Review: The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself ~ theatre notes

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Review: The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself

It's tempting to consider what Mary MacLane's life might have been, had she been born male. For one thing, I might have had a better chance of having heard of her: the work of interesting women is all too apt to disappear after their deaths. Perhaps MacLane might have been known as an early 20th century Thomas Chatterton or Arthur Rimbaud, a wayward brilliance that ignited rebellion into a literary flame. But she wasn't born male, and her sex determined her life and her later reputation. It meant that she was doomed to being considered eccentric rather than original, and the egocentricity permissible in a young man of genius put MacLane beyond the pale of womanhood.

She was certainly scandalous: precociously intelligent, unapologetically sexual, Romantic with a startling capital R. Her best selling memoir The Story of Mary MacLane was published when she was 19, and sold 100,000 copies in its first month. In it she vividly recounted her desires, her boredom, her fantasies, and proclaimed herself as a genius. In 1902, this was unprecedented only in that it was a woman writing in such a way: Walt Whitman, clearly a foundational influence, first published Song of Myself in 1855. The real scandal was (and remains) that a woman should proclaim an autonomous self, an active subjectivity.

Such proclamations have always been made, and have been routinely diminished and ignored over the past few hundred years. Watching The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself, I was struck by how much her writing chimes with the writings of women mystics in the Middle Ages. Several years ago, I became deeply interested in these women, who invented a whole new vocabulary of subjective experience for western culture. The parallels with MacLane are intriguing.

This language of interior experience is best known through the writings of mystics such as St John of the Cross, but it first appeared in the ecstatic visions of women: often anonymous Beguine nuns, or the confessional writings of women such as Margery of Kempe, Hildergard von Bingen or Margery Ebner. (For those curious, I wrote an essay on reading these mystics that was delivered at Birkbeck College in London, and which you can find here, with apologies for annoying webby glitches). Through these writings, women found expression and fulfilment, and insisted themselves in the public sphere.

Like most of these nuns, MacLane's intelligence wasn't met by her education, which was largely autodidactic. Unlike them, she wasn't in danger of being burned at a stake by the Inquisition. Her excoriating self-examination is modern, rather than mediaeval: some of her thinking on selfhood recalls Nietzsche. She was nevertheless heretic, taking lovers of both sexes and writing about it, ignoring social mores, enacting and theatricalising her desires. Where she is most like these mystics is in her transgressions, in her erotic descriptions of desire as a state which transcends the self: her dialogues with the Devil demand love as a violent obliteration, and her desire tends towards the ecstatic, out of the self. As she says in her diary, "My life will be borne far out of self, and self will sink quietly out of sight."

For both MacLane and the nuns, interior states are externalised as public acts. For the mediaeval women, religion was a way in which they could legitimise a public persona, in a world in which public space was strictly male, and mystics like Margery of Kempe subverted that public space in fascinating and outrageous ways. For MacLane, the cover was literature and celebrity: she appropriated the Romantic notion of genius, a profoundly masculine notion, and behaved in ways that outraged ideas of feminine (or, indeed, any) notions of propriety. She created a public persona that could encompass some of her restless desire for freedom.

The program note for The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself makes the connection with "the wayward manifestations of self-discovery in our digital age" and posits celebrity as a uniquely contemporary phenomenon (which it isn't), but I wonder how close that parallel is to MacLane's act of self-assertion. Although MacLane had no problems with gratifying her desires, the contemporary obsession with self fulfillment and gratification seems to me a rather different thing: her observations of herself are the observations of a poet, almost clinical diagnoses of spiritual lack and longing. Where self inventors like Rimbaud or Genet are revered, however, MacLane is dismissed as a narcissist and forgotten.

In The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself, she is rediscovered for us by Bojana Novakovic, who has created a duet between MacLane's writings and her own performance and persona. Theatre strikes me as an excellent medium for the remembering of a woman whose relationship with self is so vexing and contradictory: for MacLane, as much as for mystics, the self was a veil over experience, to be examined in order to be destroyed.

She was certainly aware of her own theatricality, and of the paradoxes of performance, as writer and human being. "I am in no small degree, I find, a sham - a player to the gallery," she wrote. "A thin, fine vapour of fraud hangs over me and dampens and injures some things in me that I value." Here she is presented as a portrait, a performance of serially-torn masks, framed by a wonky Victorian-era stage. As the show progresses, MacLane, at first in her underwear, gradually dresses, to end up as an ambiguously frozen image of her own portrait, caught in the aspic of history. It's a bold and effective conceit.

The text is largely a collage of Maclane's writings, punctuated by songs by Tim Rogers that are performed by Rogers as part of a three-piece band. Tim Rogers is the showman, the impresario to MacLane's genius. The show itself is a loose reconstruction of the sort of presentation that celebrity authors routinely did a century ago, given a 21st century twist by its metatheatricality (at one point MacLane objects to Novakovic's cheapening of her ideas, and rebels, bringing in the performer's diary and reading it out loud). It makes for an entertaining ride, and Novakovic, no mean self-theatricaliser in her own right, is the woman to do it: perverse, seductive, angry, vulnerable, she gives us a compelling portrait of a passionately intelligent, self-destructive and often admirably brave woman.

It's beautifully designed by Anna Cordingley and directed by Tanya Goldberg with exact attention. The main problem is its dramaturgy, which is sometimes clumsy, especially in some of its repetitions. Repetition is a delicate art, but it works best when repetition of form introduces variation of ideas. Too often I felt the same ideas coming back, which seems a shame in such an interesting and wide-ranging subject, and it contributed to a sense of treading water about two thirds of the way through, and a feeling that this show isn't as good as its components promise. It's as if its form hasn't quite clicked into place. For all that, it's well worth meeting Mary MacLane, outrageous foremother, "Genius, Writer, Philosopher, Gambler, Thief, Journalist, Star".

Picture: The Story of Mary MacLane. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself, text by Bojana Novakovic, music by Tim Rogers, after the writings of Mary MacLane. Directed by Tanya Goldberg, set and costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting by Hartley TA Kemp, sound design by Russell Goldmsith. With Andy Baylor, Bojana Novakovic, Tim Rogers and Dan Witton. A Ride On Theatre production presented by Malthouse Theatre in association with Griffin Theatre Company, Merrigong Theatre Company and Performing Lines. Beckett Theatre, Malthuse, until December 11, and touring.


Keith Gow said...

To me, the show felt like it was treading water much earlier than two thirds of the way through - and I was frustrated that I didn't get a sense of MacLane as much as I got a sense of Novakovic's performance as MacLane. I understand that was part of the conceit - made explicit by the reading of "Novakovic's journal", but it gave me the sense the show was all and only about surface.

I also found the three-piece band and, in particular, Tim Rogers' performance very distracting. Every time I felt like we were getting to understand MacLane better, there was a musical interlude.

Perhaps, as you say, if MacLane had been a man, we might have had a better chance to have heard of her. Pity that this story of her "by herself" is so thoroughly impeded by a three-piece male band, trying to rend the story in the directions they wanted.

Alison Croggon said...

"Only about surface" - this struck me as the profound insight (and where it connects with Nietzsche). And I enjoyed the band.

Michael R. Brown said...

I'm continentally-challenged and so was unable to see the show, but am happy a writer imbued in today's methods get Mary MacLane, and from a new angle, and express it thoroughgoingly. No doubt M had a deeply sacramental thrust, yet at the same time sought some integration of it with a completely earthly existence. I often think of her like Lao Tzu - she came, did her work, then retired. Now if only we could review her silent movie, Men Who Have Made Love to Me (1917-1918) - most critics said she was acting in a new style - something we would later call realism! I've more thoughts about M - will write privately.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Have to agree with Keith on this one.

And really Alison, think what you like about the play, but you're drawing a stupendously long bow to find a resonance bwtween Maclane and the likes of Margery Kempe or Hildegard of Bingen (or Julian of Norwich or John of the Cross or the author of The Cloud of Unknowing for that matter). All of those mystics proceeded from apophatic theology, the abnegation of the self rather than the expression of it, and their ecstasies, far from 'insisting themselves in the public sphere', were founded on a deeply personal relationship with God that emerged in the context of the then prevailing paradigm of Galenic thought which associated women with the body, and men with the spirit. My degree in medieval history is mightily offended.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Cameron: we'll agree to differ on the music. Though I see you also talk about "narcissism" in relation to Miss MacLane.

I'm assuming your degree in mediaeval history didn't include the work of contemporary scholars such as Danielle Regnier-Bohler, whose writing on this subject first sparked my interest. It resulted in a lot of research - I read dozens of these texts - and the equivalent of a thesis. If you'd bothered to read that essay in How 2, you would have found that a central part of my argument is said here: "Without suggesting that these women had any sense of modern feminist consciousness, it seems a fair supposition that female prophets were asserting their right to be articulate and public human beings, able to comment on and perhaps influence public life, and using what resources were then available to them: in this case, that of divine revelation." Von Bingen and Kemp are clear examples of this. The parallel with MacLane is obvious.

Further, you'd have seen that I was interested in this writing because of its resonances with contemporary work, including the uncertain provenance of the "I" within it. A principle contradiction within it is the often confronting eroticism of mystic writing. Another contradiction of mystic writing is that works like The Cloud of Unknowing or Teresa of Avila's Autobiography, while about transcending the self, are about nothing but the self.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Sigh. Your assumption (as with most of your assumptions about my state of knowledge) is incorrect. I’ve read many contemporary scholars on female monastics and mystics in medieval Europe - though I can't recall Regnier-Bohler specifically - through my studies, and have a fairly comprehensive overview of the relevant feminist historiography. I have also read all the primary sources you mention and more.

I've now read your entire essay - an original, eccentric and often elegant sally into the subject - and my opinion on the length of your bow remains unchanged. Although you seem to have a thoroughgoing appreciation of the intricacies of medieval sex and gender, your "central argument" relies on an anachronistic "public sphere" and public/private distinctions that can only be problematically applied to the medieval period.

You’ve obviously read your Kristeva (and doubtless Habermas, too) and you know that such a sphere did exist in Maclane’s day, as it does now, albeit in a ruptured, multiplicitous form. So naturally I'm curious that you'd question the program note's connection between Maclane's self-explorations, and "the wayward manifestations of self-discovery in our digital age", purely, it seems, on the former's poetic quality. Can't blogs and tweets be poetic? Can you explain your argument more fully? It makes no sense to me.

And yes, I did call Maclane a narcissist, but I've said the same thing in print of the young Rimbaud: he was a narcissist par excellence. (As an aside, I note that narcissistic personality disorder has been removed from the DSM-V - presumably because if everyone suffers from it, it ain't a disease.)

Given the dearth of female writers over the course of recorded history, it’s only natural to want to find connections between them. Novakovic does that explicitly in the show in a way that, as I said in the review, “obscured rather than illuminated” Maclane’s character. Bringing medieval Catholic mystics into the picture, although superficially attractive, has more or less the same effect.

Alison Croggon said...

Cameron - thanks for wading through that difficult typography. But are you seriously suggesting that it isn't true that mediaeval Europe is profoundly misogynist? Yes, of course there were exceptions: Kemp was a brewer, and wealthier than her husband; Christine de Pisan was a wealthy aristocrat with a very enlightened husband, and so on. But they remain exceptions.

I don't know how you can maintain there were not separate spheres, when society was so strictly monitored along class and gender lines, with sumptuary laws and so on. Nuns - previously free to go where they liked, like male priests - were first compulsorily cloistered in 1298, in Von Bingen's lifetime, and deliberately kept out of the newly formed universities. "Public life" in mediaeval Europe means literate life, and women were exiled by the Church and the State. The land of letters, as you even admit here, was heavily policed to keep women out. I think, and not only from these comments, that your real area of ignorance is in feminist scholarship.

And I suspect now that you misunderstand my point. I'm not saying that MacLane was influenced by these women. I doubt she had heard of them. Her influences are clearly Romantic and Victorian poetry, and I wouldn't be surprised if Emerson were among them. I was saying that her extreme responses to the imprisoning experience of her gender are strikingly similar to the extreme responses of mystics such as Kemp. "Parallels", as I said. I'm still struck by them.

Alison Croggon said...

Oh, on the digital age, narcissism and celebrity: I just think that's too easy a point, and that it's been mainly picked up (as in Kate Herbert's review, say) to bulk up the notion of feminine narcissism and to trivialise the kinds of self-exploration MacLane makes in her story, which I think is more interesting than the usual cliche about self-exploration or teh internets. The reality of the internet is, as you say, more complex and more interesting than that.

Alison Croggon said...

(I'm hopping along in afterthoughts this morning.) The commonly held assumption about "navel-gazing twitterers and bloggers" is the dismissal to hand, and it's a response crucially inflected through unexamined gendered responses. Which is to say that reviews like Herbert's reproduce the gendered responses that take exception to a woman not only having an autonomous self, but writing about it in the way that men were able to do as a matter of entitlement. Would Thoreau be described as self-obssessed and narcissistic for publishing his diaries? "We should not endeavour to coolly analyze our thoughts, but ... make an accurate transcript of them." Ok for a man. In a woman, "eccentric" at best.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Been up for 36 hours and just come out of a screening of Wagner's Siegfried at the Met. (Seriously whiffy sexual politics, glorious production from LePage, and my word can Jay Hunter Morris sing.) Probably not going to make much sense, but I'm too tired to care.

No. I'm not at all arguing that the medieval period wasn't misogynistic. Yes. I am arguing that a blanket statement such as:

"Public life" in mediaeval Europe means literate life"

is anachronistic. Of course it's going to look like that to us because writing is one of the main sources of historical evidence that survives, and is of crucial importance to our lives today. But from the medieval perspective, very few people could read and even fewer could write. There were illiterate kings, and very literate nuns (Heloise has always been my favourite). The printing press hadn't been invented yet. Etc, etc. Certainly if we restrict "public life" to the community of the literate in medieval Europe, we're getting a very skewed picture.

But yep, can’t deny women were largely excluded from the literate world, a fact that continued to have pernicious effects on rates of female education and literacy well after MacLane's day. (And has now, according to the latest ABS figures, been reversed in this country, so that prose literacy rates are higher among women than men - as I've said elsewhere.)

I agree with you that MacLane was influenced by the Romantics and Victorians. Also that she was a poet and pioneer, part of the same revolution in literature as Austen, Eliot, the Brontes or any of the other female writers canvassed in Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's influential feminist survey of 19th-century women's lit The Madwoman In The Attic, which of course I haven't read due to my "real ignorance" of "feminist scholarship". ;)

I'm inclined to think the dearth of female writers throughout recorded history is actually an advantage to contemporary female writers. As Gilbert and Gubar wrote in the late 70s:

"In recent years ... where male writers seem increasingly to have felt exhausted by the need for revisionism which Bloom's theory of the 'anxiety of influence' accurately describes, women writers have seen themselves as pioneers in a creativity so intense that their male counterparts have probably not experienced its analog since the Renaissance, or at least since the Romantic era. The son of many fathers, today's male writer feels hopelessly belated: the daughter of too few mothers, today's female writer feels that she is helping to create a viable tradition which is at last definitely emerging."

I’ll get off your tits now: Chronic Insomnia, Five Hours of Wagner, Need for Revisionism … I’m exhausted.

Cameron Woodhead said...

This is my, like, thirteenth wind or something, but while we're doing weird asides, I'd note that extreme responses to the imprisoning experience of gender weren't and aren't unique to women: try the 3rd century theologian Origen, who according to Eusebius cut his own nuts off for God, or (to prove it still happens) the statistics on American male autocastration in David Foster Wallace's essay on the US porn industry "Big Red Son".

Yes keep thinking like that Cameron, that'll help your insomnia!

Alison Croggon said...

Cameron - if you've read and absorbed Gubar (and I hope there's more), why on earth would you then respond to a sober report on the present structural inequality in the publication and reviewing of books by women as "privileged whinging"? If women have higher literacy rates than men, why they are still such an egregious minority in the literary arts, in every major literary publication you can name?

I quite get that men can be victims of their own fiercely protected privilege. Much harder is to see that women as writers are advantaged by the structural inequalities - historical and contemporary - that mean their work is, in overt and not so overt ways, much more likely to be ignored, belittled and forgotten.

I was discussing writing - and although I quite see how that public life has many aspects, writing is how history is made. One of the achievements of feminist history has been the retrieval of notable writers (and others) who have been simply edited out by those who wrote the histories and chose which knowledge to preserve, simply because they were women, and therefore of less interest by definition.

Not sure what this has to do with MacLane. We have long wandered off.

Alison Croggon said...

Interesting. I don't think Origen's self mutilation is the same thing at all (whatever his state of mind, Origen would have had no problem with his authorisation as a male subject, which he would have been able to simply assume). It strikes me maybe as something like Attis, who did the same thing, some kind of ecstatic ultimate sacrifice for God.

Geoffrey said...


The end of Act One.

Cameron Woodhead said...


Don't be disingenuous. The creative advantage that Gilbert and Gubar (with whom I agree) draw from the structural inequality is quite clearly spelled out in the quotation above. Do you agree? If not, why not?

And you yourself point out the novelty advantage at the beginning of your review:

"Her best selling memoir The Story of Mary MacLane was published when she was 19, and sold 100,000 copies in its first month ... In 1902, this was unprecedented only in that it was a woman writing in such a way."

100,000 copies in its first month! Would MacLane have sold so many so quickly were she a boy? Very doubtful.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Origen's castration was part of a pattern of early Christian fathers resorting to extreme mortification of the flesh (see, eg, the Stylites or Pillar-Saints). According to Eusebius he took the Gospel of Matthew literally:

"For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from [their] mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive [it], let him receive [it]." Mat 19:12

38 hours...

Alison Croggon said...

Gilbert and Gubar were writing in the 1970s, at the crest of second wave feminism, and in a surge of optimistic faith that things were changing. There may be a truth about creative advantage, although I think that's highly arguable, and can be countered by many things: but whatever the case, the disadvantage that women still face has nothing to do with creativity, but with structurally embedded prejudice that means that no matter how creatively advantaged they might be, there's far less chance of anyone knowing about it.

In 2011, it's clear that wave of 1970s optimism foundered: it changed some important things, but others did not change, because they are less easily dealt with. The facts are are the facts, Cameron: those literary stats are unarguable. They're bad, and many things are getting worse for women. (As an aside, Sophie Cunningham gave a sobering summary of all the stats about women in Why We Still Need Feminism". I was there to hear the whole thing, and those endless crude stats showing the bad and diminishing place of women in almost every area of society were monumentally depressing).

But I'm not here to give you Feminism 101.

The fact that MacLane sold 100,000 copies isn't the salient fact here. Women writers commonly sold in their hundreds of thousands at that time: they tended to be the most popular authors. What matters is what happened afterwards, the erasure, MacLane's coinage only as "novelty". This happened in MacLane's own lifetime. As I said right at the beginning of that review, had she been a male writer of such intelligence, rebellion and originality, her chances of being remembered would have been much higher.

Also, if Origen cut off his balls as an ascetic act, what the hell does it have to do with women claiming their authority to speak? Bizarre behaviours proliferated in both cases, sure, but for very different reasons.

I am now heading off line...

Tim J said...

What an entertaining exchange between AC and CW - my question is this: It seems that (reading between the lines) you both ultimately had luke warm responses to this show- Yet is has sparked this vibrant debate. I wonder if this has changed your thoughts on the show. Has the "heady" joust given the piece more worth in retrospect? As a side note - I don't think women of this time had any choice but to be narcissitic when choosing to be outspoken - it was a pre-requisite. TJ

ride on theatre said...

Forgive me for responding SO LATE in the game. I wish I’d read this nerd off while it was at its peak, but alas, I have only just caught up on everything I was missing out on in 2011!

Straight up, Alison and Cameron, I want to say that I love reading both your blogs, about others as much as about myself. :)

With Mary, I am surprised at the level of attachment reviewers had to her life and writings, ranging from those who adored the show, to those who really disliked it. It is as if the expectation was to see a biopic rendition of her life and times.

The show was never intended to be that. Mary herself brings our attention to the lack of narrative, breaking the "curve" again and again. The music is a deliberate part of that break. Just as you think you know her, she stops you from getting any closer. Ultimately Mary's is the story of a woman who is grasping at ways to not feel alone. A story about the incredible ways a human heart and mind invents itself, as it strives for a life beyond the self, to be shared with many. Not a biographical tale of another female forgotten in history because of her gender.

This is why I am fascinated by the concentration of attention that has gone to the PAST when reflecting about the show, as opposed to the present or the future. It is just as relevant, if not more so, to compare her to women (and men) today. People who, like her, are utilising the most available mediums at their disposal, to share their thoughts with the world. In her time those were print, radio, film and book touring. In our time it is blogging, Facebook profiles and Twitter tweets.

This is why we reference blogging in the notes. And if that comparison feels superficial, it is only because it is so obvious. In an era of the cult of celebrity, where creating personas (sometimes completely false ones) is an epidemic, Mary would have a universe of people at her disposal. People who relate to her self diagnosed brilliance, sacrilege and narcissism. Would we even notice her, despite her brilliance? And who do we compare her with? Dolce, Edenland, Amy Sederis, David Sedaris, Janeane Gorafallo, Courtney Love, Charlotte Gainsburg, SbPoet, Mareke Hardy, Inner Pickle (you guys will like this. She's a foodie and self confessed medieval history nut), sh1ft, Caitlyn Nicholas, Lonely Girl...?

It is amazing to think that today someone can be posting an update, conversing with thousands of people from all over the world, while sitting alone in their room at 4 in the morning, feeling lonely, lost and abandoned. Mary had to use her imagination to believe she could reach this audience. Today it is a literal reality.

Alison, I (begrudgingly) hear you on the repetitions, and would love to talk to you about specifics. The show will be on in Sydney for 6 weeks, so if before then you could draw my attention to what bothered you, if it bothers me, I will fix it.

Cam, what can I say? You hated the show. It fascinates me that Chris Boyd loved everything you despised about it. May we all take our hats off to the fact he wanted more self indulgence.

I know for a fact that all of us have at some point in our lives sat alone in our room, lonely, depressed, desperate, not wanting to admit it, unintentionally deluded, imagining a better life, reinventing ourselves, playing fantasy, thinking, scheming, hoping to be saved. This is the Story of Mary MacLane by Herself today. The fact she was discouraged and forgotten due to gender is simply a fact. It happens still. What is fascinating, and what we should not fail to celebrate, is that today she is understood. People are, and were, courageous enough to talk about this. Those people were the general public.


PS. Just out of interest, who knew about Mary MacLane before they'd heard about this show?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Bojana - sorry for the delay in posting this (moderation kicks in after a fortnight to screen out spam, and I didn't see this until this morning). Great to hear from you! For my part, I hadn't heard of Mary MacLane before your show, but it prompted me to read everything I could find, because I was consumed with curiosity. And also because I was a little ashamed that I hadn't.

Interesting question about whether we would even notice Mary's self-diagnosed brilliance now. We heard all about Nietzsche's (the first book of his I read was his last, written just before he lost his mind, Ecce Homo, with chapter headings like Why I Am A Genius and Why I Am A Destiny). Would she be less remarkable, in the age of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan? Or would she simply be prescribed a course of Prozac?

In any case, history is interesting precisely because it illuminates the present. Sometimes I really do feel that we haven't moved much past the 19th century.

Very happy to talk details, if you wish, although I can't do that without a script. My email is on the blog, under Contact.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Tim J - apologies again, I missed you there. Just to clarify: my response wasn't "lukewarm". I enjoyed this show, found it a fascinating and (obviously) stimulating work of theatre.

One question: why would it be necessarily narcissistic for a woman to assert a public self? Does this mean all men with public selves are narccistic also?