How do you become a saint? If you’re a medieval woman with a fiercely independent streak, you do so on your own. Such is the story of the eponymous hero of The Saintliness of Margery Kempe, a play by John Wulp currently in revival at The Duke on 42nd Street. Based on The Book of Margery Kempe, widely considered the first autobiography in English, the play tells the story of a woman who refuses to accept the culturally dictated roles of wife and mother and instead sets off on a self-made path.
Initially, Margery leaves her husband and children to open a brewery, but soon finds herself out of her depth when the beer is bad and her customers are boors. She briefly returns home and decides on a better alternative: she will become a saint. Her husband, John, is less than thrilled about Margery’s insistence on celibacy, and it doesn’t take long for her wanderlust to kick back in, leading her on a quixotic pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
The play stays relatively close to the story of Margery’s Book, though in certain respects it departs from what we know about gender roles in the Middle Ages. Margery’s decision to brew beer, for example, is portrayed as a scandal, as if it were unthinkable for a woman to pursue such an occupation. While this might sound plausible given the restrictive image we have inherited of medieval Europeans (usually due to a Whiggish desire to think of ourselves as more enlightened), the truth is that brewing was a very common job for women.
Other elements of the play, though, do show the medieval period in a more accurate light. In one scene, Margery invites the ire of her fellow pilgrims to Jerusalem by chastising them for their indulgence in food, drink, and prostitutes along the way. Many pilgrims of the time had little of the piety we might imagine; they saw pilgrimages as opportunities to party in a kind of medieval study-abroad. If that seems unlikely, read The Canterbury Tales.
The play initially premiered in 1958 at the Poet’s Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a revised version ran off-Broadway the following year. Director Austin Pendleton used the original text for the current production. Given its feminist themes, it’s a relevant show for us today, though its preoccupation with a woman making a life outside the home may have felt a little more current in the 1950s. Most married women in the US work now, but more generally, women still struggle with defining their lives in a way that is not in some respect controlled by men.
Andrus Nichols was strong as Margery; she played the role with a mix of sincerity and humor. Above all else, Margery wants to be magnificent, and she won’t let anyone deny her the opportunity. She asks at the beginning, “Why can’t I be left alone to go to Hell in my own way?”
However, her eventual desire for sainthood doesn’t quite match her gifts; we see her easily swayed by the temptations of lust, callousness, and holier-than-thou manipulation. She pursues sainthood mostly for the fame it will bring her, not out of a pure sense of devotion. Nichols deftly displays Margery’s conflicting desires in a way that never seems fractured or disjunct.
One of the most outstanding performances was by Michael Genet, who plays a skeptical peasant and poet manqué name Virgil Cicero Tubbs, as well as Bishop Alnewyk and other supporting characters. Genet’s classical training shines through in his delivery and blocking. Thomas Sommo was a welcome source of quiet comic relief as a horse named Pegasus. Jason O’Connell brought complexity to the role of John Kempe, who is as ineffectual and pathetic as he is cruel. The other supporting actors do an impressive job switching instantly among numerous roles, from Margery and John’s children to town gossips to clergy.
The stage design, by the playwright, is somewhat minimal, which may have been a function of the black-box-style space of The Duke on 42nd Street. Still, it felt like a missed opportunity for spectacle. Nevertheless, what’s lacking in Wulp’s stage design is more than made up for by the lyrical beauty of his language. The play asks questions that are as important today as they were in the 1400s and the 1950s. It’s a tough revival to pull off, but it brings new light both to the original script and the source material.
The Saintliness of Margery Kempe continues at the Duke (229 W 42nd St, Midtown, Manhattan) through August 26.