Wollstonecraft Live! – In Search of Mary Back

In the #MeToo era, the cultural prominence of Mary Wollstonecraft is on the rise. In June, the commissioning platform ‘Wollstonecraft Presents’ hosted talks and performances at the Stoke Newington Literary festival. In September, artist and publisher Louisa Albani held a Mary Wollstonecraft Open Weekend in collaboration with Heritage Open Days at St Pancras Old Church in Somers Town, the resting place Wollstonecraft shares with William Godwin. The event followed the publication earlier this year of Albani’s pamphlet, Ghost Ship: an art project inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘Letters from Norway’. This month the Bloomsbury Literary Festival (17-21 October) is staging three performances of Mary, Mary…-Further than the Edge, a work-in-progress piece which forms part of the research and development project for a longer play about the points of contact between Wollstonecraft’s personal life and political convictions. The play is funded by the Arts Council and written by Rowenna Mortimer in collaboration with the actors. These events look forward to 29 April 2019, the 260th anniversary of Wollstonecraft’s birth, when Senate House will host a celebration of her life, her multi-faceted œuvre, and her legacy, including discussions of plans for new networks and societies.

In their different ways, these projects and events seek to secure Wollstonecraft’s place not only in literature and feminist history, where her importance has been recognised for some time, but also in the cultural mythology of modern feminism and – ironically, given her repudiation of national identity towards the end of her life – in the pantheon of British icons. These attempts to define Wollstonecraft’s legacy invite questions about how we conceptualise her life and works for and within our own time-bound and culturally-conditioned perspective. How can we portray her unique selfhood in ways that take account of her historical and cultural context but also speak to our contemporary moment? Wollstonecraft’s thought is often relevant to present-day politics and society, but even her most devoted admirers acknowledge that her texts are dense, allusive, and potentially inaccessible to a modern lay audience. The vital work of transmission, then, might easily become one of mistranslation, appropriation, and distortion. Wollstonecraft Live!, a multimedia production staged at New Unity in Newington Green on 29 September, speaks to these concerns. In 2004, filmmaker Kaethe Fine was commissioned to write the script for London-based multimedia production company Fragments and Monuments, which aims to find interactive and dynamic ways of commemorating women’s achievements for local and global audiences. The Artistic Director, Anna Birch, directed the New Unity performance. Part-film and part-live performance, Wollstonecraft Live! functions both as a celebration of the woman and her works and a self-reflexive meditation on what it means to memorialise her.

Built in 1708, New Unity is London’s oldest Dissenting chapel, defined by its minister and congregation as a ‘non-religious church’ dedicated to advancing the cause of social justice taken up by their nonconformist forebears. There are plaques honouring the rationalist theologian and philosopher Richard Price, who became minister at the chapel in 1758, and Anna Laetitia Barbauld, whose husband took up pastoral duties in 1802. As mistress of a school in Newington Green in the 1780s, Wollstonecraft attended the chapel and looked on Price as a friend and mentor, developing the radical politics and idiosyncratic faith that would later undergird her pathbreaking feminist thought and her support for democratic republicanism.

Since 2010, the ‘Mary on the Green’ campaign has worked to give Wollstonecraft the public recognition demanded by her inimitable contribution to literature and her pivotal role in the struggle for women’s rights. Part of this endeavour involves raising capital funds for a memorial statue on Newington Green, designed by celebrated sculptor Maggi Hambling CBE. The statue will provide a focal point for events designed to raise awareness of Wollstonecraft’s works and secure her legacy for future generations. New Unity has just been awarded £1.73million from the Heritage Lottery fund for a major renovation project in 2019. When the chapel reopens in January 2020, it will have a new visitor centre and outreach programme, but as it stands now in all its down-at-heel, understated beauty, it was still an atmospheric setting for a candlelit performance of Wollstonecraft Live!. I spoke to Anna Birch and her cast beforehand, who had the briefest of rehearsal periods leading up to the event, and there was universal excitement at the prospect of bringing Wollstonecraft to life for an audience of enthusiasts. Each and every one of the cast brought a corresponding energy and commitment to their performance.

Wollstonecraft Live! begins with a film projected onto the wall of the chapel. This is a scene from a fictional Hollywood biopic starring Ros Philips as Wollstonecraft. It seeks to capture Wollstonecraft’s first meeting with her future husband, William Godwin, at one of Joseph Johnson’s Tuesday-evening dinner parties. Famously, Godwin wanted to talk to Tom Paine and was irritated by her interruptions. Philips portrays an earnest and energetic Wollstonecraft debating democracy with leading radical thinkers of the Johnson circle, placing her politics deftly in the context of the French Revolution. A little too conveniently, in the same scene Paine encourages Wollstonecraft to write the work she is most famous for: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Still, the script is impeccably researched and rich in contextual detail and the scene offers the audience a beguiling glimpse of Wollstonecraft and her milieu. When it comes to an end, however, the fourth wall is immediately broken: the live performance takes us ‘outside’ to Newington Green where the audience become extras in the fictional biopic. Both the actors and the audience are filmed throughout by a camera crew, making the latter participants in an attempt to conjure the spirit of Wollstonecraft in the place she lived and worshipped. Her life story unfolds through dialogue centred around the casting of the film and attempts to understand and rehearse prose from her literary corpus and letters. There is also comic relief from bored extras who at first have no idea who Wollstonecraft is but whose dawning realisation of her significance amounts to a naïve but poignant commentary on the work of memorialisation.

The cast includes three different Marys – appropriate given Wollstonecraft’s continued appeal to women across a spectrum of age groups, social classes, and ethnicities. The three women are first presented as actors rehearsing lines from Wollstonecraft’s works in a bid to secure the title role in a biopic of her life, but as the play shuttles back and forth from the Revolutionary era to the present day, they also appear as spectral incarnations of the author. It is easy to get lost in this labyrinth of fragmented narrative, but one can always grasp the thread of Wollstonecraft’s words, reiterated like a litany throughout. As the Sound Mixer and Boom Operator work to set up the tracking shot, individual passages, phrases, and single words are isolated in sound loops. This fragmentation of the dialogue draws attention to key passages but also functions as a reminder of the fractured state of any historical narrative.

On the film set, the identity of ‘Wollstonecraft’ is not only reshaped every time a different actor interprets the role, it also depends on the professional judgment and contemporary prejudices of the Assistant Director and the Casting Director. For instance, the latter wants a sexy leading lady and objects to the sorrowful tenor of Wollstonecraft’s lines. She has an eye on the imagined contemporary audience who, she believes, will be turned off by the language of sentiment. The dialogue provides a satirical commentary on the preoccupations of the film industry. More importantly, however, it invites reflection on the way commercial interests and gendered assumptions can shape Hollywood biopics of women, flattening complex personhood into clichéd narratives of frustration and victimhood or – patronising in their own way – one-dimensional portraits of feisty, go-getting feminists.

Alongside the contenders for the role of Mary, the Actor Cast as Godwin draws on the research he has done for his role to rehearse lines from the script and reflect on the significance of performing in the chapel and on the Green. His narrative of Wollstonecraft’s life takes its tone of admiration and lament from Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ (1798). This is a potentially problematic source insofar as Godwin’s grief-stricken portraiture has inspired some tendentious ad feminam readings of Wollstonecraft’s works; but Wollstonecraft Live! never suggests that the Memoirs should be regarded as the definitive narrative of her life and significance. Any sense of certainty is disrupted not only by the disjointed structure of the live performance but also by the Boom Operator, who wanders the aisles working to create the silent track that will drown out the noise of our modern era. Waving the boom like a periscope, she too seems to be in search of a Wollstonecraft who proves elusive. The performance builds to its climax with the tracking shot, the marriage between Godwin and Wollstonecraft, who is already visibly pregnant with the child whose birth will kill her. The shot demands audience participation, blurring the boundary between performance and spectatorship just as the play draws attention to the pitfalls and uncertainties inherent in its project of outreach and commemoration. If Wollstonecraft Live! is postmodern in its self-consciousness, it also has the emotional intensity and spontaneity of abstract expressionism – disorientating but powerful.

Wollstonecraft Live!, written by Kaethe Fine and directed by Anna Birch, was performed at New Unity, Newington Green on 29 September 2018.