In 1550, alarmed by reports of cruel treatment meted out to natives in Spain’s South American colonies, the Vatican organized a debate in Valladolid, Spain. The theme was whether Indians should be regarded as God’s creatures on a par with their Spanish conquerors, endowed with souls and thus worthy of Christian salvation. The debate lasted for several months, and from such difficult material, playwright Jean-Claude Carriere (whose play “La Terrasse” is being produced at the Manhattan Theater Club this spring) has forged one of the most moving shows in Paris this year.
Playing at Theatre de l’Atelier and directed by Jacques Lassalle, “La controverse de Valladolid” (The Valladolid Debate) charts the confrontation between the Dominican Bartolome de Las Casas (Jacques Weber) and the philosopher Sepulveda (Lambert Wilson) under the authority of a Papal legate (Bernard Verley). It was first broadcast eight years ago as a film, with a different cast , on the French television channels France 3 and Arte.
In the theater, within the austere setting of a monastery, excellent acting and minutely orchestrated stage business — Sepulveda’s fastidious sorting of his papers, Las Casas’ occasional treks to a water pitcher to quench his thirst — give visual interest and dramatic density. Las Casas’ emotional and sometimes naive defense of the Indians clashes with Sepulveda’s thesis that the Indians are born slaves, unhappy unless mastered.
The ease of the Spanish conquest, he argues, is manifest proof that God attaches no importance to them: even the illnesses from which they suffer are further proof of whose side the Almighty is really on.
Events become excruciating when an Indian family of three, shipped over especially for the debate, is herded onto stage for truly inhumane examination. The legate has them threatened by a knife-wielding settler to see if they register fear, and taunted by a dwarfish buffoon to see if they laugh, before ruling, finally, that they do indeed have souls.
The question then arises of how best, in that case, to provide Spanish settlers with cheap manpower. The answer found is Africa. The devil, so to speak , has the last word, in a play that shows just how good French theater can be at making drama out of ideas.