneck routines of Jeff Foxworthy. On the contrary, it’s a
sophisticated and hilarious rant about the idiocies and hypocrisies of religion,
rivaling anything by George Carlin or Bill Maher. Perhaps the show could best be
described as the male equivalent of Julia Sweeny’s “My Beautiful Loss of Faith.”
But whereas Julia’s humor is wistful and sympathetic toward her Catholic
upbringing, Besser is flat out furious about the way he was treated by the Christian
community of Arkansas, as the child of a Jewish father and Protestant mother.

The title of the show refers to the cheerleading chant for the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Besser equates devout fans of sports teams with religious sectarianism, and he
claims that rooting for the Razorbacks is the closest he ever comes to participating
in some pietistic ritual. His show has played in various theaters under a variety of
names including: “God vs. Matt Besser”; “Besser in Satan’s Service”; “John the
Baptist, Matt the Atheist”; “Vatican’t”; “RU There Kobe, it’s Me Matt Besser”;
“Religious Experience Required”; and “The Bible Belch.”

He says that neither of his parents was particularly religious, but they wanted him to
understand his dual heritage, so they took him to both types of service. He found
both of them equally baffling. He goes into detail about a Bible School summer
camp he once attended when he was about ten years old. Supposedly it was non-
sectarian. But all the boys and their counselors singled him out as the only one
among them who was “unsaved.” They held special prayer meetings beseeching
him to “see the light,” and “come to Jesus.” Meanwhile, the same counselors were
sneaking out at night to screw the counselors at the girl’s camp across the lake.
Particularly poignant was an “anonymous” letter to his mother, calling her a
heretical backstabbing slut for marrying a “dirty Jew.” But Matt was easily able to
recognize the letter as having been written on his own grandmother’s typewriter.

I heartily recommend this show. The only caveat is that parking is by valet only, and
it always makes me very nervous to turn over my keys to some kid who looks like
an archetypal car thief.
Despite the unfortunate name, this one-man show by Matt Besser is not an
imitation of the redneck routines of Jeff Foxworthy. On the contrary, it’s a
sophisticated and hilarious rant about the idiocies and hypocrisies of religion,
rivaling anything by George Carlin or Bill Maher. Perhaps the show could best be
described as the male equivalent of Julia Sweeny’s “My Beautiful Loss of Faith.”
But whereas Julia’s humor is wistful and sympathetic toward her Catholic
upbringing, Besser is flat out furious about the way he was treated by the Christian
community of Arkansas, as the child of a Jewish father and Protestant mother.

The title of the show refers to the cheerleading chant for the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Besser equates devout fans of sports teams with religious sectarianism, and he
claims that rooting for the Razorbacks is the closest he ever comes to participating
in some pietistic ritual. His show has played in various theaters under a variety of
names including: “God vs. Matt Besser”; “Besser in Satan’s Service”; “John the
Baptist, Matt the Atheist”; “Vatican’t”; “RU There Kobe, it’s Me Matt Besser”;
“Religious Experience Required”; and “The Bible Belch.”

He says that neither of his parents was particularly religious, but they wanted him to
understand his dual heritage, so they took him to both types of service. He found
both of them equally baffling. He goes into detail about a Bible School summer
camp he once attended when he was about ten years old. Supposedly it was non-
sectarian. But all the boys and their counselors singled him out as the only one
among them who was “unsaved.” They held special prayer meetings beseeching
him to “see the light,” and “come to Jesus.” Meanwhile, the same counselors were
sneaking out at night to screw the counselors at the girl’s camp across the lake.
Particularly poignant was an “anonymous” letter to his mother, calling her a
heretical backstabbing slut for marrying a “dirty Jew.” But Matt was easily able to
recognize the letter as having been written on his own grandmother’s typewriter.

I heartily recommend this show. The only caveat is that parking is by valet only, and
it always makes me very nervous to turn over my keys to some kid who looks like
an archetypal car thief.
Despite the unfortunate name, this one-man show by Matt Besser is not an
imitation of the redneck routines of Jeff Foxworthy. On the contrary, it’s a
sophisticated and hilarious rant about the idiocies and hypocrisies of religion,
rivaling anything by George Carlin or Bill Maher. Perhaps the show could best be
described as the male equivalent of Julia Sweeny’s “My Beautiful Loss of Faith.”
But whereas Julia’s humor is wistful and sympathetic toward her Catholic
upbringing, Besser is flat out furious about the way he was treated by the Christian
community of Arkansas, as the child of a Jewish father and Protestant mother.

The title of the show refers to the cheerleading chant for the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Besser equates devout fans of sports teams with religious sectarianism, and he
claims that rooting for the Razorbacks is the closest he ever comes to participating
in some pietistic ritual. His show has played in various theaters under a variety of
names including: “God vs. Matt Besser”; “Besser in Satan’s Service”; “John the
Baptist, Matt the Atheist”; “Vatican’t”; “RU There Kobe, it’s Me Matt Besser”;
“Religious Experience Required”; and “The Bible Belch.”

He says that neither of his parents was particularly religious, but they wanted him to
understand his dual heritage, so they took him to both types of service. He found
both of them equally baffling. He goes into detail about a Bible School summer
camp he once attended when he was about ten years old. Supposedly it was non-
sectarian. But all the boys and their counselors singled him out as the only one
among them who was “unsaved.” They held special prayer meetings beseeching
him to “see the light,” and “come to Jesus.” Meanwhile, the same counselors were
sneaking out at night to screw the counselors at the girl’s camp across the lake.
Particularly poignant was an “anonymous” letter to his mother, calling her a
heretical backstabbing slut for marrying a “dirty Jew.” But Matt was easily able to
recognize the letter as having been written on his own grandmother’s typewriter.

I heartily recommend this show. The only caveat is that parking is by valet only, and
it always makes me very nervous to turn over my keys to some kid who looks like
an archetypal car thief.
Home
This is a delightfully literate philosophical comedy, combining the formats of Jean-
Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” and Steve Allen’s “Meeting of Minds.”

Some of us in AU know about Thomas Jefferson’s version of the New Testament –
published in two volumes: “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth,” and “The Life and
Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” But we may be less aware of the religious views of
Dickens and Tolstoy. It seems that Dickens wrote a book called “The Life of Our
Lord,” and Tolstoy wrote “The Gospels in Brief.”

In this play the three men suddenly find themselves together in a bare room with only
a table and three chairs. As in Sartre’s play, they begin to realize that since they are
dead and there is no way out, therefore they must be in Hell. But, but as in Allen’s
TV series, these were not fictional characters, but real people whose views about
religion had been clearly expressed through their own voluminous writings.
Dickens provides most of the laughs, as a strutting and pompous dandy who
expresses the views of a traditional member of the Church of England – while
Jefferson and Tolstoy tear apart his Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, replete
with all its many miracles, as being an absurd fairy tale. This is a routine that would
have made George Carlin proud!

Next, Thomas Jefferson expounds on his humanistic version of the Gospels – minus
all the mysticism – while the other two attack him. Dickens says that Jefferson’s
cold rationalism was lacking in mystery, drama and poetry. Tolstoy reveals himself
as an anti-intellectual who says that logic and reason are unreliable guides to moral
behavior. One must return to a kind of instinctive primitivism.

Then Tolstoy tells how he did as Jesus commanded and gave away all of his
property to live the honest life of a peasant. The other two men attack him as being
naïve, hypocritical, and promoting a totally unrealistic philosophy.

Finally, all three men have to face the fact that their personal lives bore very little
resemblance to the doctrines they preached.

The play is only about 90 minutes long, plus a talkback session with the actors and
playwright afterwards.

All the actors are well-known professionals who do a superb job. The lighting and
sound designs are first rate as well. Highly recommended!

This play is running at the NoHo Arts Center at the corner of Lankershim and
Magnolia about one block from the North Hollywood Metrorail station.
Other Works Site Map
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens,
and Leo Tolstoy: Discord
NoHo Arts Center - Feb 2014