In Conversation with Emilia, by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm

maddy costa
Jul 14 · 16 min read
Three Emilias. Photo by Helen Murray

Background information before we begin: this conversation is between Maddy Costa (UK) who saw Emilia at the Globe in August 2018, and Caridad Svich (US) who saw a lot of tweets about Emilia and read the script in April 2019 through the generosity of its playwright, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm.

Dear Caridad

Let’s think of this as keeping the flame alight. Because Emilia closed at the Vaudeville on the first day of June, but the conversation it holds with women’s writing, and women’s autonomy, and women’s place in society, is not one that ends. It’s months now since I’ve seen it — I didn’t see the West End transfer but the original Globe production, and almost missed it, because it played there in what I call the graveyard shift, three weeks in August when most young theatre-makers are in Edinburgh for the festival and most tourists to the UK interested in theatre are in Edinburgh for the festival and most of the key critics are, you guessed it, in Edinburgh for the festival. So for me it’s part of Emilia’s uncontained blaze that this play given so little faith ended up having this extraordinary, triumphant West End run, which prompted me and you to talk about it.

You haven’t seen it, only read it, so I’m intrigued for a start what that felt like. But also, you’ve been an interested bystander to the outpouring of love for it online, emailing me at the start of April to note: “It’s as if impression is Morgan has invented the wheel”. That piqued my curiousity too: you read a whole bunch more plays than me, and have a knowledge of theatre history that I don’t, so I’m starting this dialogue in the hopes of learning a fair bit. But also, I’m starting it because of this passage in Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s text, spoken by Emilia 3 — the oldest Emilia, the fiercest and most galvanising:

“Search for this now and you won’t see it. Look for this in words and it won’t be there. Almost nothing is kept. Nothing is remembered. But in our muscles we feel it. Memories of intention. Memories of need and fury and pain. We hear the echoes bounding down the passage of time and into our dreams. We read what was recorded and we see what is missing. We see what they did not want us to write down.”

I write to you in hopes of seeing what is missing — perhaps not to everyone, but certainly to me.

Dear Maddy

I am writing to you while rereading Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom (1976). It was written for the company Monstrous Regiment Theatre (active from 1975–1993, and now as an online resource with new website at monstrousregiment.co.uk). The resounding commercial success of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia has prompted me to go back a bit to the mid-1970s — not that far back, historically, but still. A time when feminist theatre both in the US and UK (to limit ourselves at the moment to this transatlantic dialogue) coincided with the post-suffrage feminist movement alongside the civil rights movement. Those born in the 1968 generation or close grew up with these movements as their earliest childhood memories. Given that we are now in a tumultuous time in global politics, and that there is also a reconsideration of feminism and its herstories and trans-histories, it is useful to take stock, as it were, of where a play like Emilia fits in.

I remember picking up a copy of Vinegar Tom in college, when I had suddenly ‘discovered’ the work of Caryl Churchill and the works too of Adrienne Kennedy, Ntozake Shange, Maria Irene Fornes, Honor Moore, Rochelle Owens, Jane Chambers, Sarah Daniels, Karen Finley, Timberlake Wertenbaker, and Kathy Acker, and later, by delving into herstory a bit more, the works, to name a few, of Mae West, Cora Ann Mowatt, Susan Glaspell, Sophie Treadwell, and Gertrude Stein (of course). At the time, my chief and albeit limited interaction with cis female-written English-language drama was with the works of Lillian Hellman, whose plays I found rather a chore, to be honest. That is, Hellman’s plays somehow felt rigid and almost as if it was mimicking cis-het male patriarchal structures, even when it was positioning female-identifying characters in the lead. So, curiously enough, I felt alienated from Hellman, even though she was one of the few cis women that figured prominently, and heroically, on the shelves of the drama section of the college library.

Vinegar Tom, though, acted as a kind of gateway play to seek out not only more of Churchill’s plays but those by other women. I was starting to define myself as a playwright, but felt I had few role models. If it hadn’t been due to my own curiosity as well as recommendations by professors, I don’t think I would have read many of the plays by women that I ended up reading. They were certainly not on my syllabus in theatre history class! The only ones that were featured, then, were Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes and Cora Ann Mowatt’s Fashion, and they were on the ancillary reading list, not the primary reading list. Admittedly, it was a small state college, with a stretched-to-the-limit faculty, and I am sure everyone there was doing the best they could at the time. But I often wonder what would have happened if I had not been curious enough to seek work out? Would my understanding of Western, mostly, sadly, Eurocentric drama, as it was taught at the college, be limited to the historical jumps from Everyman to Sophocles to Shakespeare to Restoration plays to Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard, and maybe Sam Shepard?

Interestingly enough, if the recent spate of theatrical revivals in London and New York (again, to work within this very limited but commercial, capitalist paradigm of production for the sake of this dialogue) are any indication, it seems as if this limited ‘syllabus’ still holds sway. What kind of world would we live in if, instead of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and The Crucible, the repertoire of revivals brought to light works by the wilfully forgotten women of theatre? I have to admit that every time I hear yet another version of A Doll’s House or Three Sisters is being commissioned and scheduled for production at a major venue, however ultimately well-done and intentioned, my heart just sinks.

In the production credits listing in the front matter of Vinegar Tom’s published script, Monstrous Regiment is listed as the producing company. The name was mighty! Infectious! I wanted to know more about this Monstrous Regiment! As it turns out, they were one of the first feminist theatre companies in the UK. Alongside them were Women’s Theatre Group and Clean Break (which is still going strong), to name just two more. Not only did Monstrous Regiment produce Churchill’s play but also work by Bryony Lavery (whose impact on UK theatre is taken for granted, I think), Honor Moore, Wendy Kesselman, devised works and more. So, why don’t we hear about them as much as we should? Or other significant companies that were pioneers? Heck, why don’t we revive some of that work instead? If history, as one saying goes, is what gets handed down, then what kind of history is being handed down to this generation and the next (if we get there), if the same plays and authors monopolize the repertoire?

All this brings me, of course, to Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia. Clearly, Lloyd Malcolm is very directly addressing the question of historical recuperation in Emilia Lanier nee Bassano’s case, even though she is doing it, ironically, through historically inaccurate means by choice. Whose stories get told and why? Whom de we celebrate and why? What would happen if we all read and saw Lanier nee Bassano, Mary Pix, Aphra Behn and more cis-female poets and dramatists roaring on stages that present classical work?

Lloyd Malcolm has written an exuberant, direct, funny romp of a play, and I do not use the word ‘romp’ pejoratively. But while I was reading it, I thought, ‘ah, yes, this is a comedy. A big populist comedy that channels its rage through humour.’ Not an uncommon strategy! Get them laughing, get them comfortable, and through that lens, get them thinking. Though I also thought, ‘why is it that even though I am reading about Emilia as voiced by Lloyd Malcolm, I want to know more about Emilia?’ That is to say, even though Lloyd Malcolm presents a time-hopping journey through episodes in Emilia’s life, and yes, there is that barn-storming speech at the very end of the play, which is massively effective in playing straight to the gut and asking us to ‘burn the whole fucking house down,’ why don’t I feel as if I know Emilia?

I have no answers here. Just posing questions. But some things I am thinking about are:

By choosing to write within a recognizably cis-het male dramaturgical structure, is Lloyd Malcolm risking the possibility of reinforcing the notion that Emilia needs to be seen through a cis-het male lens, albeit voiced by a cis-female, to be seen at all?

Is the galvanizing and beautiful response to Emilia the play as Emilia the undeniable cultural phenomenon linked to its connection still to Shakespearean tradition?

If this had not been a Globe commission, which may have posed its own restrictions and parameters (do you know?), what might have happened with the play itself? Could it have chucked Shakespeare altogether? Do we need Shakespeare to validate Emilia in a weird way?

How does Emilia fit or not fit within the feminist theatre tradition in the UK? Is there a thread from, say, Monstrous Regiment, to name one, to Lloyd Malcolm, Prebble, Kirkwood, debbie tucker green, Winsome Pinnock, Polly Stenham, Rash Dash, Tanika Gupta, Ella Hickson, Alice Birch, etc? (Note that I do not include Sarah Kane here, because she expressly did not wish to be included in so-called second wave feminist theatre.)

I’ll leave you with this for the moment, because it is very much on my mind, and that is: yes, burn the house the fuck down, but then what? What to build instead? Is it just about repairing the same house? Or making a new house altogether? Can that new house, thinking along Cixous-like lines now, really be new, if it still contains the recognizable ashes of what came before, or can it startle reader/audiences toward a truly different way of seeing?

Dear Caridad

You’ve reminded me of another company — Strip Search Theatre, active in the late-1980s and 1990s. I met one of their co-founders, Anna Reading, a few years ago when writing about precedents to the kind of audience engagement work Fuel were experimenting with in a touring research project, New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood, that I was both participating in by hosting theatre clubs and other conversations, but also documenting. Anna told me that her company “built post-show conversation into the fabric of the evening”, and I found it so reassuring to know that there were these people who had worked in exactly the way I am trying to work — but also infuriating, that I had to find out about it almost by accident, that it isn’t just there in the culture, as accepted and practised as other apparently standard ways of working in theatre.

I remember, too, walking out of the Globe desperately wanting a hug, but also a conversation — really, a delve into all those questions you raise. The play absolutely felt like a riposte to the Globe and the place of women on that stage in Shakespeare’s time, but also somewhat hampered by the responsibility of that: the responsibility of tuning in to the voices of the women struggling to survive in the shadows of it. I wonder if that’s why you felt like you didn’t know Emilia: because in effect she is a cipher for unheard voices, not a single woman but all the silenced women.

Emilia’s plurality is emphasised in the construction of the character herself as not one voice but three, roughly divided by age, but further differentiated in the production by skin colour. A black female friend of mine noticed a couple of perhaps unintentional but troubling colourism effects of this casting: the younger Emilias have also a lighter complexion; it is the darkest-skinned woman who delivers the firebrand speech at the end. My friend wondered: why is it that black women have to carry the anger of the world (and also be vilified for it)? Why is it that black women have to start movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too? As often happens with this friend, she opened my eyes to something else I hadn’t fully seen, through her own vigilant attention.

Recently another friend introduced me to the brilliant phrase “neurotic vigilance”, which they coined to reflect on the intense attention to difference, identity and inclusion happening in our corner of the theatre/performance world just now. There is, generally, a neurotic vigilance to Morgan’s text too: a desire to include that veers dangerously close to a tick-box exercise. But I wonder: is that my own neurotic vigilance talking, or a cynicism generated by living in patriarchal white supremacist capitalism, that encourages distrust in most attempts at inclusion as a tactic to prevent change?

I feel a quiver of that faced with the question you raise about the necessity of Shakespeare: or perhaps it’s just I read his appearance differently, not intended to validate Emilia but to divest him of some of his primacy. I don’t need to tell you that Shakespeare is the very archetype of the universal male artist: the artist who speaks for all humans, all emotions, all experiences. In that sense, I don’t think Morgan could have chucked Shakespeare: he’s there to be debunked, embarrassed, exposed as a different archetype, the man who writes about domestic issues yet (unlike women) gets to be universal — oh, and a more recent one, the man who mansplains.

But here I am beginning to answer your questions when all of them interested me as open-ended, not to be resolved but revolved in the mind. I have another for you, though: as you know, I recently wrote about the well-made play — specifically, the well-made play as cis-het male dramaturgical structure — and I’m curious to know more about the ways in which women writers specifically have built models and structures of their own.

Dear Maddy

Ah, yes, Shakespeare is the great universal. I always wonder what would have happened if history were to change — and I think this is what Lloyd Malcolm is tapping into in her play — and Emilia instead were the great universal? What if we re-start it all, wind back history, at least to the Elizabethan age — which still is problematic because it presupposes that the great universal comes from England at a specific time in Western linear chronos — and declare the god(s) female? And, from what we know of Emilia, Italian of North African descent? What if Emilia were the archetype? One of the reasons I think Lloyd Malcom’s play has touched a cultural nerve is that she is asking this question directly and asking audiences to reckon with this in terms of cultural inheritance.

Where, indeed, are the lost women of history? How do we reclaim them when their lives were not writ down and/or given voice? What do we do now with the silencing of the past, and also, with silencing that still occurs around the censorship and policing of the female body in law and politics, let alone literature!

The manner in which Lloyd Malcolm splits the Emilias into three is a lovely theatrical conceit, though I do wonder, as you say, why in the Globe and Vaudeville production it is the black Emilia that need carry the burden of the angry flame? Black and brown bodies are often subject to carrying and eventually articulating trauma in culture. It is a subject position that is comfortable, or shall we say, familiar for a white-figured audience in white-dominant theatre spaces. It’s tricksy to get around this, because of course the anger is real, the flame is as well, and that should not be discounted in any way, but the positioning can be troublesome.

I had this idea while reading the script about what would happen if that last speech to which the entire play builds were actually given to the audience to deliver, and not rest entirely on Emilia’s shoulders? It’s not such a radical idea, given that on social media, many female identifying individuals expressed their desire to repeat those words, and even go as far as tattoo “burn the whole fucking house down” on their bodies. So, theatrically speaking, what would happen if instead this action of carrying Emilia’s words via Lloyd Malcolm’s pen were handed over entirely — rendered actionable and explicit?

I keep thinking about other theatrical approaches to the play that would take it outside of the confines of the Globe and its history somehow — the same way that a company like Monstrous Regiment would tour their work in a bus, Rolling Thunder revue style, and perform in spaces that were not necessarily already “vetted” culturally, giving the work of women primacy and light, just as women’s work has historically had to fight for space(s) to be heard.

Speaking of Rolling Thunder Revue, I just saw the Martin Scorsese film about Bob Dylan’s tour in 1975. In it, there is a short interview with the late Sam Shepard where he talks, cheekily and wisely, about how Shakespeare lived at a crossroads when he was a child, and at that crossroads all these traveling troupes would pass through, and how his plays in some ways are rooted in the perspective of a child seeing bits of the world — and not just London — go by.

I think of this in relationship to your question about the “well-made” play, which is very much not a Shakespearean notion. I mean, his plays by any “well-made” standards of the 19th century, as codified by Eugene Scribe, would fail miserably. Shakespeare’s plays are more like a circus! And to be honest, the spirit of the circus and bacchanal is something I longed for in Lloyd Malcolm’s piece. Because it is that spirit that is often tamed and/or vilified by the patriarchy (male and female complicit) in women’s writing specifically. What is that phrase? Bleeding the edge? How has women’s writing lived right on the edge of what is meant by risk?

One of the reasons I think of Winsome Pinnock, say, and Karen Finley on a continuum has to do with this. Both are radically different as writers, but in their respective moment of emergence(s) in culture, their works were occupying spaces in a manner which was risky and which placed their works too at risk. Interestingly, both are now elders in a way. I find it frustrating that “suddenly” theatres in England “remember” Winsome as a pioneer. It’s not like she has not been writing and with us all this time. She has been neglected. Whereas Jez Butterworth, her generational peer, never has been. It’s The Ferryman in the West End, not Leave-Taking. Yet, both one could say are “well-made” plays, ironically enough.

But what is really meant by “well-made”? Certainly not all the time is the dramaturgical use of the phrase meant to evoke the 19th century sense of the phrase. Often, I think what is meant by “well-made” has to do with how plays (for text-based works in this case) behave, and in this, perhaps, is the key. Plays that misbehave, that are disruptive, truly, are not well-made. They cannot be. Because they defy the culturally agreed notion of what is well-made — a sense of symmetry, balance, and maybe even harmony.

I love that Lloyd Malcolm wrestles with this a bit in the play when discussing what it means to be “lady-like” but, given the history of writing by women (and what may be meant by this — only writing by individuals with a uterus?), this becomes a loaded concept. To write as a woman when women long were not allowed to write, or even allowed formal education, is an act of disobedience in and of itself. To write against silencing — on the earth, in the sand, on rocks, in the sky, on paper, on a screen — has been women’s work for a long time as well as the work of other silenced political bodies. Alice Notley talks about disobedient poetics when describing her work as a poet, and how for every rule learned in the academy, there are the rules that are meant to be broken, because to follow your own path means just that — it cannot be someone else’s path, however much admired, but one that you need forge by new means.

Where does this leave Emilia once she is in our hands and we take her words via Lloyd Malcolm out into the world? Or back onto the stage again? And who gets to decide which stage? The stories of accidental erasure, which you mention at the beginning of your letter, riddle theatre history, especially work that is made or takes up space in so-called “non-traditional” spaces. If Emilia the play were put on a platform on a flatbed truck in rural England, would someone write about it?

Dear Caridad

This question of what it is to write disobediently fascinates me — as much in regards to myself as to anyone else. I sometimes do it, sometimes don’t; increasingly feel myself furious, caged, whenever I’m required to write obediently. I’ve worried in public before I think about being or making myself unemployable. The disobedience of burning bridges can be a little too intoxicating sometimes. All that said, one of the big questions I have for myself, always, is: if (x) were put on a flatbed truck in rural England, would I write about it? If (x) were not being hyped up on twitter, would I hear about it or see it? Or, to return to the question with which I opened, what am I missing — not only in the past but now, every passing day? I have a strong sense of responsibility around the narratives that I’m potentially contributing to, potentially shifting, potentially expanding; is the most useful disobedience to critique the complacent mainstream (as in, for instance, Ava Wong Davies’ fantastic review of The Hunt for Exeunt), or to follow tributaries, brooks and streams that no one else is interested in?

But this is awfully introspective. Your reference to disobedient poetics made me think of disobedient politics: specifically, something I read recently in Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. Having fought for their right to vote, radical American suffragists immediately advised women not to use it. Firestone quotes Charlotte Perkins Gilman (whose novella The Yellow Wallpaper has haunted all my adult life): “The power women will be able to exercise lies with their not joining a party system of men.” And another woman, ironically referred to only with her husband’s name: “Suffragists did not fight for your emancipation for seventy years to have you become servants to men’s parties.”

To what extent is Emilia, despite everything, a servant to men’s parties? Is that an unfair question? I sometimes think the capitalist construct that is the theatre industry is so corrupt that anything I do in relation to it — no matter how disobedient — makes me complicit rather than transgressive. This is me at my least self-forgiving. But I’m also writing this on the day that Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin published their open letter explaining their role in beginning to create Tree, and most people I know on twitter responded with a nod of the head, a yes, I recognise this.

And so I loop back to this: to the clarion call to burn the fucking house down, and the tantalising, anxious question of what might come next. Is that really what we need to do? Or is it — like Emilia, and her gaggle of fishwomen — to continue to write, to think together, to tell our truths and secrets out loud, to inspire each other, to share, and in that writing, talking, telling, inspiring and sharing, live the change we need?

The Department of Feminist Conversations

The Department of Feminist Conversations is an intervention into contemporary criticality that seeks to broaden conversations about life and art through the perspective of contemporary feminisms. You can read our Letters to the Future at http://tinyletter.com/Feminist/archive.

    maddy costa

    Written by

    trying to change the world through writing about theatre. ridiculous I know. two kids one puppy four websites and a head full of dreams

    The Department of Feminist Conversations

    The Department of Feminist Conversations is an intervention into contemporary criticality that seeks to broaden conversations about life and art through the perspective of contemporary feminisms. You can read our Letters to the Future at http://tinyletter.com/Feminist/archive.

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