A different kind of Catholicism in 'The Trial of the Catonsville Nine'
August 28, 2009
Jana J. Monji
Daniel Berrigan's "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine" is about a
different kind of catholicism and answers the question: What did we
learn from Nuremberg? This weekend, Actors Gang presents a tight,
concise production of this play before travels on to Virginia,
Maryland and Australia.
For those born after the 1968 events or too young to remember, the
Catonsville Nine were a group of Catholic protesters who stormed a
governmental building on 17 May 1968, took 378 draft files from the
draft board in Catonsville, Maryland and poured homemade napalm on it
to burn them. This was done to protest the Vietnam War. The Berrigan
brothers were for a time on the FBI's Most Wanted List, but all
eventually served their time.
The activists stated: "We confront the Roman Catholic church, other
Christian bodies, and the synagogues of America with their silence
and cowardice in the face of our country's crimes. We are convinced
that the religious bureaucracy in this country is racist, is an
accomplice in this war, and is hostile to the poor."
They were brought to trial in October of the same year and found
guilty of the destruction of government property.
Berrigan and his brother Philip, were both priests although Philip
would much later leave the priesthood. Philip died from cancer in
2002. Berrigan wrote this free-verse play and it was made into a
1974 movie under the direction of the former artistic director of the
Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson, Gordon Davidson, and produced by
Hollywood legend Gregory Peck.
What this play becomes is a dialog about protest, giving us the
background of each of the nine and showing how they came to this act.
Marjorie Melville (Patti Tippo) recalls how learning about U.S.
policy in Latin America (Guatemala) was "like a child's discovery
that Santa Claus isn't real." The Berrigan brothers (Andrew Wheeler
as Daniel serves as the narrator and Scott Harris plays Philip) are
As one character admonishes, "Our foreign policy is indeed a
reflection of our domestic policy," and domestic policy at the time
was racist and fearful of communism.
Jon Kellam's direction gives us nine people, heroic in their actions
and passionate in their faith. Perhaps too much so and this is
partially the nature of the script. There doesn't seem to be a moment
of doubt, of hesitation. One wonders if the real nine were so
confident. The large American flag that hangs in the background gives
one no doubt that each was also doing this out of patriotism, one
that goes beyond law and is defined by good character.
By mounting this play now, artistic director Tim Robbins, brings us
nine people who have mostly been forgotten by history and underlines
parallels between the disastrous Vietnam War and the current wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan. We are also reminded that despite the
currently tarnishing of the Catholic church under convictions and
more allegations of child molestations by priests for decades, there
were people who took their faith and their patriotism and acted in
non-violent protest, because they didn't want to be like the German
citizens, who despite their faith in God or supposedly good character
did not speak out.
People of faith and conscience, will want to see thought-provoking
play and consider its call to non-violent action. For students of
history and politics, it's a slice of history that shows us where
we've been and how we got here.