Concha Romero’s allegorical “A Saintly Scent of Amber” (ASSA) presents a, to some extent, well known archetype and not only chronicles a period of church history rife with political/religious turmoil, she also modernizes the account serving to illustrate issues of relevance in the present day. Romero’s play, which at times borders on laugh-at-loud-hilarity, is arguably genius in the way it achieves the effect of humor by meshing the ridiculous with the seriousness of the subject matter. As a playwright constructing her work in the late days of postmodernism’s reign as the literary school fiction authors subscribe to make cultural sense of what exactly is going on in the world; her work follows some of the period’s conventions. More often times than not, postmodernists (in general) have dealt with the “postmodern condition” with heavy doses of irony.
Irony, by no means a new literary concept, enjoys its most liberal usage (with a few exceptions, Chaucer being the most significant as well as the current model of fiction under the various titles of Image-Fiction, Hyperrealism, and the awkward/clunky post-postmodernism) in this era of fiction which oftentimes presents its self verbally in a setting that is situationally ironic that is part of an overarching irony in a book/story/poem/play with a title that is itself ironic. Thus ASSA is extremely ironic which for the most part explains why the sobriety comes off as funny. For example, when the group of nuns stand arm-linked in the well known environmentalist technique of you-can’t-cut-down-this-jungle-because-we-are-holding-hands-in-your-way at the door of the habit which pretty much never works and desists after those wanting to break the chain start making threats like “I have this piece of paper here that says you need to move” or “we have chainsaws and are going to use them to cut something down” or in Gregorio’s case “EXCOMMUNICATION! EXCOMMUNICATION!” (46). To the contemporary audience, the nuns’ responding with an emphatic “No, excommunication, nooooooo!” is totally absurd making it, well, laughable. This is, of course, because most people have little notion of what exactly excommunication involves, on the one hand, or do not take the threat as seriously as those from the time before religious plurality spread to Spain when being Spanish meant being Catholic thus subject to the pope.
While difficult to see certain parts of the play (for instance scenes depicting the dismemberment of St. Teresa’s corpse) as exactly being a laugh riot, some scenes boarder on being slapstick. Mariana, as one example, scurrying about crying and babbling about death and corpses and excommunication has a sort of Three Stooges quality about her when at her most distressed. It is difficult, for the most part, to view her as anything but a grotesque parody of comic relief due to the fact that she seems to be the only character at all concerned about cutting off rotting chunks of cold, human meat until close to the very end when Gregorio nearly spills the groceries from the look and smell of the festering flesh. One of the creepy things about Mariana’s character and her reactions is that the audience/reader thinks that these things are funny at all. Having the ability to suspend belief, the viewer sees the body not as most of us would (i.e. in the way that makes Mariana physically unable) but as the more hardened hackers of limbs, which is it self ironic but when you think about it, not at all funny.
Regardless of how silly she may appear, Mariana is not stupid or ignorant, what she is, or seems to be, is innocent. Her inability to deal with death becomes an endearing quality and she ends up being one of the more sympathetic characters because of it. The same inability to behave toward a dead body in a rational way, which happens a lot, is also the same reason other characters come off as antipathetic. Take Father Gracian’s saw off of St. Teresa’s hand during the concluding segment of Act One. At this point, Gracian loses not only the respect of the audience; he transcends eccentric becoming a madman with a gruesome fetish. To be fair, the audience realizes a particular strangeness in Gracian’s affection toward the corpse before this incident but it is not until this moment that we behold him with scorn instead of as an oddity.
To see why this is so, one need look no further than the way he speaks about the flesh of his former friend. With sexualized language, Gracian eroticizes the corpse when he repeatedly states that he “would like a few moments alone with her” (21) which pretty much sweats with sexual tension. To make this all the more disturbing, upon examining the body, he touches it and says “her skin gives as if she were alive” (20) making the reader cringe and later question what exactly he intends to do with the hand. While verbally he speaks of the corpse in a way that you can’t help but think of necrophilia as a possible outcome, removing the hand becomes the first obvious instance of dehumanizing that the former St. Teresa undergoes.
Before the body’s desecration by dismemberment, the body is talked about as though it still contains the person of St. Teresa. One witnesses the care the nuns exhibit while removing her veil and when washing and moving the corpse about which resembles the way someone would care for any delicate human being that he or she CARES ABOUT. With his knife, Gracian ultimately begins a dehumanizing process eclipsing in the body separation into sections, fought over like a bone among hungry dogs, and tossed in a sack to be shipped off to God knows where. The major conflict at the end of the play occurs in part because this dehumanizing of St. Teresa’s flesh is not fully recognized, it would seem anyway, by the Prioress.
In the play’s first act, the Prioress does not appear to be one the audience is supposed to sympathize with, this is not so as the play progresses. What makes this dubious are her blurred convictions about what should be done with the body; after all, she does give the townspeople St. Teresa relics and all they have to do is come down to the habit and ask.
Upon first glance, the dynamic between the male clergy and female nuns in the two acts seem quite different; however, interpreting as such would be surface-level thus ignoring one of the major overarching critics of the church the play provides. For example, in Act One, while the Prioress and the nuns affect a more cordial standing with the male clergy than in Act Two, the same problem permeates the entire encounter. What is apparent—though perhaps not obvious—throughout the play is the fact that there is a sense of inequality between the two groups with the men occupying a type of entitlement and the women a kind subservience. In the second act, the lopsided power dynamic touches-the-nerve again and again with phrases like “this convent has more than once offered a partridge or two to an illustrious visitor” (39); “you reason well for a woman, but it doesn’t appear at all respectful to me that a nun, regardless of her position as prioress, dare refer to a monk as incidental” (41); “Careful. Widows are the most dangerous. They come in already corrupted by the world” (42); etc.
The two male/female relationships of Act One and Two bridge most noticeably when Gregorio and Antonio stop by for the old surprise visit to which the Prioress frantically tells the doorkeeper to “distract him for a few moments while we tidy up” while barking orders at anyone within proximity. Her excited expressions impart a very real aura of danger, telling because it is understood that if their habit appears disorderly then there could be serious repercussions. A couple of points to keep in mind here are that (1) this line directly follows the performance of a play by the nuns—an occupation unlawful for woman mind you—in celebration of the Prioress’s birthday and (2) the group has had no contact with the newly appointed Provincial so they know nothing of particular attitudes of this specific man insinuating that in a general (if not universal) way, the clergy does not regard them egalitarianly; instead, view them as subjects.
Overall, the play is worth viewing or reading mainly for a contemporary feminist interpretation of church history and also how the body fits in with both tradition and current Eucharistic practices. I can’t resist pointing out that the play gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “chicks with body issues.” Romero shows how the body is exploited as well as the patriarchal system that defines the female role as one of submission and compliance. “A Saintly Scent of Amber” is a goldmine for bad jokes about necrophilia and masturbation but to make them is either to miss the point entirely or to really get it. In the end, it is hard to tell which.