ACACIUS. Reverend Mother, am I walking too fast? You know me and my strong, healthy stride.
MOTHER SUPERIOR. I was listening to the melody of the Robin Red breast. God gives all of his creatures perfect pitch, if they’d only sing with hearts full of prayer.
from The Divine Sister
This exchange could have been pulled straight from a 1960s religious melodrama, but it wasn’t. It’s dialogue from The Divine Sister, a comic send-up of mid-century nun movies, written by Charles Busch. In many ways, stylistically, Busch is singing his own rendition of “A Closer Walk with Thee” to the classic film genre, and he unquestionably sings with a heart full of prayer. What could have been a biting parody of conservative ideas about romance, and protestant fascination with nuns, comes through as a loving homage. Certainly, the play is self-aware, but also teeter-totters between broad commentary and embracing the original spirit of the motion pictures that inspired it.
At its best moments, The Divine Sister shows the utmost respect to the filmmakers and actresses of yesteryear. Although I’m no film scholar, the script references at least a dozen classic films, including The Trouble with Angels, The Bells of St. Mary’s, The Singing Nun, The Sound of Music, His Girl Friday, Auntie Mame, Suddenly Last Summer, and Agnes of God, plus modern fare such as Doubt and The Da Vinci Code. These nods are a hoot for movie fans but leave anyone out-of-the-loop feeling like they’ve missed out on a big part of the humor. For the folks who never watch TCM, there are plenty of fart jokes and physical comedy bits to keep things interesting.
In The Divine Sister, Mrs. MacDuffie is a minor character who receives only a doleful pocketful of the play’s dialogue. But the humor and revelations of the scene cannot go without mentioning. Mrs. MacDuffie comes out of nowhere; she hasn’t been mentioned or foreshadowed in any way. Dressed like the “Tuppins a bag” lady from Mary Poppins, she’s arrived to innocently scrub an outdoor courtyard, or so we think. She then unleashes a monologue that rolls out more plot points than the previous five scenes combined. I love this scene so much because it reminds me of every soap opera and murder mystery dinner theatre show I’ve ever seen, where the writers spend forty-odd pages fleshing out the characters, then finally decide what the story will actually be about, and lay it all out there with one drop of a hat. Busch clearly realizes this and uses the technique as a subtle reference for those paying attention, but also to accomplish the same goals as those soap opera writers. As Mother Superior says, this “took some clever maneuvering,” but commenting on an action in the midst of its own successful execution is what makes Busch’s writing so brilliant.
I must’ve read the script nine times before I even noticed the wordiness of the dialogue. Part of the play’s power is in this inflated-yet-conversational style. Whether or not anyone in the 20th century every spoke this way, I’m not sure, but in motion pictures, they did. Using flowery words and re-stating thoughts within the same sentence is frowned upon today, but this language is what makes so many older movies enjoyable. Listening to Rosalind Russell or Audrey Hepburn go on and on about some insignificant topic is the main draw, and without it, all you’re left with is a thin storyline and no entertainment. In The Divine Sister, the Widow Levinson’s endless warbles about distant travels and expensive clothes make the scenes fragrant and appealing. The poetic phrasing and distinguished meter make me long for the days when articulation and enunciation were just as important as covering your mouth when you sneeze.
So how does one classify The Divine Sister? As merely a spoof on nuns and screwball comedies, or something deeper? The script defies exact classification, keeping one foot in the realm of parody and another firmly planted in authentic melodrama. And another foot in slapstick, and a lacquered fingernail in high comedy.