Several years ago, Colm Tóibín taught an evening class at the New School in New York. He called it “Relentlessness,” and before each class, he would drink a mix of a double espresso, Coca Cola, and sugar that he said he thinks pretty well mimics the effects of cocaine, and, as he put it in a panel discussion at the PEN World Voices Festival on May 3, “just go.” At least once, the class was actually kicked out of the building because it had gone so far over time that the staff was locking the doors for the night.
Tóibín’s course focused on works by or featuring strong women, including Sylvia Plath, Nadine Gordimer, Joan Didion and James Baldwin, as well as classical Greek plays like Antigone, Electra, and Madea. Borne out of it was the germ for Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, a novella (Scribner, 2012) and a one-woman Broadway play (starring Fiona Shaw; directed by Deborah Warner). The play, which unfortunately closed on May 5, was the primary topic at hand for Tóibín, Shaw and Warner during the panel discussion last Friday, back in The New School’s fine egg-shaped Tishman Auditorium.
The germ of Testament, as Tóibín explained, was not necessarily the beginning of writing, but the tone, the idea, the feeling of a relentless take-no-prisoners type of woman giving a monologue about being Mary, Mother of God, but completely rejecting her role in the development of Christianity; speaking her own version of it as if she will never get another chance to say it. (Indeed, that the play closed after a mere two-week run of what was supposed to be a 12-week engagement, despite receiving Tony nominations for Best Play, Lighting, and Sound, gives it added poignancy).
Although the theme of the PEN World Voices of International Literature festival was “bravery,” Tóibín was quick to counter moderator Jeremy McCarter’s suggestion that he was brave for confronting the dogma of Catholicism, the holiness of Mary. Tóibín, who grew up in County Wexford in the 60s and 70s, argued that in Ireland, and most of the Western world, we live publically in a post-Christian society, so there wasn’t much bravery at play in confronting religious belief. He said, instead, that he was writing a play that confronted his own lingering sense of devotion, and the difference between a public atheism or agnosticism (he’s not sure yet) and his private ambivalence between belief and doubt. “I wasn’t challenging the Catholic community,” he said. “Ireland is a very open place now. … If there was bravery, it was a private one.”
The 90-minute discussion circled around themes of audience, religion, and theater in general before turning to the audience for questions. One of the most thought-provoking was whether Tóibín, Shaw, and Warner believed that for a devout Catholic, their version of Mary could coexist with the Church’s official position. Although earlier in the panel, Tóibín had said that he wanted to write a version of Mary where she falls short and fails because the attainability of pure virtue is impossible, both he and Shaw argued that yes, the two versions can co-exist, because Tóibín’s work is fiction; a suspension of disbelief. Shaw argued that it’s simply saying “let’s pretend what happened happened in a different way.”
The other question that caused murmurs through the auditorium was that of a 19-year-old Catholic college student. He professed his deep faith as well as his love for the play, and said he had friends, also college students, also devoutly Catholic, who had protested the play in front of the Walter Kerr Theater on W. 48th St where it was being performed. He simply asked what the panel thought of audiences that young reacting so strongly against it.
Toibin responded by defending the protestors, lauding “the absolute right to protest” and “the absolute right to feel offended, to feel hurt,” while also defending his own right to stage the play some called blasphemous. “To feel that that hurt must be made public is as fundamental as my right to speak,” he said.
Many audience members were interested to know about the set and Warner’s decision to open up the stage for pictures, wandering, and close examination before Testament began each night. Responding, Warner called it an “invitation to the stage” that seems to both reverse and highlight the role of viewer and actor. Because Fiona Shaw was sitting on stage in a glass case dressed in the familiar early Renaissance pink dress and blue shawl, Warner said it was like “you [got] to meet your Virgin Mary” as a living, breathing human before Shaw removed the familiar robes and delivered a modern monologue in olive green work pants and a long, loose, black dress. Shaw even said she saw some people bless themselves before turning to return to their seats.
The process of turning Tóibín’s work into a play was a highly collaborative one, they saud. Shaw and Warner worked together in London while phoning Tóibín in New York to discuss cuts and edits, while Tóibín constantly sent revised scripts. Tóibín presented the first draft to them, Warner recalled, with the caveat “This is not a play.”
In the end, Testament became much more than a character on a stage, Shaw said, because traditionally a character is limited to words of her own circumstance and background. This Mary, she explained, has the voice and frames of reference of a contemporary writer, the mind of an actress, and the movements of a director. Thus does Shaw’s Mary speak beyond herself, in “literary” dialogue with twenty centuries of Catholicism.
As three of the four persons on stage were raised Catholic (Warner was raised by English Quakers), the topic arose, towards the end of the discussion, of the relationship between mass and theater, sermon and monologue – that both the eucharist and the transformation of an actor or actress into their character require their own acts of faith on the behalf of the observer. “Maybe it’s not a full transubstantiation,” McCarter said of theater, “but it’s pretty great.”