Originally posted on November 3, 2016
by Malvika Jolly
For the upcoming weeks, 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 to help us flesh out the social, political, and performative landscapes of “Mary Shelley Sees the Future”. This is part three in the series.
Midway through Mary Shelley Sees the Future, there is a scene in which Mary Shelley, for a few brief moments, encounters her husband Percy Shelley (or the specter of Percy Shelley) in Gaslight Coffee Roasters (You know the one— the one that juts out like a peninsula on the corner of Milwaukee and Fullerton). It is a packed Friday afternoon 200 years after their era, Percy Shelley is dead via shipwreck, and he also has no place to sit.
So they share a table.
This scene is one of the moments of the play that transcend the “realism” of the play (as much realism as can exist in a play that hinges on a time warp, that is). It is unclear whether this man is what he at first appears to be— simply a disgruntled hipster with an antiquated name (“Percival”)— or if he is who he, moments later, metamorphoses into: Percy, the poet. And also Percy, the soft-voiced husband who asks her, tenderly, How does she like it here? Has she had time to at least take in the view? And, is she here to stay?
At the emotional sweet-spot of this scene, he responds to each of Mary’s questions with a chorus of “My dear, it is your choice”. At this moment it feels crystal clear that he is what he appears to be. But let’s unfold the implications of this: is Percy Shelley on his own journey, playing hooky from death and traveling through time to track Mary Shelley down? Or is he a kind of spectral spirit possession, occupying the body of some unsuspecting 21st century kid for a few moments in order to commune with his wife, across time and across the grave? Or is he— as he himself suggests— all a figment of Mary Shelley’s vast imagination? A hallucination that we, the audience, are privy to as well?
MARY: How did you get here?
PERCY: The same way you did or I might not be here at all I might be in your head
MARY: (whispers) You are dead
PERCY: I am poetry You, of all people, should know That is how I wanted to live on
It is the kind of magical-realism that causes you to hold your breath.
This scene, this whispered conversation, hovers gently a few feet above reality. When watching it in Sunday night’s show, I noticed the audience growing still, especially silent as they watched Dan Mozurkewich transform before their eyes. This rupture-in-realism infused the minutiae of every gesture, every syllable, every breath, every tick: each one signifying worlds more than it might’ve a moment before. It is as if the moment onstage existed in a bubble or void: caught at a point of precipice, the intimacy of the meeting is wholly puncture-able… and should not exist.
In the early weeks of rehearsal while discussing the eeriness / dissonance of this scene, someone brought up an interesting theory: We know that Mya dabbles in a variety of experimental drugs… So wouldn’t it be plausible that the psychological and chemical traces of those hallucinogens might still be swimming around in her synapses, even when Mary Shelley is occupying her body? It’s not uncommon for hallucinogens to cause flashbacks, after all. Wouldn’t it make sense if Mary, experiencing the world through the perception and the brain of a drug addict, might experience the world with a sometimes-tenuous hold on reality?
I won’t try and tell you that this is unquestionably true, or unquestionably false. After all, a strange kind of cognitive dissonance is the very lifeblood of the whole enchilada! (And by enchilada, I mean play). However, I do think this theory bursts open a whole bunch of incredibly fascinating and amusing pathways of speculation!
Right off the bat, it provides a “scientific”, “realistic”, or “secular” explanation and arguable premise to what is definitely the most “unrealistic” ingredient of the play: time-travel. (Or time-travel paired with a body-swap).
But why wouldn’t we want a play (and especially a play as fun and saucy as this one) to be a tad unrealistic, unscientific? Improbability is the key world here. And improbability tells us much more about a work of literature or art these days than simply whether or not it is realistic.
As the novelist Amitav Ghosh explains in his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable:
“Probability and the modern novel are in fact twins, born at about the same time, among the same people, under a shared star that destined them to work as vessels for the containment of the same kind of experience.”
One of the greatest transformations of modernist literature came with the decision that literature should be plausible. Whereas before, the question of whether or not a work of art was “believable” was simply not a question that popped up in one’s mind— works of literature and drama could be absurd! Fantastical! In fact the entire point was, in some ways, the telling of tall tales— in the late 19th — early 20th century, suddenly, whether the work we are experiencing is “believable” becomes very urgent. Plausibility conveys authenticity.
Consider, also, that we are re-hashing the age-old debate between The Romantics (Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Trelawney, and the gang) and the rationalists of The Enlightenment (of whom Mary’s father William Godwin was a part).
What this time-travel-hallucinogenic-theory accomplishes is to push what was previously un-explained— the time-warp is explained only in passing as Mary Shelley’s “wish on a star” moment, and as a decision the 21st century Mya probably had time to prepare for, but no more is said— firmly in the direction of believability. The time-warp may not be “realistic”, per say, but it is certainly closer to center in the gradient in a continuum of probability.
It also allows us to hold onto the wonder and… preciousness… of the transformation, and not compromise that moment.
Freaky Friday also uses a device to explain & instigate a body-swap. It arrives innocuously as an un-tasty fortune cookie… What I think is really novel about Olivia’s play is that she presents us with no easy explanation, instigator, or device, and so we are left to hypothesize about experimental drugs, stars-wished-upon, etc. Furthermore, from this discussion about time travel and its causes, we can unpack more questions: about Probability, Realism, and Magic, how time works in this world.
And— what exactly are the rules of engagement in this world Olivia Lilley has created?
As food for thought, I’ll leave you with Amitav Ghosh’s meditation on the consequences of improbable events and “strange happenings” in prose, and the cursed genres within serious literature:
To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence; it is to risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house— those generic outhouses that were once known by names such as “the Gothic”, “the romance”, or “the melodrama”, and have now come to be called “fantasy”, “horror”— and “science fiction”.
Malvika Jolly loves all things gender-bending, time-warped, & body-swapped. She tweets @dinnertheatrics