Mikhail Baryshnikov as Benedict XVI and Kaspars Znotiņš as Georg Gänswein in The White Helicopter at the New Riga Theater

Janis Deinats

Mikhail Baryshnikov as Benedict XVI and Kaspars Znotiņš as Georg Gänswein in The White Helicopter at the New Riga Theater

In 1967 Clive Barnes, of The New York Times, flew home from a trip to Russia and reported that in a class at the Vaganova Choreographic Institute, the Kirov Ballet’s school, he had encountered “the most perfect dancer I have ever seen.” That was a weighty announcement. Barnes, the Times’s lead dance critic, had seen a lot of dancers, and this one, Mikhail Baryshnikov, was only nineteen. Because Baryshnikov became an extraordinary dancer so young, many people failed to realize he was also an extraordinary actor. One of the earliest performances I ever saw him in was a Soviet movie, Fiesta (1971), an adaptation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. He played Pedro Romero, the teenaged matador whom Brett Ashley seduces, and he was a thrill: handsome, open, and innocent, a flower awaiting the scythe. Acting was not new to him. It was part of his training, as it was, and is, for almost all serious ballet students in Russia. And dramatic inventiveness was central to his breakthrough role at the Kirov, as Albrecht in Giselle, where he turned the male lead, traditionally played as an aristocratic cad—an interpretation that supported Soviet ideology—into a lovestruck boy.

Once he defected to the West in 1974, Baryshnikov again and again triumphed as an actor-dancer, in new ballets such as Twyla Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove (American Ballet Theatre, 1976), in which he played a sort of confused hipster, and also in nineteenth-century ballets such as the Russian Don Quixote, of which he made a new production for American Ballet Theatre in 1978, dancing the part of Kitri’s lover, the barber Basilio, himself and shocking that tired old piece back into life.1 He bit off those assignments with gusto. Good ballet, bad ballet—it didn’t matter. He filled each role to its very skin. When, in 1978–1979, he abandoned his opera-house repertory to go to New York City Ballet and dance in George Balanchine’s largely nonnarrative works, he was sometimes scolded by critics for doing too much acting—for making faces, as they say in the trade.

Some critics, when they could, described his achievements in the classroom vocabulary,2 not, I believe, because they thought the reader would understand those words but because the words sounded rich and fine enough to convey the critic’s astonishment that Baryshnikov could draw out of his body so elaborate and poetic a response to his dramatic situation. After all, he was only a Sevillian barber (Don Quixote) or a boy in love (Giselle) or something like that. Yet when he performed those beautiful, clear, fantastically difficult steps, he was no longer just a barber or even just a dancer—even a great dancer—but a metaphor, for all the intelligence, energy, and allure that a human being might aspire to.

Baryshnikov returned to ABT in 1980, now as the company’s artistic director, and remained there until 1989, at which point, having had several operations on his knees, he pretty much abandoned classical dance. This was not shockingly early. He was forty-one. Most ballet dancers quit by the age of forty-five or so, for the same reason he did. They can’t hack it anymore, physically. Then, typically, they go on to something less interesting. If they are big stars, they may be asked to direct a company. Far more often, they simply teach, or find a hedge-fund manager to marry.

But Baryshnikov, though he retired from ballet, did not retire from dancing. He just switched to other kinds of dance. Practically the minute he left ABT, he got on a plane and flew to Brussels, where he went to work as a guest artist for his friend Mark Morris, whose modern-dance company was headquartered at that time at Belgium’s royal theater, the Monnaie. (At one point, Baryshnikov was to have been the Nutcracker in Morris’s Hard Nut, which premiered at the Monnaie, but his knee problems scotched that plan.) In 1990, together with Morris, he founded the White Oak Dance Project, a small, rather deluxe modern-dance company (live music; private planes, if they needed one). He also did tours with people he admired—Tharp, the postmodernist Dana Reitz, the kabuki star Tamasaburo Bando—and he made guest appearances with Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, and, above all, Morris.

At the same time, he was drifting toward “talk theater.” In the spring of 1989, he performed in a revival of Steven Berkoff’s 1969 play Metamorphosis, based on Kafka’s novella. His Gregor Samsa, upon discovering that he had been changed into a bug, seemed to want to wreck his body. He thrashed, he convulsed, he levitated and crashed back down. You worried that Baryshnikov would injure himself. He was nominated for a Tony Award.


But it was not just for himself that Baryshnikov was turning to straight theater. Something that is not widely known is how often he has come to the aid of other people’s projects, especially those of former Soviet artists. Once he escaped from the USSR, Baryshnikov never returned to Russia. His wife traveled there; so did his children. (And his colleagues. Rudolf Nureyev, who defected in 1961, went back as soon as he was invited, and returned with pots of money.) Baryshnikov, however, would not set foot in Russia or even, as time passed, give interviews to Russian journalists—a fact that infuriated the Russian press. At the same time, he was quietly helping former Soviet theater artists—Rezo Gabriadze, Lev Dodin, the students of Piotr Fomenko and of the Moscow Art Theatre School—secure bookings and raise money to bring their work to the United States. Soon the collaboration went deeper: he was performing with these people. He played an automobile, humming and sputtering, in Gabriadze’s Forbidden Christmas, or the Doctor and the Patient, at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2004. We never thought that we would see this prince, this count, as an automobile.

Then, eventually, he became involved with the theater of Latvia, his native land. After World War II, Russia suffered a terrible housing shortage, whereupon Stalin moved many of his people into adjacent lands. Among those sent to the Baltic were Lieutenant Colonel Nikolai Petrovich Baryshnikov, an instructor of military topography, and his young wife, Alexandra. Therefore, when their son Mikhail Nikolaievich was born, in 1948, it was in Riga. He lived there, not always happily—his mother committed suicide when he was twelve, and he had no relationship to speak of with his father—until he was sixteen. He had started ballet lessons under a friend of his mother’s when he was nine but he had advanced quickly, and now he needed more training. He moved to Leningrad to go to the famous Vaganova School, but from what I can understand, he always felt a vestigial loyalty to his small Baltic homeland.

So when Alvis Hermanis, the most prominent young theater director in Latvia today—and the director, since 1997, of its New Riga Theater, the headquarters of the country’s experimental drama—called him in 2014 with an idea, he listened. Hermanis’s proposal was for a play where a man, in a kind of dreamscape—a small glass house, nestled in dense foliage, like something from a fairy tale—read poems by the great Russo-American Joseph Brodsky, interrupted occasionally by the voice of Brodsky himself, like a ghost, on a tape recorder. Baryshnikov agreed to take the part. It was an eerie show, but also poignant with remembrance. Baryshnikov and Brodsky, though they were both celebrities in the Soviet Union, did not meet until they had relocated to the United States, Brodsky because the Russian authorities threw him out in 1972, Baryshnikov because he defected. They found each other at a party in New York and became close friends, a relationship that lasted for twenty-two years, until Brodsky’s death in 1996. Brodsky/Baryshnikov, as the show came to be called, premiered in Riga in 2015 and toured widely.

Last year, Hermanis called Baryshnikov with a second idea, a play about Pope Benedict XVI, who had mysteriously resigned his post in 2013.

Hermanis has for some years been described as a “controversial” figure in European theater, which in his case means that in a field heavily populated by leftists, he is regarded as a right-winger. He has been most outspoken on the subject of immigration. In 2015 he canceled an agreement to produce a show at Hamburg’s Thalia Theater on the grounds that the German government’s enthusiasm for opening its borders to refugees was dangerous to Europe. There were terrorists among those refugees, he said. His action set off what the Neue Zürcher Zeitung called a “Twitter-shitstorm.” Soon after ditching the Hamburg show, he withdrew from an agreement to direct Lohengrin at Bayreuth.

Relatedly, Hermanis has protested what he sees as the reduced authority accorded to believing Christians versus an increasingly secular Western world, and to Europeans versus non-Europeans. “Nowadays in Europe,” he said to me,

Muslims are enjoying our freedom of speech. They’re also building mosques in Europe. Then why, in Arab countries, in Muslim countries, are they not respecting Christian believers? It disturbs me when only one side has a say.

That, I believe, is what is behind his interest in Benedict XVI.

Hermanis’s play, The White Helicopter, lays out its story in the first five minutes or so. The curtain opens on a small, homey-looking bedroom (the set is by Kristīne Jurjāne)—old-fashioned wallpaper, Hepplewhite chairs. The room is in half-darkness, but a spotlight is trained, with burning intensity, on the middle of the floor, and in it an old man, Baryshnikov, in a white wig, is lying prone. He writhes, he thrashes, now in fetal position, now splayed as if nailed to a cross. The lights go out, and when they come on again, we see the man, back in his bed, waking up.


The door to his room opens, and in comes his aged housekeeper, Tabiana, a nun (Guna Zariņa). He gets out of bed, and she helps him dress, with great difficulty. Where is the sleeve? Where is the hole for the head? Between the two of them, they practically strangle him. He brushes his teeth; she looks away, as if from an intimate scene. Presentable at last, he says to her, “What day is this, Tabiana?” Sunday, she answers. “Please don’t do anything foolish,” she adds, with meaning. The play’s action takes place on February 11, 2013. On that day, as Tabiana knows, Benedict will resign from his office, the first pope to willingly do so since Celestine V, in 1294. The scene is emblematic, of course, of the enormous changes that have taken place in human meanings and values in the last millennium. But this drama of the old nun trying to help the old priest find the arm hole in his cassock is also a formidable piece of realism, and very touching.

John Paul II, Benedict’s predecessor, who reigned from 1978 to 2005, was doctrinally conservative, but many liberals, together with the great majority of Roman Catholics, loved him for what seemed his large-heartedness. John Paul wrote poetry. He traveled to far-off lands. He reached out to Jews and Muslims. He supported the liberation forces in his native Poland. In the United States, he is still credited with helping to bring down the Soviet Union. The current pope, Francis I, is also widely admired, being, like John Paul II, a relaxed, genial man, and also, unlike John Paul, a progressive, concerned with sociopolitical issues: poverty, above all, but also contraception, divorce, and gay rights. To a journalist’s question as to whether homosexuals were sinners, he famously answered, “If a person is gay and seeks the lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” (The pope, that’s who, or that had been who.)

Benedict had none of the qualities that swayed liberals toward his predecessor or conservatives toward his successor. He was born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger in 1927, in a small town in Bavaria. His father was a policeman; his mother, when she worked, was a cook. His family members, Benedict said, were “completely normal people,” but exceptionally devout. Benedict’s older brother, Georg, like him, became a priest. His sister, Maria, never married; as an adult, she managed Benedict’s successive households until her death in 1991. When Benedict was five, he was part of a delegation of children sent, with flowers, to welcome the cardinal archbishop of Munich, Michael von Faulhaber, to their town. He liked Faulhaber’s outfit, and later that day, he declared that he wanted to be a cardinal when he grew up. His wish came true. After writing a dissertation on Saint Augustine at the University of Munich, he went on to teach theology at the universities of Bonn, Münster, Tübingen, and Regensburg, and also wrote many books.

But he was eventually promoted out of his happiness. In 1977 he was made the archbishop of Munich and Freising, and then a cardinal. Soon afterward, in 1981, John Paul II moved him to the Vatican to direct the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the department of the church, formerly known as the Roman Inquisition, that was concerned with conformity to the church’s teachings. (This is the organization that brought Galileo to his knees.) He did his job there with zeal. “God’s rottweiler,” some people called him. Others claimed he was the bad cop who made John Paul’s good-cop routine possible. He silenced a number of priests, including, some say, his famous colleague Hans Küng, who had denied papal infallibility. He also did his best to shut down liberation theology, the Marxist-tinged movement of Latin American priests on behalf of the poor.

As for those he didn’t shut down, but should have, they were often people who stood in positions of special favor with the church. Father Marcial Maciel, founder-director of Mexico’s extremely popular Legion of Christ movement—a man described by the National Catholic Reporter as “the greatest fundraiser of the modern Roman Catholic Church”—was allowed to continue as a priest and head of the Legion of Christ long after more than thirty of his former seminarians had accused him of molesting the boys in his care. (He also had a number of mistresses, plus resultant children.)

Ratzinger didn’t move against Maciel until John Paul was dead. To have done so would have raised the question of why John Paul hadn’t. (Indeed, John Paul had lavishly praised Maciel.) Ratzinger required Maciel to renounce his ministry and give himself up to a life of penitence and prayer, but he never publicly condemned the man. It hardly needs to be said what such leniency contributed to the pedophile-priests scandal of the 1980s onward. Already by 2006, the settlement of sexual abuse claims, most of them originating in crimes committed during the reign of John Paul, had cost the church billions of dollars, not to speak of the damage to its honor and authority.

John Paul lived to an old age, eighty-four. In his later years he was seriously disabled by Parkinson’s disease. (The first symptoms appeared in 1991; the Vatican managed to keep his condition secret for twelve years.) Ratzinger was the person closest to him and no doubt made many decisions for him. John Thavis, who for many years was the Rome bureau chief of the Catholic News Service, wrote in The Vatican Diaries (2013), his history of Benedict’s papacy, that after John Paul’s death, a Vatican insider said to him, “Benedict has been pope for a lot longer than you think.” Benedict was asked later whether John Paul, when he was dying, had indicated that he wanted him to be the next pope. He answered that he didn’t know. By that time, he said, John Paul couldn’t speak.

Whether or not John Paul thought that Ratzinger should succeed him, the majority of the cardinals apparently did, because Ratzinger was elected on only the fourth ballot. At least one cardinal, however, did not favor this choice: Ratzinger. Subsequently, he said that when the result of the final ballot was announced, what he saw in his mind’s eye was the blade of a guillotine falling—on his neck. “My only dream,” he recalled, “was to become a professor of theology and spend my life in a library,” and that, apparently, was his dearest wish throughout his career. Three times, he said, he had asked John Paul to release him from his post at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and John Paul refused each time.

But advising the pope is one thing; replacing him is another. Apart from his intellect, Benedict had none of the personal qualities that are needed for a leader today, with the television cameras and the crowds and the flesh-pressing. When asked by his biographer Peter Seewald what he thought of Pope Francis’s ease in such situations, Benedict said, “I ask myself how long he will be able to maintain that. It takes a great deal of strength, two hundred or more handshakes and interactions every Wednesday.”3 You can see in photographs how hard Benedict works to keep his reluctant little half-smile hoisted up on his face as scores of people thrust their big, sweaty hands—indeed, their babies—out to him across the barriers. A younger man might have managed it better, but he was seventy-eight when he became pope—the oldest man elected to the office since 1730—and may still have been suffering aftereffects of the hemorrhagic stroke he had in 1991. Reporters noted when he dozed off at Midnight Mass; television newscasts showed how he had to be propelled to the altar of St. Peter’s on a wheeled platform.

Then there were the blunders. Revoking the excommunication of a group of illicitly ordained conservative bishops in 2009, he managed to include a Holocaust-denier, Bishop Richard Williamson of England. Williamson’s remarks on what he called “the quote-unquote Holocaust” had been broadcast on Swedish TV and YouTube three days before the group was restored to its bishoprics, but apparently no one on Benedict’s staff bothered to tell him. At other points, his staff actually compounded his difficulties. In 2009, when he was visiting Jerusalem, he was accused in the Israeli press of having belonged to the Hitler Youth in his teenage years. This charge was indignantly denied by the Vatican press secretary until it was pointed out to him that the pope, in a memoir published in 1997, had himself written that as a young teenager he had been forcibly enrolled in the Hitler Youth program and, later, into the Wehrmacht, from which he then deserted. (He was interned in an American POW camp for part of 1945.)

Finally, there was the “Vatileaks” scandal of 2012, in which papers stolen from the office of the Vatican’s secretary of state and turned over to the press revealed a long history of financial improprieties: padded bills, kickbacks, the works. One document showed a company charging the Vatican $750,000 for setting up the Christmas crèche in St. Peter’s square. The pope’s butler was arrested and confessed to the theft of the documents. He had been inspired by the Holy Spirit, he said. He was swiftly convicted and given a brief sentence, but, not surprisingly, no one in Italy seems to have believed that this man had acted alone in stealing the papers, let alone that he masterminded the chicaneries to which they testified.

Some people claim that embarrassment over the Vatileaks affair was the cause of Benedict’s resignation the following year. He himself pointed to his age. To guide the church in these faith-challenged times, he said, “strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” But while his age must certainly have been a factor, it should be repeated that Benedict was never really papabile, or pope material, not for our time. He has a face like a Hummel figurine; he doesn’t look good in the tiara. He seems deliberately to drain his words of any rhetorical force. In his resignation speech, he announced his decision only as the last agenda item. First he said that three more of the faithful had been made saints. Then, in his usual monotone—and in Latin, so that most of his audience didn’t entirely understand what he was saying—he told them he was quitting his job.

In The White Helicopter, Benedict’s toilette is no sooner finished than his personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, played by Kaspars Znotiņš, walks in. He knows what Benedict plans to do that day, and he does not like it. Holy Father, he says, popes don’t resign. How are we going to explain your decision to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics? That question is the two hours’ traffic of this stage. Gänswein asks, Benedict answers, Gänswein asks, Benedict answers. In some measure, the debate is what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, a device introduced merely in order to set a narrative in motion. Only Benedict knows for sure why he resigned, and now that seven years have passed, most people probably don’t care. But it was certainly the most dramatic event of his papacy, and one that might have motivated him to make a few remarks about himself, something he was not accustomed to doing. Hermanis now gives him the chance. I asked Hermanis whether he was trying to mount a defense of Benedict. No, he said. “We wanted to give a voice to him,” Hermanis said. And that, Hermanis insisted, was all he wanted.

He means this literally. These days, what Hermanis mostly writes are not plays, strictly speaking, but assemblages of preexisting texts—a method sometimes called “verbatim theater.” Brodsky/Baryshnikov was a bricolage of Brodsky poems. The White Helicopter uses roughly the same method. From what Hermanis told me, 95 percent of the sentences spoken by Baryshnikov in the play were said by the real Benedict during his career in the Vatican. (The rest are ligatures, glue.)

In a way, this verité approach is useful. It enables Hermanis to erect a kind of structure of information around Benedict. Latvia is not a predominantly Catholic country. (Indeed, until it was taken over by the Soviet Union, most Christians in Latvia were Lutheran, as was Hermanis, by upbringing.) Therefore, The White Helicopter dealt with matters that may have been unfamiliar to many in the audience. It was helpful for them, and me, to be told that there are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. And then, because Benedict’s papacy was brief, there are many things we needed to find out, or be reminded of, about him specifically: that he is Bavarian, that he is blind in one eye, that he plays the piano, favoring Bach and Mozart, and so on. Hermanis’s method also allows his Benedict to add his view to the historical record. It has long been said that Pope Pius XII, who reigned during World War II, did not come to the aid of Europe’s Jews under the Nazis. Benedict rebuts the charge, as have others—for example, Primo Levi, who did time in Auschwitz. And he gets personal. He says that he realizes, when he prays, how much he has done wrong. This is interesting to hear. We do not expect remorse from God’s rottweiler.

At the same time, the question-and-answer form forces much of the dialogue into a stiff, lockstep ABAB pattern. Furthermore, it is odd to hear Gänswein, who had been Benedict’s secretary for almost ten years, ask him such basic things as why he always writes in pencil, and what language he spoke with John Paul II.

Guna Zariņa as Sister Tabiana in The White Helicopter

Janis Deinats

Guna Zariņa as Sister Tabiana in The White Helicopter

Hermanis of course is aware of this problem. At one point in the play he seems to become self-conscious about it. “I can’t believe you are asking me this,” Benedict says in response to one of Gänswein’s more improbable questions. Then he goes right ahead and answers it.

Hermanis tries to aerate the text with some lighter elements. Of the play’s three main characters—Benedict, Gänswein, and Tabiana—Tabiana is the foremost comic figure. Wearing what looks to be a pair of Birkenstocks, she clomps around the room loudly, seeming, every moment, as if she might fall over. Gänswein, a modern man (the real Georg Gänswein is twenty-nine years younger than the real Benedict, and the play reflects this age difference), cites Wikipedia; to support his arguments, he produces an array of technological devices: a cell phone, video and audio recordings.

At one point it is announced that pilgrims have come, with gifts for the pope: a barrel of beer, a huge chocolate egg, and a copy of what is said to be the world’s smallest printed edition of the Bible. To deal with the last item, the Swiss guards bring in a microscope on a wheeled platform. Tabiana’s efforts to operate this mechanism play out, hilariously, at stage right, while Benedict and Gänswein are debating theological issues at stage left. In a delightful coup de théâtre, near the end of act 1, a drone in the shape of a helicopter flies in through the room’s window. This infuriates Gänswein. He goes to the window and shakes his fist at the children in the square below, who he believes are responsible for the intrusion. “Leave them alone,” says Benedict. The Swiss guards come in and bat at the toy as if it were a fly. It escapes through the window. Benedict thanks the men. The barrel of beer should be given to the Swiss guards, he tells Gänswein. The chocolate egg should go to the children’s hospital.

Baryshnikov says that when Hermanis came to him with the idea for this play, he declined. First of all, he didn’t necessarily agree with Hermanis’s politics—and “that’s putting it mildly,” he adds. Unlike many other immigrants from the Soviet Union, he is a convinced liberal. (He made a TV commercial for Hillary Clinton in 2016.) He never imagined playing a pope—he’s not a believer—let alone a pope who had spent twenty-four years directing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “That’s like the chief of police of the Catholic empire,” he said to Pauls Raudseps of the Latvian magazine Ir.

And though this is something that Baryshnikov probably would not say, he has never played so undashing a hero. In his years on the ballet stage, he was used to being the prince, or at least the charming rascal, and in the movies that he made during those years he was usually the man causing all the women in the corps de ballet to fall over in a dead faint. In 2003–2004, to cap off his dreamboat career, he appeared in the final season of Sex and the City as Carrie Bradshaw’s ultra-cool Russian boyfriend: an avant-garde artist with a plummy accent and an extensive knowledge of wines, poetry, and Chopin.

This is not to speak of the extent to which life imitated art. In his first few decades as a dancer, Baryshnikov accumulated a formidable reputation as a skirt-chaser. “He goes through everybody,” his ex-girlfriend Gelsey Kirkland said to a reporter. “He doesn’t miss anyone.” In 2006 he finally got married, to a former ABT dancer, Lisa Rinehart—a smart, talented, and, apparently, patient woman—with whom he had already had three children. (Before that, he had a long relationship, and a daughter, with Jessica Lange, who finally dumped him, it is said, for infidelity.) This was not a man who would naturally see himself as playing a pope—a pope, furthermore, who had said publicly (as Benedict had) that condoms were abetting the spread of AIDS in Africa. In 2015 the Milwaukee artist Niki Johnson created a portrait of Benedict, Eggs Benedict, out of 17,000 colored condoms, a sort of latex mosaic. Benedict, to some people, wasn’t just a conservative; he was a figure of fun. Baryshnikov had not played anyone like that before.

Then there were technical problems. “It is a two-and-a-half-hour play,” Baryshnikov points out, “and I don’t leave the stage. Also, I talk the whole time. I am not used to talk that much on a stage.”

To reiterate: old-fashioned, reactionary, sex-negative, unpopular—Benedict was all the things that Baryshnikov was not, and so, after thinking about Hermanis’s proposal for a few days, he called the playwright back and said he had changed his mind. He wanted to do the play after all. “You cannot pass an opportunity to play such a character,” he told Ir. “I would regret it forever.” He thinks Hermanis’s Benedict is fascinating: “He is fighting himself. He wants to finish his life with a pious dignity. There’s a theory that he stopped believing. Or there’s another theory that he thinks the Lord does not believe in him anymore. Who the hell knows.”

Hermanis gives his pontiff a lot of nice, sarcastic lines, which Baryshnikov delivers with an astringent wit. At one point in his back-and-forth with Benedict, Gänswein says that Tabiana has reported that he had a mystical revelation. Perhaps that is why he is resigning, Gänswein suggests hopefully. Benedict replies that perhaps Tabiana had a mystical revelation that he had a mystical revelation, but he can say, with his colleague the Dalai Lama, that he has never in his life had a mystical revelation. At another point, pulling out a Mozart LP to play for Gänswein, he dusts it by wiping it on his cassock-draped behind.

He also dances, sort of. Four times in the play, beginning with the thrashing routine at the opening, he does a movement passage, maybe a minute long, usually in silence, usually agonized. (“Internal confessions,” Hermanis calls these passages. They were all choreographed by Baryshnikov, and they include a substantial amount of improvisation. They change every night, Hermanis says.) The most hair-raising, apart from the opener, comes at the end of act 1. Here Benedict wears the full papal regalia, including the tiara, and it seems to weigh down on him like lead. Taking very small steps, he turns in place, 360 degrees. He seems imprisoned, as in a museum vitrine, or in history.

When Benedict resigned, he was given the title of pope emeritus and moved to a dwelling at the Vatican, the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery (formerly a residence for cloistered nuns), only a few hundred yards from the new pope’s quarters. He said that he would live there quietly and not interfere with Francis’s administration. But in April 2019, for whatever reason, he issued a six-thousand-word letter dealing with the church’s foremost difficulty, the matter of the pedophile priests. Francis, like most progressive priests, had addressed the scandal as a structural problem, a product of abuses of power and of excessive respect for authority. Benedict, in his letter, put forth a different explanation. He said that these crimes were a consequence of the libertine 1960s. He also conjectured that the reason airplanes did not include pornographic films in their entertainment offerings was that the airlines feared unrestrained sexual intercourse in the aisles.

The press had a lot of fun with this letter, but Hermanis—wisely, I think—did not include it in his play. Benedict is ninety-three. He clearly still has things to say, and few opportunities to say them. If some of them sound nutty, others deserve a hearing. Alexander Stille wrote in The New Yorker that Benedict, by resigning, was setting a good example: a pope who feels he can no longer bear the burdens of that job should resign. And Hermanis’s Benedict is allowed to give serious presentation to his belief that the church does not have to follow the modern world down the path to increasing secularization. Near the end of the play, he offers a theory that “to survive at all in a world hostile to its message, the church of the future may have to be much smaller in numbers and more hermetic, and to wait until the false promises of hedonism have run their course.”

Gänswein thinks this is ridiculous. Furthermore, he says, such a reversal would take centuries. Benedict answers:

Does it seem absurd that in ancient times a couple of Jews went out and sought to convert the great Greco-Roman world to Christianity? The first Apostles could not make sociological research. They had to trust in the inner power of the Word. At first, very few people joined. But then the circle grew. We do not know how Europe will develop, or the degree to which it will still be Europe if it is restructured by a different population.

If you squint your eyes and look at this proposal—waiting secularism out—from a pope’s point of view, it may seem the most reasonable solution, and certainly the least contentious. (Note that Benedict assumes that Europe’s population will be changing.) But the suggestion depends on a factor that not everyone besides Benedict entirely trusts, the inner power of the Word. Gänswein now gets to that. “Where is this God of whom we speak?” he asks. Benedict answers, “There is not a place where he sits. God Himself is the place beyond all places. If you look into the world, you do not see heaven. But you see traces of God—everywhere.” Gänswein, increasingly desperate, asks, “Do you have an idea what God looks like? How God looks?” “I don’t know,” Benedict replies, and then, dryly, returns to the opening of their conversation: “What is written in Wikipedia about Him?”

Before, Baryshnikov made us feel Benedict’s age in a geriatric sense: aching joints, impatience, why don’t these young people understand anything? Now, after all Gänswein’s questions and arguments, the old man makes himself a different kind of old. “Genug!” he says. (“Enough!”)4 And the superb Baryshnikov somehow turns his body to stone, ending the colloquy.

Gänswein stalks out. Benedict, energized, reaches under his bed, pulls out a bag that he has obviously stowed there, takes out civilian clothes, and changes into them. He does it all very awkwardly. Pants? Instead of a cassock? He manages it. And forgetting that he is wearing a zucchetto (the beanie), he jams a fedora down on top of it and races out. The helicopter drone, from before, flies in the window. This time, though, it is not meant to be seen as a children’s toy. It is a symbol. It is the means by which Benedict will leave the Vatican. The rest—or the events that transpired in real life, and are being referred to here—you can see on YouTube. At the Vatican’s heliport, Benedict boards a white helicopter with the words “Repubblica Italiana” stamped on the side. It flies him over the Colosseum (the pre-Christian world), and past the beautiful dome of St. Peter’s Basilica (the Christian world). On the stage, Tabiana stands at the window, reaching toward the sky. All across Rome, church bells ring. Benedict is gone.