An early modern feminist

Liz Schafer explores why the work of the playwright Elizabeth Cary has been so marginalised

June 6, 2013

Cary was a woman of ferocious intelligence…When not working on the first original play in English written by a woman, she was busy mastering French, Spanish, Latin, Hebrew

Why should such privilege to man be given?

This question is posed by the gloriously villainous Salome in Elizabeth Tanfield Cary’s pioneering play The Tragedy of Mariam, Fair Queen of Jewry, published 400 years ago in 1613.

Mariam is the first original play to be published by a woman in English, and no other play from the early modern period has an opening like it: not until the beginning of the fifth scene of Act One - that is, 324 lines into the play - does Cary allow a male character onstage. Meanwhile Mariam, her mother Alexandra and her sister-in-law Salome argue, complain and trade insults. They speak of the fact that women are not supposed to “run on with public voice” but then they talk and talk and talk. And in the fourth scene, Salome announces that “the law was made for none but who are poor”, that she will “be the custom-breaker” by becoming the first woman to get herself a divorce and that she will “begin/To show my sex the way to freedom’s door”. Later on, Doris (Herod’s first wife; Mariam is his second) starts stalking around like a one-woman First Wives Club, and Graphina, a servant girl, demonstrates that women are rebuked for being silent as well as for speaking out. A chorus of grumpy old men complain that Mariam is too free in her speech. When Herod, Mariam’s abusive husband, turns up, Mariam chooses death rather than to live as Herod’s wife, refusing even to smile at her husband when doing so could save her life. The play is full of complex, feisty, stroppy female characters plotting and scheming. So why has this extraordinary play never been performed by a major professional theatre company, and does it really deserve to be labelled a “closet” play?

One reason why Mariam has languished in the doldrums of professional theatre is that the play is “un-Shakespearian”, unlike any work by the playwright who sets the gold standard for early modern drama. It is neoclassical (perhaps the play might stand a better chance in France? After all Corneille and Racine don’t do too well in the UK, either); it allows female characters to speak at length (think Katherina Minola plus Margaret of Anjou plus Cleopatra all in one play); and Cary expects audiences to know a great many classical references.

But these days, Shakespeare’s plays are always served up remixed and rearranged - think of the Globe’s popular Taming of the Shrew last summer, which included a lusty and extended rendition of the completely un- Shakespearian song The Cuckoo’s Nest. Mariam has never had that kind of makeover for the 21st century. If it were remixed, as Shakespeare’s plays always are today, maybe Mariam could find its audience.

And whereas every staging challenge in Shakespeare - such as how to get the dying Antony hoisted up the monument in Antony and Cleopatra - has been pondered by the greatest of theatrical minds all set on finding a solution, staging challenges in Mariam are more likely to be interpreted by some commentators as a sign of theatrical incompetence. Yet Cary’s biography (not published until 1861), The Lady Falkland: Her Life (another of Cary’s claims to fame is that she is the first English woman writer to have her biography written), attests to her familiarity with contemporary theatre: after her husband’s death, Cary “never went to masques nor plays, not so much as at the court, though she loved them very much, especially the last extremely”. Cary could well have learnt a great deal about what works in the theatre by watching other playwrights’ plays.

Most irritatingly of all, Mariam is sometimes seen as untheatrical because, it is asserted, the play was not written to be performed. A casual google will reveal a large number of variations on this theme. (Wikipedia, for example, says the play “apparently was never intended for stage performance by its author”.) On the internet, it appears, Cary’s authorial intentions can be divined.

Of course the reality is that while there is no hard evidence that Mariam was performed in Cary’s lifetime, there is also no hard evidence that it was not. Given the destruction of castles, cottages and manuscript collections in the English Civil War, it does not seem so remarkable that no documentation of an aristocratic, private, theatrical performance of Mariam has ever been discovered. No one seems to worry about the fact that there is no evidence that Antony and Cleopatra was performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime. And consider the instructive example of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck. It was nearly a century after Büchner’s death that Woyzeck’s unconventional dramaturgy began to be appreciated. Yet Woyzeck is hailed as revolutionary and inspirational, not marginalised because it was written for a stage that would not exist for 100 years.

It took until the 1970s before British theatre produced stroppy feminist theatre. Perhaps the real reason why Mariam has been neglected in the theatre is that, like many a 1970s feminist playwright, Cary is not always comfortable to listen to.

Feature illustration (6 June 2013)

Certain features of Mariam actually suggest that the play was very definitely written with performance in mind. Indeed, some aspects of Mariam do not make sense unless the play was performed. For example, Cary deploys “long entrances”, typical of the public playhouse, where characters may have to traverse a distance of more than 20ft before they are fully onstage. During their walk they are identified and discussed by characters already onstage. Long entrances are not needed in a play that is not going to be performed. Mariam also includes several effects that work only visually: for example, Herod has attendants who do and say nothing but who make an impact in performance just by being there; Mariam has black clothes or “dusky habits” that upset Herod but which are hard to keep in mind in a reading.

Why does it matter whether Mariam was written for performance or not? Because marginalising Mariam as a “closet” play chips away at Cary’s achievement. If Mariam is categorised as “not for performance”, Cary becomes a solitary intellectual; if Mariam is “for performance”, Cary becomes a playwright of undergraduate age, disrupting an entire household, badgering her friends and (probably) sisters-in-law to learn extraordinary lines that they might well carry around in their memories for decades. Cary becomes social, a director, cajoling her friends into declaiming her lines with aplomb, and organising the traffic of her stage. And a performance would have to have an audience. Who might have been in the audience listening to Cary’s extraordinary rhetoric? Cary’s MP father? Or her great-uncle, Sir Henry Lee, Queen’s Champion and Master of the Armouries under Elizabeth I? Powerful men could well have heard Cary, or one of her friends, pose that potent question: “Why should such privilege to man be given?”

Cary was a woman of ferocious intelligence and formidable learning. When she was not working on the first original play in English written by a woman, she was busy mastering French, Spanish, Latin, Hebrew and - less conventionally - learning Gaelic and Transylvanian. She was successfully challenging the evidence at the trial of an old woman who had been terrorised into confessing that she was a witch. She was giving birth to, breastfeeding and then educating 11 children. She was attempting to set up an industrial school for 160 Irish beggar children in Dublin (the school went bankrupt). And she was always reading: Seneca, Plutarch, Pliny, Calvin, Hooker, Montaigne and Bacon. At the age of 12 she produced a translation from French of the text of Ortelius’ early world atlas. When Cary, as a child, tried to read books all through the night, her mother took away her candles.

Young Elizabeth Tanfield then paid servants to smuggle candles into her room. Later, when her mother-in-law tried to punish Cary by confining her to her chamber, Cary was discovered, in her element, reading. When the books were then taken away, Cary - in the words of the biography - “set herself to make verses”. The work that her biography (which was written by one of her daughters) describes as her best - a life of Tamburlaine - is lost; her history of Edward II was until recently attributed to her husband; and most copies of her translation of the Catholic polemic The Reply of the Most Illustrious Cardinal of Perron to the Answer of the most Excellent King of Great Britain, published in 1630, were burned on the orders of the Archbishop of Canterbury. However, in critical terms, Cary’s star is now in the ascendant, as feminist literary critics and historians edit her works and excavate her history. While the theatre continues to keep Cary on the margins, her question “Why should such privilege to man be given?” still has force (why should professorial pay, on average, be so much higher for men than women?).

Cary struggled over the competing demands of family and intellectual life. She suffered from depression - particularly when she was pregnant with her second and fourth children - and from eating disorders, once starving herself when pregnant so that “she became as flat as if she had not been with child at all”. As her eldest daughter, Catherine, lay dying in childbirth, crying “Woe is me, is there no remedy?”, Cary resolved to nurse her baby granddaughter if she lived. She did not. But despite her demanding family life, Cary always found time to ask searching questions, and in 1626 she converted to Catholicism. Her outraged husband separated from her and, as he refused to pay any maintenance, Cary was occasionally reduced to eating food scavenged by her maid. And when Henry Cary died in 1633 and custody of Cary’s younger children passed to her eldest son, Lucius, the Cavalier hero and poet, Cary kidnapped her younger sons from Lucius’ home - the famed literary retreat at Great Tew - as she objected to the anti-Catholicism she felt her children were being subjected to. For this she was threatened with imprisonment in the Tower, but being a lawyer’s daughter she was able to argue her way out of trouble.

It is in the period between Cary’s marriage and her eldest daughter’s birth in 1609 that most scholars believe Mariam was written. Ramona Wray, the play’s most recent editor, argues for c.1603-06 in her Arden edition. That means that the play was quite possibly written while Cary was still living at her parents’ home, Burford Priory, in West Oxfordshire.

It seems appropriate then to mark the 400th anniversary of the publication of Mariam with a workshop performance of the play on 12 June, as part of the Burford Festival. The performance will take place in St John the Baptist Church, where in 1602 Elizabeth Tanfield married Sir Henry Cary and began a marriage that turned out to be almost as turbulent as Mariam’s marriage to Herod.

The performance will take place just a few yards from the self- aggrandising tomb of Cary’s parents, which features an effigy of Cary kneeling at one end and her eldest son, Lucius Cary, at the other. It is appropriate that Elizabeth is on her knees: not only was she extremely devout but also, her biography reports, she always got down on her knees when she wanted to speak to her mother. But this apparently dutiful, kneeling daughter was also a ferocious intellectual, a Catholic convert and a pioneering feminist. The statue of Cary looks demure, but across the centuries her play continues to demand an answer to the question: “Why should such privilege to man be given?”

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