Agnes of God Summary

John Pielmeier

Agnes of God

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Agnes of God Summary

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“Agnes of God” is a dramatic play by American playwright John Pielmeier, which premiered in 1979 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. It is set at a convent, after a novice nun named Agnes unexpectedly gives birth to a dead baby and insists that the child was the result of a virgin conception. During the ensuing investigation, a psychiatrist and the Mother Superior clash as the psychiatrist is determined to get to the bottom of the events at the convent. Exploring themes of faith, maternal instinct, and how far people will go to preserve their chosen way of life, Agnes of God was critically acclaimed and had a successful 1982 Broadway run that was nominated for two Tony awards. It later went on to play at the Greenwich Theatre in London. It is most widely known for the 1985 film adaptation, directed by Norman Jewison and starring Meg Tilly, Anne Bancroft, and Jane Fonda in the three leading roles.

Agnes of God begins in a Roman Catholic convent near Montreal, as evening prayers are interrupted by screams coming from the room of Sister Agnes. The young novice is found in her room bleeding heavily. As the nuns tend to her, they find a dead baby in a trash can with its umbilical cord wrapped around its neck. Sister Agnes is suspected of murdering the baby, and in the court proceedings psychiatrist Martha Livingston is assigned to analyze the case and determine if Martha is mentally competent to stand trial. At their first interview, Martha claims she doesn’t remember being pregnant or giving birth. She shows a serious naivete of how babies are created. Mother Superior Miriam tells Livingston that Agnes is an “innocent,” explaining that she was shielded from the world by her overprotective mother. Mother Miriam is determined to preserve Agnes’ innocence, and insists that she supports Agnes’ story, saying she couldn’t have known what pregnancy was or known a possible father.

Mother Miriam relates to Livingston that Martha had stopped eating because she believed she was getting fat, and that at one point she displayed stigmata in her hand. However, the mysterious wounds healed after only a day. Agnes tells Livingston about her friendship with the oldest nun at the convent, the recently deceased Sister Marie-Paul. She explains that Marie-Paul showed her a secret bell tower that she found peaceful. She shows this place to Livingston, and they discuss Agnes’ mother, as Livingston tries to figure out exactly how much Agnes knows about sex and pregnancy. Mother Miriam gives Livingston the evidence of the conception date, January 23rd. This was the night Agnes burned her bedsheets, only saying they were stained. Livingston investigates the convent, coming across a barn where Agnes may have met the father. Livingston is suspected by the nuns and monsignors at the convent, who feel she may not be able to treat Agnes fairly due to her own lack of faith, but she tries to keep an open mind. She learns that Agnes’ mother was severely abusive towards her, frequently telling her that she was a mistake. Agnes is actually Mother Miriam’s niece, and was taken in by her.

Livingston gets permission from the court to hypnotize Agnes, despite Mother Miriam’s strong opposition. Miriam is worried that it’ll strip Agnes of her innocence. Under hypnosis, Agnes admits that she gave birth and says another woman in the convent new of her pregnancy. She won’t or is unable to reveal who. Livingston, while investigating the convent, finds a workroom with a secret staircase that leads to an underground tunnel to the barn. A historian she consults reveals that this was designed as a way to help the nuns move between buildings during the winter. Mother Miriam tries to have Livingston thrown off the case, but the judge orders her kept on. Obtaining another court order for a hypnosis, Livingston tries to get the truth of the night Agnes gave birth. Mother Miriam reveals that she was the nun who knew Agnes was pregnant, but she strongly denies she killed the baby. Under hypnosis, Agnes reveals that right before Sister Marie-Paul died, she told Agnes she met “Him” in the bell tower and sent Agnes to meet “Him” there. Agnes doesn’t remember exactly what happened, but she begins to display stigmata in her hands again. She states that God raped her. Mother Miriam helped her give birth, but she left briefly and that is when Agnes killed the baby, believing it to have been a mistake just like her. At court, she tells the judge she heard this presence, whoever or whatever it was, calling to her for six nights before it lay on top of her. She’s found not guilty by reason of insanity and returned to the convent, where she can be carefully watched over.

John Pielmeier is an American playwright and screenwriter. He is best known for “Agnes of God” and the television movie Choices of the Heart, the latter of which earned him a Writers Guild of America nomination, the Christopher Award, and the Humanitas Award. Four of his works have had Broadway engagements.