Following a 2005 performance of my play, A Single Woman, about the life of first US Congresswoman and lifelong pacifist, Jeannette Rankin, I was approached by a Quaker woman. She was moved by my work and felt compelled to tell me about Mary Dyer, whom she described as a Quaker martyr. She thought I might be interested in creating a play about Mary.
I filed the idea away along with myriad others I had been given by enthusiastic audience members. Although it was never my intention, I have become known for making theatre about strong historical women.
I later co-created and performed the solo piece Coming In Hot, playing 19 women who had served in the US military from the Viet Nam era to present day. Many peace activist friends and supporters felt I was somehow endorsing or even glorifying war – as far from my agenda as anything could be. But I felt some urgency to assure the world that illuminating the lives of people only increases understanding and, in my view, brings us closer to peace.
Over time, Mary Dyer started moving to the forefront of my creative impulses, and in 2010 I finally broke down and read about her. There are a plethora of biographies – some for youth, some adult-oriented – all with some agreement on events of Mary’s life, all with contradictions.
I began writing my one-person play Mary’s Joy in the fall of 2010. It was snowing out and I was, for personally indulgent reasons, listening to Brooke Shields’ audio of her autobiography. After the birth of her child, she developed post-partum disorder. Following the birth of my only daughter, in 1985, I also lived with that condition – and because it was undiagnosed and untreated for many years, it morphed into more troubling illness.
Back in 2010, as tends to happen, the different stimuli mingled in my artist’s mind and it suddenly occurred to me that Mary Dyer surely suffered from profound post-partum. In my view, it clearly explained much about the last decade of her life.
Historical fiction is sticky business. One need only look at the page on Wikipedia of any historic figure or event to see the debates that ensue. As my brother once told me, we mustn’t confuse history with the past. The past is forever tucked away, never to be seen and only to be interpreted and reported as history.
Mary Dyer’s life is almost entirely mystery. We assume she was born in England, perhaps London. We know she was married there, at St. Martin’s in the Fields, in 1633. We know she had a son, William, who died just two days after his Baptism, which probably happened the day after his birth. We know Mary moved to the New World with her husband, William, in 1635. We know she gave birth to a son, Samuel, that December. We also know she bore a lifeless, anencephalic daughter who was buried secretly, then exhumed. We know church/state leadership used the child’s condition as an example of “God’s punishment” of heretics such as Mary.
We know facts about where and when William Dyer bought land, built homes, migrated to Rhode Island, when Mary had the rest of their children, et cetera. We know Mary traveled alone to England in either 1650 or ‘51, returned to Boston seven years later and was immediately jailed. We know William retrieved her two months later. She returned to Boston, though banned (as were all Quakers) and was nearly hanged, but for a last minute reprieve. We know her son, Will, visited her shortly before she went that day to the gallows. We know she was hanged on June 1, 1660.
The most controversial point of Mary’s story is that she left her children first when she spent seven years in England, departing when her youngest was still an infant. The second time she left them, it was for good, when she chose to be hanged rather than comply with her banishment from Boston.
Author Beth Powning’s new novel, A Measure of Light, saturates the reader in painstaking historical detail. One gets a sense of the smell, the taste, the sounds and the feel of 17th century England and the New World. In my play, I include much detail, but what one can present in a 90-minute performance is a far cry from the layers available in more than 300 pages to be consumed by the reader.
Powning has given Mary a distinctly feminist voice – the voice of a woman who sees the inequities of her society and inherently knows they’re wrong. In my play, this is more of a series of discoveries for Mary, especially through the medium of her friendship with Anne Hutchinson. Anne shows her that women are capable of great thought and enormous achievement and Mary grows to believe in herself as a person worthy of not only salvation, but also prominent ministry – something unthinkable to the Puritans from which she evolved.
Powning’s Mary is as tortured as is mine, by being branded “Mother of a Monster,” following the stillbirth of her anencephalic daughter. Though my Mary keeps her post-partum madness to herself, Powning’s admits to those close to her that she cannot love her children, not as a mother should.
Any extrapolation of Mary Dyer’s life must include an invention of the disastrous effects on her spirit of losing her first child, and then her third – under such horrible conditions – and then having another slew of children. She was a woman and a mother in a time when women and mothers, girls and children in general, were little more than working property. Yet Mary was literate, which put her among an elite minority. She was well born and privileged in a time when people starved and froze to death in the streets every day – even more than today, if such a thing can be imagined. Her travels would have further exposed her to even more atrocities than she witnessed in Puritan England and Boston before her Quaker period began.
Powning’s portrait of Mary is humorless and morose most of the time. My Mary has the buoyancy necessary to hold an audience for 90 minutes. I rationalized my depiction because of the descriptions of Mary as “comely” and “cheerful” – even as she made her way to the gallows. It’s tough going, in Powning’s story, to hang in there with a Mary whose outlook is so bleak, even after she finds Quakers in Britain, takes up that mantle and works to spread the Light.
In addition, Powning’s Mary is even outwardly dour – taking up plain dress long before John Woolman challenged Friends to eschew colored cloth due to its nature as a by-product of the slave industry. My research revealed that Mary was known to push the edge of acceptability by wearing bright velvets and extra lace.
Here’s the rub, and where I remind myself that we mustn’t confuse history with the past. We have nothing but hearsay with which to describe Mary, and any detective will tell us that “eyewitness” accounts are wildly unreliable.
William Dyer, Mary’s husband, left behind more of a breadcrumb trail than did his wife. There is much evidence that William was extraordinarily devoted to Mary. Though never a Friend, he demonstrated unqualified support of her witness as a Quaker. After Mary’s death He picked up her quest for religious freedom. Even after he remarried, he continued to petition the colonies for universal freedom of speech and thought.
My William is based on a fine man I have known since I was a teenager. When I read different accounts of him, Mary’s husband emerged in my mind’s eye in my old friend’s image – tall, dark, broad shouldered, impossibly handsome and kind. Powning’s William is a smaller man, complex and even cantankerous – I found myself wondering whether she, too, based her characters on people she knows.
Much of the conflict in A Measure of Light is between William and Mary, who share passion and erotic connection until she returns from England, dramatically changed. In my play, the love between the spouses is deep and also erotic, though I surmised that part of her escape to England was to avoid becoming pregnant again. When Mary returns, in Mary’s Joy, once she has been rescued by William from the Boston jail, the two have a sensual reunion in a meadow situated someplace between Boston and Providence. I decided that she was no longer fertile and thus was capable of enjoying sex for, perhaps, the first time in decades. Powning’s Mary and William have a strained reunion, though softened by a reference to their carnal connection once they crawled into their marriage bed, together again. Conflict again arises between them as Mary is still able to bear children, but adamant that she will never again become pregnant.
There are many, many points of agreement in our fictions – much of the language is the same, we use a lot of the same reference points from biographies and various histories. We both stuck to some points of recorded documentation and rambunctiously diverted the story in others.
Ultimately, Beth Powning’s A Measure of Light is an intensely detailed cautionary tale, a feminist manifesto, a dream of a chronicle. Her writing is at times poetic, with unsentimental dialogue and vivid imagery of a rough and troubled period in history. History lovers will find it deeply satisfying, as will anyone with a love of quixotic legend.
I began reading my play publicly in the spring of 2011, under the care of and commissioned by the Boulder Friends Meeting. Feedback from Friends, including much historical correction, helped sharpen the script. Under the care of Pima Friends Meeting (Tucson, Arizona) I performed Mary’s Joy at the Friends General Conference Gathering in Providence Rhode Island in 2012, where it was produced as a Lemonade Gallery offering by Chuck Fager. [Editor’s Note: the performance concluded to an extended standing ovation.] I continued to do public readings and enthusiasm grew for the performance; and it would have taken me on a 6-month tour of the UK and parts of Europe had I not been, on Valentine’s Day this year, turned away at Heathrow for having the wrong Visa. I’m now committed to getting the performance on film and distributed worldwide.
The emergence of Powning’s A Measure of Light has strengthened my resolve to spread Mary’s story – perhaps the film will contribute to wider interest in the book, and vice-versa. Hope does spring eternal.