Scott Carter believes in taking his time, almost to a ridiculous point. For over a quarter century, he has worked on the play The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord. Now, this wasn’t some nonstop, continual thing, nor was he always focused on the play itself. Some years, Carter would even set the play aside, and most of the time he simply read and read and read. But over the course of time, the playwright estimates that he has written 100 different drafts, some with radically different approaches.
Two years ago, Carter finally wrapped up Discord, a big-idea obsessed comedy of sorts. The play explores not only the lives, philosophies, and personal failures of the three titular writers, but the manner in which the Bible was written, revised, and reinterpreted, all factors that change the religious text’s meaning in both subtle and profound ways. It’s a tall order for sure, but one that Carter tackles with wit and insight and a palpable need to make sense of life, the universe, and everything in between.
Carter first began laying the groundwork for what would ultimately become Discord in 1987, shortly after he nearly died from an asthma attack. “When I got out of the hospital, I had this notion that I should really start to investigate all these questions of life and death and God and no God, that I often ignored in the past,” Carter says.
And investigate he did.
One of his first steps was to explore Jefferson’s Bible, a seldom discussed curiosity in which the author of the Declaration of Independence stripped the Gospels of any and all supernatural elements, leaving only Jesus’ teachings themselves.
Later, Carter learned that Dickens was also interested in reframing the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, penning The Life of Our Lord, a work he expressly wrote for his children and which he never published. In many ways, Dickens’ account is the polar opposite of the deist Jefferson’s — the Englishman celebrates the miracles in an easy-going style and peppers his narrative with his own views and prejudices.
A decade after Carter began working on Discord, he discovered that Tolstoy had also written a revised New Testament, The Gospel in Brief, a tome that in Carter’s view splits the rational-versus-mystical difference between his two fellow authors. Carter says, “Tolstoy is in the middle between Jefferson and Dickens, theologically. He thinks miracles are possible but irrelevant. Jefferson clearly dismisses them, and Dickens celebrates them.”
Sounds like weighty stuff, yeah? Well, Discord is and it isn’t. Even though the play finds all three writers together in a No Exit-meets-Twilight Zone afterlife — a device that is less chilling or dramatic than it is didactic — Carter’s writing is crisp and clear and always witty, in particular when he’s channelling a Victorian-era peacock like Dickens, a man as full of himself as his father’s pockets were once empty. Tolstoy and Jefferson are not nearly as funny, although it’s worth noting that in Jefferson’s case, Carter imagines him as a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Ashley Wilkes, and Spock, a characterization that surely rings comically true to history nerds.
And when it comes to comedy, not to mention contentious debates, Carter is an old pro. For the past 23 years, he has worked alongside acerbic comedian and talk show host Bill Maher. Currently, Carter is the executive producer and a writer with Real Time with Bill Maher. Given his boss man’s atheist bona fides — although anyone who has seen the comedian’s 2008 documentary Religulous knows, Maher’s far more respectful to and understanding of spiritual beliefs than Real Time would indicate — one has to wonder how the talk show host responded to Carter’s play. Well, he’s a fan.
“He came to see it at the Geffan [Auditorium] and proceeded to lead the audience in a standing ovation,” Carter says. “I was anticipating a lot of blowback from atheists, from Muslims and Hindus, Catholics, Protestants, and we had people of so many different faiths or lack of faith, really enjoy the play. That’s been the experience I’ve had so far.”
As for Carter’s own religious beliefs, it would appear that he’s less of a follower and more of an eternal student. Although he believes in God, goes to church (he has several in rotation but doesn’t belong to one), and reads from a spiritual text on a nearly daily basis, he doesn’t consider himself to be a Christian. Carter says, “It’s a way of keeping awake, of continually asking questions.”
And with a follow-up to Discord in development — this one focusing on the three actors that play Jefferson, Dickens, and Tolstoy — Carter continues to ask the big questions and urges us to do the same.