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A New Voice for the Virgin Mary

Date: Apr 15, 2013


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The Master, perhaps Colm Tóibín's best-known novel, looked at a rare artistic misstep in the life of Henry James---the period when James tried and failed to succeed as a playwright. (He was jeered by the audience as he took his onstage bow at the end of Guy Domville in 1895.)

Tóibín is clearly not a superstitious man: He himself will make his Broadway debut as a playwright on April 22, when The Testament of Mary, based on his short novel of the same name, officially opens at the Walter Kerr Theatre. "Yes, I will be there," he says, "and yes, I will be nervous."

But unlike James, who wrote a friend that Domville was the work "by which I hope to make my fortune," Tóibín appears to have a healthy outlook about his role in the creation of Testament, which depicts the Virgin Mary (Fiona Shaw) as she gives an alternately aggrieved, exasperated, and adoring account of her son. For one thing, he readily admits that he's just one of many collaborators.

"Of course it's a challenge, but you have to leave your ego at the door," he says. "If you don't, someone will put it out for you."

This dynamic may be a major departure from the solitary life of a novelist---"It's almost like moving from playing tennis to playing soccer"---but he came to relish the textual debates he had with Shaw and her director, Deborah Warner, during rehearsals and previews. "They would find something difficult in the text and come around," he says. "Sometimes I would try to justify and explain the line, but often the line is the problem. And then you either revise it or delete it.

"I suppose you could take your ball and go home," he continues, "but then you end up sitting at home miserable with the ball."

Tóibín premiered a somewhat different version of the play at the 2011 Dublin Theatre Festival, with Marie Mullen in the role. Both she and Shaw have had longstanding relationships with their respective directors: Mullen and Garry Hynes cofounded the Druid Theatre Company in 1975, and Shaw and Warner have worked together for 25 years. "The question of the director is very important with this piece," Tóibín says. "You can't venture into this alone in terms of the emotions that are both channeled and released."

The final script that has resulted from these collaborations is devoid of stage directions but filled with character-specific revelations: Tóibín's Mary is a somewhat retiring woman, for instance, who hadn't really wanted to attend the wedding at Cana in the first place. Upon seeing her son turn the water into wine, she becomes terrified for his safety and leaves the feast "as though my departure were casual."

Tóibín, who grew up as an altar boy in southeastern Ireland, researched the play by reading modern-day works by myth- or religion-focused writers like  Marina Warner and Geza Vermes, and traveling to Ephesus, which may have been where Mary spent her final years. The Bible, however, was less informative than he might have hoped. "I used John's gospel more than the other three, but she speaks so seldom in them," he says. "There's so little to work with that it's a fertile field for writing. I had to examine each detail: How did she get there? Why did she get there?"

But while the fact-gathering was an important part of preparing to write The Testament of Mary, Tóibín had to do his best to put those facts out of his head before he actually began writing. "All of the stuff has to turn to rhythm," he says. "The thing to do was to keep thinking of images and rhythm, and not think of the information."

Several international productions of Testament are in the works, but Tóibín says his focus will soon return to his eighth novel, which is due to come out this fall. He fears the switch back from soccer to tennis won't be an easy one: "In a way, I'll miss the excitement. Writing is a dull process."


Eric Grode is a freelance arts writer and a professor at Syracuse University's Goldring Arts Journalism Program