Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty firstname.lastname@example.org
To paraphrase a question once posed by Virginia Woolf, what if Geoffrey Chaucer had had a sister? Would she have been like Margery Kempe? While their lives partially overlapped, Chaucer was dead by the time Margery undertook the more extraordinary parts of her life. Her father, John Burnham, was mayor of Bishop’s Lynn and a Member of Parliament, and conceivably could have crossed paths with Chaucer. Her husband too was the town mayor, and Margery appears to have been destined to lead an unremarkable but comfortable bourgeois life. But she gave birth to fourteen children, proved a failure as a brewer, negotiated a celibate separation from her husband, went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and to Rome, and she was also “in Galice at Seint-Jame, and at Coloigne” like the Wife of Bath, a Chaucerian character with whom she shared a number of traits, including an early fondness for ostentatious styles of dress. At first, Margery travelled on her own relying upon the kindness of strangers, but she seems to have undertaken her later travels in the company of her son, who may have been the first to transcribe parts of what we today call The Book of Margery Kempe.
Illiterate, Margery nonetheless knew of the writings of St. Bridget of Sweden, who was canonized during Margery’s lifetime—Wulp’s play has her actually in Rome during Bridget’s 1391 canonization ceremony—and consulted with Julian of Norwich, several years before the latter died: Julian assured Margery of the truth of her visions. At one point, Margery returned home to nurse her husband through his last illness. Her constant public weeping—out of spiritual joy—her unorthodox lifestyle—she often wore white in public against the prohibitions of the Church—and her tendency to preach in public brought her to the attention of the local clergy any number of times. She was accused of heresy—specifically of being a Lollard—but she was in each case exonerated of all charges.
While Margery and Julian have today belatedly earned a place in the literary and religious canons as mystics, John Wulp wrote his play and had it first produced in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1958. In the following year, a much revised version of the play opened off Broadway in New York with Frances Sternhagen as Margery, Gene Hackman as her long-suffering husband, and Charles Nelson Reilly in the supporting cast. Hope Emily Allen only discovered the sole surviving manuscript of Margery’s book in 1934, and her edition for the Early English Text Society did not appear until 1940. John Wulp is, therefore, a true pioneer in Kempe studies. The current New York revival, directed by Austin Pendleton, uses the original 1958 script. As Wulp notes in the program for this production, the play “tells the story of a woman who did not want her life to be defined either by men or by the strictures of her society. The gap between her ambitions and her ability embodies the entire human condition.”
The production uses no scenery and limited props as it traces Margery’s early determination to be something more than simply a wife and a mother, the male-prescribed virtuous options available to her. She decides that she will abandon husband and children—the script gives her but six children—and become a brewer, but her talents are less than suited to brewing, and her one chance at success in the trade stems from the distinction that she represents in being a female brewer. Men will flock to her to ogle at her as a novelty. Rather than determining her own destiny, she will simply become a victim of the medieval male gaze. Margery then decides that she will join forces with the devil, and lead a life of sin. But the devil she encounters only offers her yet another male-prescribed role, whore. Never one to accept adversity or a setback, Margery sets out instead to become a saint, but the male-dominated church demands a miracle as proof of her sanctity. Happily, one occurs soon enough in a somewhat unorthodox (very Margery) way when the roof of a chapel collapses on her, and she escapes with only a few scraps and scratches. Convinced of her own saintliness, and reluctantly blessed by the ecclesiastical authorities, Margery joins a ragtag group of pilgrims as they set out for the Holy Land and then return by way of Rome. Margery is not an easy travelling companion, but she manages to scrape by, and eventually returns to her husband and children to secure a roof over her head as she begins to dictate the book that would eventually bear her name.
That book’s significance lies in its being the first autobiography composed in English by a woman. But Margery would, thanks in part to the Reformation, disappear from both the literary and the theological landscape for centuries. And while Margery now has a more secure place in the canon, she still suffers from a male-prescribed ecclesiastical prejudice. Julian of Norwich, the anchorite who abandoned the world and embraced contemplative celibacy, is today venerated as an official saint by both the Anglican and the Evangelical Lutheran communions, and as a popular saint by Roman Catholics. Worldly Margery, the not quite totally rehabilitated fallen woman, has achieved no such recognition. Holy recognition and sexism still seem to go hand in hand. A male saint like Augustine could allegedly pray “Lord, make me pure, but not quite yet.” Women still seem to have fewer options, and less readily receive forgiveness and absolution.
Andrus Nichols as Margery Kempe
Andrus Nichols makes a wonderful Margery—lively, self-assured, yet difficult to put up with—the real Margery’s bouts of prolonged public weeping were met with decidedly mixed reactions by those who endured them. The other members of the cast double and triple up on roles, and do so admirably. Pendleton’s direction is steady. John Wulp has had a distinguished career as a producer, scenic designer, director and artist since writing his Margery play, which won him a Rockefeller Grant. He subsequently would earn an Obie Award, a Tony, a Drama Desk Award, and an Outer Circle Critics Award, among other recognitions for his later work in the theater. This revival of The Saintliness of Margery Kempe is part of a wave of theatrical medievalism in New York. This past Spring saw a Broadway production of Shaw’s Saint Joan, and the Fall will bring a production of Jane Anderson’s Mother of the Maid, with Glenn Close as Joan’s Mother, further downtown at the Public Theater. That play has been advertised as the “tale of Joan of Arc, as seen through the eyes of her mum who is doing her very best to accept the fact that her daughter is different.”
The Saintliness of Margery Kempe by John Wulp at The Duke Theater on 42nd Street in New York, produced by the Perry Street Theatre Company and Jonathan Demar in association with Frederick M. Zollo and Diane Procter. Directed by Austin Pendleton. Featuring Vance Barton, Latonya Borsay, Timothy Doyle, Michael Genet, Ginger Grace, Andrus Nichols, Jason O’Connell, Pippa Peartree, and Thomas Sommo. July 5-August 26, 2018.
Kevin J. Harty, La Salle University