Before the play begins, the audience is invited on stage; we walk around, not quite knowing what to do, gazing at the props, uncertain. A few chairs, scattered jars of honey, jugs of water beside a free-standing waist-high faucet, a tall ladder, a long table, a stripped tree trunk with a wooden wheel at the top suspended from the rafters, a menacing roll of barbed wire, and a live turkey vulture occasionally spreading wide its iridescent blue-black wings: such is the set for Deborah Warner’s searing production of Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, a one-woman show currently in previews at the Walter Kerr Theater in New York. In a large open-sided box, stage left, the actress Fiona Shaw, draped in blue from head to toe, arranges herself, then sits perfectly still, holding a lily and an apple. We know this woman. The Virgin Mary. The Icon. Incarnate.
But when we are all back in our seats, Mary casts off her robe to stand before us in a simple black shift, flowing easily over narrow brown pants. Her hair is cropped, her face haunted; wearing short leather boots, she fumbles as she searches for a hand-rolled cigarette to steady herself. “I remember everything. Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.” No longer an icon, hardly a virgin, this Mary addresses us with the piercing directness of the passion she has suffered: to have seen her only son crucified despite her efforts to save him. Now, interrogated by two unnamed apostles (John and Luke?) who want to fix the story of her son’s life and death and resurrection, Mary insists on reporting only what she knows: “I was there. I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.”
Through Mary’s voice and vision, Toibin offers his own harsh, humanizing version of the Christ story, a story in which there are no confirmed miracles. Death is not conquered, sin remains rampant, vanity and egoism triumph. The people who follow Mary’s son are all misfits, foolish and cruel. Yet, Mary reports, her son was not like them: “grateful, good-mannered, intelligent,” he “could look at a woman as though she were his equal.” As Shaw enacts the part of Mary, she takes on the roles of all the people she encounters: through her face, gestures, and voice we meet the self-serving apostles; we see and hear the vicious mob; in the end, we see and hear and feel her son, carrying the cross, riven by nails, crowned with thorns—that roll of barbed wire, now encircling Mary’s exposed, fragile neck.
It is almost too much to bear, this suffering without redemption, without purpose or meaning. Yet even as she narrates what she sees as her unnamed son’s senseless death, Mary makes a crucial distinction: “despite the fact that his heart and his flesh had come from my heart and my flesh, despite the pain I felt, a pain that has never lifted, and will go with me into the grave, despite all of this, the pain was his and not mine.” Fiona Shaw as Mary gazes unflinchingly into the abyss, and she take us with her.
And yet, this is not a nihilistic play, nor is it blasphemous and heretical as a Catholic group protested on its first night of previews. Mary courageously insists on distinguishing between reality and dreams, embracing her own and her son’s pain without any mitigating consolation. As such, she offers us another Way: in her unadorned humanity, she becomes someone with whom we identify, a woman whose very immanence offers a different form of redemption. God the Mother. We are brought into Her presence, and the experience takes us home.
As June Courage writes in her comment on Kathryn House’s beautiful “Reflections on Good Friday,” recently posted on FAR, Mary as the Pieta “reaches depths of suffering unimaginable to we who watch. And as she takes this suffering into her own heart and being, she takes also the pain and hurt of the world: she redeems not our sin, but our pain. . . . she holds and heals and cradles every one of us.” Although Toibin’s Mary in fact never cradles her son’s body in her arms, having fled Golgotha before his death, her words and movements explicitly evoke the Pieta, the eternally grieving Mother who holds her dead Son.
As I left the theater, shaken and yet enlivened, I thought back to our walk across the stage. In her gesture of welcome, the director had inextricably bound us to her drama. Just as Mary’s suffering erases the distance between Mother and Child, so our presence on stage erases the distance between Mary and us. We belong here. It is our story, our suffering. I thought about theories that locate the origin of drama in ritual, and sensed that we had been returned to those origins; only, now, instead of re-enacting the drama of a dying and reviving god, we had shared ritual space with an embodied goddess, the Mother of All Living, She Who Suffers.
In accordance with a persistent tradition, Toibin sets his account of Mary’s last days at Ephesus, where there remains a chapel said to have been the House of the Virgin Mary.
Hundreds of Muslim and Christian pilgrims visit the site each year, leaving offerings and prayers. And so, in our walk across the stage, which includes elements from the House (the running, healing water; the tall tree at the front), we too enter the shrine, participating in its power.
The Testament of Mary began first as a stage monologue performed at the 2011 Dublin Theater Festival; the novella was published in Fall 2012; this newest production opens April 22nd. In the novella, Toibin makes a further connection, one omitted from the current stage production. Early on, Mary visits the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, where she sees the statue of the goddess, “radiating abidance and bounty, fertility and grace, and beauty maybe, even beauty.” As she gazes at one “who has seen more than I have and suffered more because she has lived more,” her heart is eased. Buying a small statue, Mary keeps it beside her in the house, so that she might “whisper to it in the night.” And later, just before her death, she returns again and again to the ancient Temple, abandoning the Synagogue where she had once worshipped. “I go alone . . . . I speak to her . . . the great goddess Artemis, bountiful with her arms outstretched and her many breasts waiting to nurture those who come towards her.”
What a beautiful image Toibin gives us, an image corresponding to the intuition of many feminist theologians: Mary and the Great Mother, Mary as the Great Mother, Mary reconciled to her experience through her identification now, not with suffering, but with “abidance and bounty, fertility and grace.” Unforsaken, in the final pages of the novella she moves towards a vision of light, experiencing a “new freedom” as she steps into an imagined city “filled with wells and trees, a marketplace laden with fish and fowl and the fruits of the earth, a place redolent with the smell of cooking and spices.” Here, then, She awaits us, Her arms outstretched, Her manifold breasts overflowing.
Joyce Zonana is the author of Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, An Exile’s Journey, a memoir about her life growing up in the U.S. as an Egyptian Jewish woman. After participating in Carol Christ’s Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in 1997, she served for a time as Co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual. She is currently a Professor of English at Borough of Manhattan Community College and a regular contributor to Lilith Magazine and Nola Diaspora.