Originally posted on October 17, 2016 by Malvika Jolly
For the upcoming week, Mary Shelley dramaturge Malvika Jolly will be guest posting here with all manner of dramaturgical research and documentation that goes into bringing our play to life! Here you will find short essays, photos & video from the rehearsal process, and other tasty tidbits that help us flesh out the social, political, and performative landscapes of “Mary Shelley Sees the Future”. This is part one in the series.
In the Runaways’ newest production, we delve into the interior worlds of one of the 19th century’s most radical— and scandalous— families. Visionaries and early drafters of many of the political and literary ideas we hold so dear— Feminism! Anarchism! Raising daughters as humans! The modern thriller! The gothic! The dystopian science fiction novel!
At the same time, the Godwin/Wollstonecraft family was subject to all the notoriety, accusations, and bad-reputation that, it would seem, comes folded into the alternative lifestyle.
By consequence, the characters that populate playwright Olivia Lilley’s play arrive already deeply interconnected by the threads of scandal: teenage sisters conspiring their escape, suicide, poverty, elopements, serial marriages, dalliances, and numerous love affairs (past, present, and to come) all within the same incestuous circle, illegitimate children, abandoned lovers, group sex, and the ghosts of children lost and miscarried.
In her time-traveling epic, playwright Olivia Lilley chooses to hone in on the two sisters Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont and their (delightfully cross-cast) parental figure William Godwin. Together, the two Wollstonecraft sisters navigate a world of harsh propriety and rigid social conduct as women who have returned to mainstream society and find themselves painted scarlet.
But wait! We can’t forget Mary Wollstonecraft, mother to Mary Shelley. Nor should we forget the eldest Wollstonecraft sister, Fanny Imlay (whose story is diffused into Claire’s in our play). Both are characters who— though technically absent from the world of our play— still hold a palpable presence.
Here is an introduction— a family portrait— of the Wollstonecraft sisters and their progenitors.
~ M A R Y W O L L S T O N E C R A F T ~
“A brilliant star in her firmament”, describes Moyra Davey in her film/essay on Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughters The Wet and the Dry.
“…A brilliant star in her firmament, a passionate, early advocate of women’s, children’s, human rights, and an enlightened defender of truth and justice: a radical.”
Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 (exactly ten years after Goethe!) and the themes of her future work were crystallized, in many ways, by three things:
First, her family’s dire poverty; she eventually supported herself and her six largely uncared-for siblings with her writing.
Second, the profound gender-based violence she encountered from an early age, from her father Edward John Wollstonecraft who, in fits of drunken rage, would beat her mother— an experience that would impact Wollstonecraft so much that in her teenaged years she apparently would sleep lying over the doorstep to her mother’s bedroom in order to keep an eye out.
And third, her incredibly close and collaborative friendships (first with Jane Arden, then with Fanny Blood) which created the nurturing environments of literary and philosophic thought that would create Mary Wollstonecraft the radical, the feminist.
Over the course of her life, she wrote many texts, but most prominently A Vindication of the Rights of Woman which makes arguments for the equality of the sexes, the significance of women to the nation as the educators of its future generations, why reason and emotion should work hand in hand, and specific plans for the education of children.
In Olivia Lilley’s play, when the current-day, Logan Square dwelling, student-loan-flouting, experimental drug-using Mya— having traveled through time to 1822 England— finds herself standing on Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave delivering a kind of eulogy, she says:
“Thanks For writing all that Literature With Godwin About how to raise a daughter as a human being Rather than a daughter”.
What she is referring to is Wollstonecraft’s first published work Thoughts on the Education of Daughters.
Moreover, Wollstonecraft also wrote on the French revolution, as well as novels that criticized the patriarchal and— in her opinion, antiquated— institution of marriage, citing, in particular, its negative consequences on women.
In short, Mary Wollstonecraft was a straight thug.
“She went to Paris to witness the revolution, and lived to tell of the bloody terror of 1793. She was a woman with enormous intellectual capabilities and savoir-faire.”
(Writes Davey— whose prose is so clean and so crisp that I can’t resist citing large chunks of her phenomenal essay and film The Wet and The Dry.)
“…But she also suffered from depression, and broken-hearted over the rejection by her lover, Gilbert Imlay, drank laudanum. In an attempt to revive her he offered a mission of travel to Scandinavia to investigate one of his murky business affairs.” Perhaps because she thought that staying, at the very least, in contact with and necessary to her love might lead to the ultimate success of their love affair, or perhaps because she needed the money, or perhaps just for wanderlust— she set off.
In 1795 she set off on the dangerous ocean voyage— with her two-year-old daughter Fanny (whom she had with baby daddy Gilbert Imlay), and a French maid.
Says Davey: “Like Goethe on his travels to Italy, Wollstonecraft wrote letters to Imlay chronicling her observations and emotional responses to the landscape and peoples of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Her heartbreak is softly intimated in the letters, but mostly she reflects and reports with a journalist’s eye on the native customs: a feather bed so soft and deep it is like “sinking into the grave”; children swaddled in heavy insalubrious layers of flannel; airless homes heated with stoves instead of fires…”
(Later on, she composed these letters into the book Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. It was published in 1796 and made her extremely popular. Her future husband William Godwin remarked that if any book was designed to make a man fall in love with its author, this was it!)
Her second suicide attempt took place shortly. Only five months after the first botched laudanum attempt, she returned to London and, having confirmed that Imlay had a lover, jumped from a bridge after having walked up and down the street in the rain, so that that she would jump in rain-soaked clothes. She anticipated, correctly, that this would make her descent just that more quick.
She was saved by a boatman, and soon after came into the company of William Godwin, whom she married within the year (despite the fact that neither of the two really believed in marriage!). Despite not getting along at first, they ended up deeply in love.
The story goes that the night before she went into labor with her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft read Goethe’s novella Sufferings of Young Werther aloud with her husband. The next night she gave birth to the child who would grow up to become Mary Shelley. However, the delivery was “botched, the placenta did not descend, and a doctor’s unwashed hands reached into the womb to tear it out”.
As the character Mya in our play also acknowledges, there is a tragic irony to Mary Wollstonecraft’s death during childbirth, given her own enlightened advocacy of simple hygiene and non-intervention in the care of infants and mothers. “…Suspicious of doctors, she was a believer in wholesomeness and common sense in an age of superstition and quackery.”
Malvika Jolly loves all things gender-bending, time-warped, & body-swapped. She tweets @dinnertheatrics