What do a founding father, a Victorian novelist and a Russian revolutionary have in common?
They all wrote or re-wrote their own versions of the Bible. And they meet in the brilliant new philosophical comedy by Scott Carter, “The Gospel According to Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord.”
“I found out about the Jefferson Bible through a program that Bill Moyers hosted,” says Carter.” In 1804, Jefferson took a razor and cut out the Bible verses he liked from the King James Version.
“Jefferson did not feel obligated to accept all of the Bible to call himself a Christian.” Carter continues. “He felt you can approach the great mysteries of life without feeling that you need to buy into any religion’s complete doctrine. Also, what he didn’t like were miracles. He’s a son of the enlightenment, a Newtonian, and he rejects any notion that anybody is going to be able to walk on water.” Jefferson’s Bible version stayed in the family until the 1890s when it was sold to the Smithsonian for $400.
Carter is executive producer and writer for “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher,” and was based in New York. “At the beginning of the fourth season Bill wanted us to move to Los Angeles. I moved to the Larchmont area and found this wonderful independent book store, Chevaliers,” says Carter.
“I was looking at their classic book section one Saturday morning and saw the spine of a book that said ‘The Life of our Lord by Charles Dickens.’ I didn’t find out until later that this was a book that he kept privately and read so many times to his children that all of them could recite it before they were able to read. And in his will, he restricted this book from being published until the last of his 10 children died, which wasn’t until 1933. I bought it and as I read it I realized that Dickens’ orientation is the complete counterpoint to Jefferson. He loves the miracles, he loves the pageantry. Later, through a book by Stephen Mitchell, I found out about the Tolstoy gospel.”
When asked about writing dialogue, especially funny dialogue, for these three iconic figures, Carter says, “Dickens has a very strong narrator’s voice in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ and many other of his books. And I saw that as something I could take for a way that he would see things. In the case of Tolstoy, the character of Pierre in “War and Peace” and Levin in “Anna Karenina” are based very much on himself.
After a severe asthma attack that hospitalized him, Carter felt a sense of re-birth. “I had this very strong feeling about the beauty of life, but also the sense of having to clarify issues about why are we here. Is there a God? What is life about? One of the purposes of this play is to get people to have that same sense of urgency, to ask those questions and clarify the issues for themselves.”
Carter lives in Windsor Square with wife Bebe Johnson and two children.
By Patricia Rye