I had many questions as I began the research that would shape the script for Becoming Calvin. I felt liberated, however, by biographers’ statements that they did not know much about Calvin’s formative years.
The accounts of his life I read had very clear, albeit conflicting, hypotheses of Calvin’s young adulthood, and so I synthesized these conjectures and created a “backstory” for young Jehan Cauvin in Noyon. I begin my play with his student years at the Collège du Montaigu at the University of Paris, then journey with him to Orléans where he studied law, and re-christened himself with the more scholarly Latin moniker Iohannes Calvinus (later re-translated to the French as Jean Calvin).
Working within the confines of historical fact, I tried to recreate for a modern audience a sense of the excitement, discovery and bewilderment felt by a brilliant young scholar on the cusp of the French Renaissance. It is challenging, I think, for a 21st century American audience to imagine a world where the king reigns supreme, the one true Catholic Church controls all education (as well as most of the Parlement), and the Bible is not accessible to anyone but priests and scholars. Transportation, limited to travel by horse (for the wealthy), boat (for those who can pay for passage), or foot (for everyone else), was spotty at best. As for communication….! When I look at how difficult it can be to transmit even the simplest ideas today, I am amazed that the great minds who planted the seeds for Reformation during the Renaissance were able to connect so deeply with each other solely through the written word, via letters, books, and treatises.
The world my characters inhabit is one on the eve of great change. Calvin is instrumental in creating that change, but as is often the case with the visionaries among us, he is not aware of how pivotal he will eventually be. It is up to those around him who recognize his great talent to cajole, prod, even swear at him, in order to convince him of his vital part in the gigantic task of creating a New Church.
The biographers and historians I consulted gave conflicting accounts of events that shaped Calvin’s theology and philosophy, but one huge fact was clear: Calvin did not act alone. He was no radical, springing out of a vacuum with wholly new ideas. He had support of members of the French royal family, as well as other nobles, academics —even some Catholic leaders. He read widely and admired Luther, Zwingli, and Bucer (who introduced him to his wife). The index of his correspondence reads like a Who’s Who of 16th Century European Intellectuals. Of course my journey led me, as it must, to the doctrine of predestination most often attributed to Calvin. But I found that the concept was nothing new; it had been set forth in the works of many earlier theologians on whose thought Calvin built, most notably Augustine of Hippo.
Through Calvin’s published writings I met a gifted writer, with a keen mind and genius for logic, synthesis, and analysis. His explanations of thorny theological issues strike me as clear, concise and surprisingly modern. In his private writings I found a man with an unexpectedly delicious sense of humor, who sometimes erupted in anger with a veritable torrent of words aimed with stinging accuracy at the recipient. Some grudges he bore, some he did not. I kept looking for the “tyrant” who turned Geneva into a theocracy, but I found a beleaguered leader who tried to do the right thing to save an emergent middle class from worshiping at the altar of over-confidence and over-consumption.
I offer this play to audiences as a re-imagining of one young man’s coming of age during a time of social, political, and religious upheaval. We see how young Jehan Cauvin becomes Calvin, the leader who effected such great change.