Stigmata by Carolyn Gage
This Play is the copyright of the Author and must NOT be Performed without the Author's PRIOR consent
The interior of BENEDETTA’s bed chamber, January 21, 1611. The room
is in an Italian, bourgeois home in the small mountain village of
Vellano, located forty-five miles from Florence. GINEVRA, 15, enters.
She is a friend of BENEDETTA’s, a young village girl. She wears a
makeshift beard and is dressed like a man.
GINEVRA: Benedetta… Benedetta! Where are you? We’re ready to
start! Where are you…?
BENEDETTA: I’m here… (BENEDETTA, 16, enters. She has very short
hair and she is wearing a man’s shirt and no pants. She jumps into
the bed and pulls the sheets around her. GINEVRA stares.) What are you
staring at? Start the play! (GINEVRA exits and then re-enters.
BENEDETTA pulls the sheets up to her chin, covering herself in mock
GINEVRA: (Reciting her lines.) “Agnes, I will give you diamonds and
great riches if you will consent to be my wife.”
BENEDETTA: (By far the better actor.) “Begone, sting of sin, food of
crime, poison of the soul—for I am already given to another lover!
… Already I have been embraced by his pure arms, already his body is
with my body… (GINEVRA stands mesmerized. BENEDETTA comes out of
character.) Fall down! Faint! (GINEVRA falls down. TERESA,15, enters.
She is another friend, also dressed like a man, wearing a white
TERESA: “My son! My son!”
GINEVRA: “I am dying, Father.”
TERESA: (To BENEDETTA.) “Agnes, why won’t you marry him?”
BENEDETTA: “I cannot break faith with my bridegroom.”
TERESA: “Who is your lover? What is his name?”
BENEDETTA: “I will not say!”
TERESA: “I shall lock thee up with prostitutes!”
BENEDETTA: “I will not sacrifice to thy gods, and yet I shall not be
defiled, for I have with me a guardian of my body, an angel of the
Lord!” (There is an awkward silence. BENEDETTA breaks character
again, speaking to TERESA.) You’re supposed to rip off my dress.
(TERESA crosses to the bed and begins to unbutton BENEDETTA’s
shirt.) No—! Like this! (BENEDETTA rips the shirt open and then
clutches it to her body in mock terror.) Now, you take me to the house
of the prostitutes… (TERESA takes her arm and parades her around the
chamber. They stop at the bed.) Throw me on the bed. (TERESA pushes
BENEDETTA toward the bed. BENEDETTA throws herself melodramatically on
it with a scream. Both the girls freeze in fascination. BENEDETTA
turns to GINEVRA, who is still on the floor.) Now, you try to rape me,
and you—(To TERESA.) You be the angel who strangles him.
TERESA: But I’m the father…
BENEDETTA: You were—but now you’re the angel! Here… Get behind
me on the bed, and I’ll lie like this… (TERESA climbs onto the bed
and kneels behind BENEDETTA, who has resumed her former position.
BENEDETTA turns to GINEVRA.) Now, you come in and see me, and you are
very excited, because you get to rape me, and you say, “Agnes, now I
will have you!’ and you try to kiss me, only after you get on top,
you—(To TERESA.)… try to strangle him! (GINEVRA gets up, exits,
GINEVRA: (Uncertainly.) “Agnes, now I will have you!”
(Uncertainly, she gets into bed next to BENEDETTA, but not touching
her. She waits to be strangled.)
BENEDETTA: (To GINEVRA.) No! You’re supposed to try to rape me!
(GINEVRA doesn’t move.) Here, I’ll show you—(BENEDETTA turns
over and simulates the motions of a rapist. Resuming her position as
Agnes, she speaks to GINEVRA.) Go on…(GINEVRA moves gingerly on top
of BENEDETTA and begins to imitate BENEDETTA’s movements. BENEDETTA
begins to struggle.) Take my wrists! Tell me to be quiet! (GINEVRA
becomes more boistrous. BENEDETTA struggles more.)
GINEVRA: Be quiet! Be quiet! Be quiet! (BENEDETTA lets out a
blood-curdling scream. Suddenly, TERESA screams, reaches out, and
begins to strangle GINEVRA. Just then the door opens and MIDEA enters.
The girls freeze. MIDEA CARLINI is in her forties. She never wanted to
have a child, and she has left the raising of her daughter to her
GINEVRA: (To BENEDETTA.) It’s your mother! (GINEVRA lets go of
BENEDETTA’s wrists and jerks away from her. TERESA lets go of
MIDEA: What are you girls doing?
BENEDETTA: It’s a religious play. It’s the life of St. Agnes.
MIDEA: (To GINEVRA and TERESA.) You go home right now! (The two girls
rip off their beards and race out of the room. MIDEA turns to her
daughter.) Put your clothes on!
BENEDETTA: (Defiant.) Agnes’ hair has grown to cover her.
MIDEA: Well, yours certainly isn’t covering anything! (Slowly and
insolently, BENEDETTA gets out of the bed. She begins to pull on her
pants in front of MIDEA. MIDEA watches her.) Where did you get such
BENEDETTA: (Quoting from the play.) “I will not say…”
MIDEA: (Enraged.) You will not say? (She slaps BENEDETTA.)
BENEDETTA: (Slowly.) I read it in a book.
MIDEA: Liar! What book?
BENEDETTA: The Golden Legend. (Retrieving a book.) See for yourself.
(She holds it out to her mother.) Oh, you can’t read. I forgot.
Shall I read it for you? (She opens the book and starts to read.)
“Already I have been embraced—” (MIDEA knocks the book out of
her hands and slaps her.)
MIDEA: Where did you get such a filthy book? (MIDEA slaps her again.)
Do you want me to tell your father?
BENEDETTA: (Giving her a strange look.) You do that.
MIDEA: You think I won’t? I told him it was a sacrilege, raising you
like a boy! Teaching you to read… and now this… blasphemy!
BENEDETTA: (Cutting her off.) Tell him! Go ahead. Oh, and… … (She
picks up the book from the floor.)… be sure to give him back his
book. (She picks up the book and extends it to MIDEA. MIDEA stares at
MIDEA: (Crossing to the door.) Devil! Child of the devil!
BENEDETTA: (Reciting.) “…already his body is with my body—”
(MIDEA exits and slams the door. BENEDETTA turns away.)
End of Scene
Interior of the office of Piera Pagni, ABBESS of the Congregation of
the Mother of God, located in the town of Pescia, nine miles from
Vellano—but worlds away socially and economically. It is a winter
day, 1611. A meeting is in progress between the ABBESS, FATHER PAOLO
RICORDATI, who is the confessor for the Congregation, and MONSIGNOR
STEFANO CECCHI, provost for the town of Pescia. The ABBESS is a
handsome woman in her early fifties. The founder of the pre-convent,
she is passionate about her work. FATHER RICORDATI, in his seventies,
is an “old school” priest, preferring the age of miracles to the
age of enlightenment. CECCHI, a vigorous man in his fifties, has been
the town provost for two decades, presiding over its ecclesiastical
affairs. He is an ambitious man, and his interest in the Church is
ABBESS: (Bending over a large drawing on her desk.) … And, as you
can see, the new buildings come with six and a half acres of the best
land in Pescia… We break ground this month, and should be able to
relocate in two years. And this section is going to be cleared for a
CECCHI: (Baiting the ABBESS.) All of this is going to be walled in, of
ABBESS: (Annoyed.) Of course. The nuns are very particular about not
having our vegetables stolen.
CECCHI: I was referring to enclosure of the entire community. If the
Congregation of the Mother of God were to become an official convent
of the Catholic Church, it would mean quite an advancement of status.
ABBESS: An advancement of status for you. From town provost to
RICORDATI: (Nervously.) Enclosure would certainly bring many
blessings from our Lord.
ABBESS: Father Ricordati, I am well aware of what enclosure brings. I
am an abbess, and I have no desire to become a jailer.
CECCHI: Careful, Piera . . .
ABBESS: I am careful, Monsignor Cecchi… very careful. The lives of
eighteen women are my responsibility, and I take that very seriously.
That is why, as long as there is breath in this body, the Congregation
of the Mother of God will remain just that—a “congregation.” I
will never allow it to become enclosed.
RICORDATI: (A gentle reminder.) “Not my will, but Thine,” Mother
ABBESS: Is it really the divine will of a loving Father to see his
daughters locked up, denied visitors, denied possessions, denied any
and all occupations except prayer and fasting?
RICORDATI: You misunderstand. Enclosure is for the protection of the
nuns. The Rules of St. Augustine are designed to relieve them of the
burden of worldly responsibility. The enclosed convent is a paradise
for the girl who has renounced the world to become a bride of Christ.
The convent is the enclosed garden, where she can entertain her
Beloved in secret places and—in the words of St. Bernard—enjoy the
divine caresses which never come in public—
ABBESS: (Cutting him off.) Father Ricordati, I know what goes on
behind enclosed convent walls as well as you do… Girls trying to
outdo each other in starvation, girls cutting themselves to imitate
the wounds of Christ—whipping each other into frenzies, wearing
horsehair undergarments, sleeping on rocks and nails, refusing to
bathe, glorying in disease—the more gruesome the better—as a token
of divine favor, and stoking each other’s fevered imaginations with
pornographic delusions of demonic persecution and hallucinatory organ
RICORDATI: (Indignant.) If you are referring to St. Catherine of Siena
and the Sacred Heart of Jesus—
ABBESS: (To CECCHI.) I’ll tell you what these girls need—love!
That’s what they need. Let’s tell the truth—These girls don’t
come here because of a religious calling. They come because their
families bring them. And why? Because a nun’s dowry is cheaper than
RICORDATI: I think we are missing the point here… It is the saints
and the miracles that bring people to the Church. Without enclosure,
where is the mystery? When the people of the town can see these girls
any time they like, eat with them, watch them perform their music in
the chapel—they lose their respect—
ABBESS: Respect? I could tell you—you, their confessor—! I could
tell you stories about what goes on behind the closed doors of these
“respectable” houses… Respect! (A pause.) You want a saint? How
RICORDATI: I didn’t—
ABBESS: She talks to Jesus… She sees the Virgin Mary… Sometimes
two or three times before breakfast! What about her?
CECCHI: Who is Angelina?
RICORDATI: Monsignor, the Abbess—
ABBESS: A girl who was left tied to the convent gates, naked and
raving. She is out of her mind.
CECCHI: And you accepted her as a nun?
ABBESS: Yes, I did. If I had not, she would have been chained up in
some madhouse where the same horrors that deprived her of her reason
would have been perpetrated against her on an hourly basis. But here,
she believes she is in Paradise—and why not? There are no men here.
CECCHI: (After a pause, pointedly.) And how is your health, Piera?
ABBESS: Fine. Why do you ask?
CECCHI: Because there were rumors that you had suffered a stroke this
winter, and I was just thinking that the girls like Angelina might not
find themselves so well-protected with a different Abbess. (Pausing.)
Without enclosure, that is.
ABBESS: Your concern for us is touching, but I have no intentions of
dying any time soon.
RICORDATI: (Rising in agitation.) One hundred and fifty years ago,
this town was ravaged by plague. Ravaged! One third of Pescia
perished. I can still remember my grandfather’s descriptions of it,
as vivid to me as if I had lived through it myself! First there is the
appearance of a swelling the size of an orange, under the arm or, more
painful, in the groin—an agonizing, hideous, black, pustulant
swelling… harbinger of death, for, then, within just a few hours of
this vile bubo, the onset of a fever, followed by vomiting, and skin
that burns as if it had been in a fire. And during this visitation of
all the afflictions of Job, mysterious markings begin to appear on the
surface of the body—tabulations from the Book of Life—! And only
when this poor sinner has reached the apotheosis of carnal suffering
for the sins of this body, only then, is his reason taken from him, so
that even his inevitable death cannot be redeemed by the sanctity of
confession—but he must die writhing in his own pollution,
unforgiven, his final pronouncements on his evil life no more than the
incoherent ravings of a madman. Monsignor Cecchi, Mother Pagni… one
out of three. Which of us might it have been?
CECCHI: I think—
RICORDATI (Cutting him off.) Where, in their absolute terror and
confusion, did the people turn? To the doctors who could only cut the
already lacerated, purge the already purging— who could only
cauterize the poor devils who were already thrashing in the fires of
hell? No! I will tell you where they turned... to the Church! They
turned to the Church! They turned to the Saints, the Saints who
understood torture, who themselves had died on the rack, on the
Catherine wheel, at the stake! The people did not want doctors, Mother
Pagni—They wanted Saints! The plague that emptied this town, filled
CECCHI: They would have done better to look to their rats than to
CECCHI: The disease appears to be spread by rats.
RICORDATI: (Thundering.) The plague, Monsignor Cecchi, was the Scourge
CECCHI: You’re out of step with the times, Father. The plague
belongs to another century, and so do your saints.
RICORDATI: (Turning sharply to the ABBESS.) Mother Pagni, there was a
procession in Pescia forty years ago. Do you remember?
ABBESS: (A weary smile. RICORDATI has told this story many times.) I
was a child.
RICORDATI: Well, I was not, and I remember it well, because I was in
that procession. And as we were crossing the bridge over the Pescia
River, the Virgin herself suddenly appeared to one of my brother
priests. And as he knelt down before Her, there was a light that
shone around him. (CECCHI starts to interrupt.) I saw it! I saw that
light! And so did the people of Pescia. And later they built a shrine
to the Virgin right there, in the middle of the bridge. And that
shrine was so popular—mark you, Monsignor!—so popular that it
caused a congestion of the traffic on the bridge so great, it was
necessary to move the shrine to another location. That was forty years
ago, and that shrine still stands, and people still visit it, and
everyone in Pescia—even those who were too young to remember—can
tell you the exact spot on the bridge where that miracle occurred.
Now, that is what keeps the Church strong.
CECCI: (Turning to the ABBESS.) Have you given some thought to
appointing the Guerrini girl your successor?
CECCHI: Her father is your wealthiest benefactor, isn’t he?
RICORDATI: (Shocked.) Sister Felice is the least spiritually-minded of
all the nuns!
ABBESS: (To CECCHI.) I have thought of her. She’s educated and
RICORDATI: (Shocked.) “Ambitious?”
CECCHI: (Turning to RICORDATI.) Would you rather see your niece
RICORDATI: My niece, sir, is a drunkard and a fool, but that is no
reason to appoint the Guerrini girl. I think you forget that Our Lord
was a carpenter.
CECCHI: Like your father?
RICORDATI: (Rising stiffly, to the ABBESS) Mother Pagni.
ABBESS: Father. (RICORDATI exits.)
CECCHI: (Smiling conspiratorially at the ABBESS.) He doesn’t like to
be reminded of his roots.
ABBESS: We are all laborers… (She rises.) Provost.
CECCHI: (Rising with a smile.) You will think about enclosure?
ABBESS: I assure you I will not. (CECCHI exits. The ABBESS, troubled,
returns to her desk.)
End of Scene
[End of Extract]