The Tragedy of Mariam by Elizabeth Cary

It.s funny how the mind seems wired to detect meaningful coincidence, or, in other words, synchronicity out of the jumble of everyday events. Or perhaps it.s good at detecting them because there are meaningful coincidences in our lives! Synchronicity or Littlewood.s Law, you decide! Today I was at Russell.s Books striking out looking for various history titles (Machiavelli, Ibn Khaldun, and Amiannus Marcellinus). But in the Classics section, there was a slender title The Tragedy of Mariam by Elizabeth Cary. It so turns out last weekend, there was a Globe & Fail article by Kate Taylor entitled: We Need to Speak Out About Sexism in the Arts:

If you go to the theatre tonight, you will probably see a play that was written by a man and directed by a man. If a major art show is on your to-do list this weekend, it will probably feature the work of a male artist. If you go to a Hollywood movie, you’ll notice when the credits roll that the director is a man and so are all the screenwriters. Despite all the liberalism of the practitioners, the arts are a really sexist place. Women tend to be equally or overrepresented in theatre schools, film programs and art colleges, but once they graduate they find their male colleagues have more luck launching successful creative careers and are more likely to be offered leadership roles in arts organizations, while the women may find themselves ghettoized in supporting roles such as stage management, marketing and communications.

So, I had been thinking on the question on why there are so few female artists already when I stumbled upon The Tragedy of Mariam. While I could recall female poets (Sappho), composers (Southam), novelists (Kingsolver), and painters (Kahlo…but of course, being in Victoria one must remember to mention the mighty Carr!), I could not think of one female playwright. Instead of walking home with books by male historians, I walked home with a tragedy by Elizabeth Cary.

This is the Broadview edition. They must be a specialty publishing house; haven.t run across them before. There.s a Julia Cameron photograph of ‘Ophelia’ on the cover:


It.s a rather haunting photograph, especially if this is Shakespeare.s Ophelia that she has in mind (which the flower on the lapel would seem to suggest). The face is relaxed, but some tension is visible in the neck. And with the mouth partially agape, the image looks more like a mask. The back blurb reads:

First published in 1613, The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry is the first play in English known to have been authored by a woman, and it has become increasingly popular in the study of early modern women’s writing. The play, which Cary based on the story of Herod and Mariam, turns on a rumour of Herod’s death, and it unfold around the actions taken by the patriarch’s family and servants in his absence. In part a critique of male power, the play sets gender politics in sharp relief against a background o dynastic conflict and Roman imperialism.

I can.t wait to read this play. To be honest, I had not thought the first play I would run into by a female dramatist would be a tragedy. Here.s why. In a way, to me tragedy is at once the hardest and easiest type of drama to compose. It.s easy because the themes come pre-generated from either myth or history. If writing comedy, chances are you have to fabricate all the characters and situations from scratch. With tragedy, you can use myth or history and here Cary has turned to Josephus The Wars of the Jews and The Antiquities of the Jews for the material. It.s harder because it.s emotionally taxing. To bring beautiful characters to life and then to savage them without mercy so that all their best intents come to nothing seems to me to require an emotional distance. Goethe recounted this to Eckermann in his Conversations with Eckermann: he could never be a tragedian of the first rank because he lacked the final bit of detachment and emotional distance necessary to put the tragic into tragedy. I had always thought women in general to be more emotionally aware than men. To me, that would be an impediment to writing tragedy seeing that tragedy requires a sense of detachment.

But hey, it.s so much better to challenge our presuppositions rather than to reaffirm them! I.m glad The Tragedy of Mariam caught my eye at Russell.s Books and I.m looking forward to the read. It.s billed as being in the Senecan style, so it should be a gusher. That it.s Senecan is also a minor surprise, seeing that Marlowe in the 1590s had revolted against the classical Senecan model of drama to launch what may be called the ‘tragedy of the individual’ with his productions of Tamburlaine and Faustus. These in turn paved the way for Shakespeare. So it.s interesting that in 1613 Cary would have went back to a Senecan model (which is what inspired plays such as Gorboduc written in the generation prior to Marlowe and Shakespeare). A bit of an atavism. Stay tuned for more, diligent readers! Mariam versus Herod, what will happen? Until next time, I am Edwin Wong and I will be testing the limits of Doing Melpomene.s Work.