The Testament of Mary

Colm Tobin’s play The Testament of Mary explores the life of the mother of Jesus, before the layers of piety defined her image for the church.

The Rev. Jon M. Richardson of the Memorial Church of the Good Shepherd in Philadelphia reviews the play, now in previews at the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway.

Tradition holds quite strongly to the view of Mary as the virginal, demure, subservient woman (undoubtedly a tradition finely crafted by men). But the Mary that emerges from that glass box is different altogether. She is broken. Mad. Angry and addicted. Not faithful. Not even doubtful, really. But unbelieving and betrayed.

She goes on to tell a few of the stories from her son’s life as she remembers them. She speaks of the rising tensions around him. She speaks of her disdain for the “band of misfits” who follow him. When she finally gets around to recounting the crucifixion, it all becomes clear – the cigarettes and the liquor, the madness and the passion – while many had seen her son as a savior, his life wasn’t a source of salvation for her; it had left her broken.

How could it be any other way?

How could any mother endure the trauma that Mary must have endured and come out any other way?

I would expect that there are a lot of people who will find this view of Mary inflammatory. It is challenging, to be sure. This Mary denies all divinity of Christ. She speaks of the stories about his virgin birth and resurrection as merely tales – no, let’s be honest… lies – made up by his followers to legitimize his Messiahship.

As a priest, I suppose I’m supposed to be offended by it, but the truth is I’m not. Far from offended, I was excited by this exploration of the character of Mary.

I’ve often preached that I’m much more moved by the humanity of Jesus than by his divinity. The same can be said for this experience of Mary. She was human, and real, and flawed, and broken – just like so many of us. She had been through unimaginable trauma. Seeing her in this light made her, for me, much easier to relate to.

For this Mary, the question all comes down to, was it all worth it.

Whether or not any of us come to the same answer that she comes to, the question is worth considering.

And this Mary – though challenging to the traditions that surround her – is at least effective in posing the question. When you go to meet her – leave your piety and your sensibilities, and your ability to be offended at the door. They usually don’t serve you well, anyway, and they certainly won’t serve you in this experience. Don’t put any halos on Mary, but see her for what she is: a woman, a mother, and a fellow sojourner in humanity. You may not walk away with her same view of the world – I’m pretty sure I didn’t. But your worldview will be enriched for having seen hers. I know mine was.

The playwright discusses his work and the process of creating it in the New York Times. It is clear that even when taking Mary out of the box of his Irish Catholic upbringing, Mary is still a lens through whom he, Fiona Shaw (who plays Mary in this one-woman show), and the audience work out questions of their own faith.

Toward the end of 2008, there appeared almost a vacuum of faith in Ireland. Revelations about the sexual abuse of children put pressure on the Catholic church, and the gradual waning of religious practice, especially among younger people, took hold. I thought of writing a play in which the Virgin Mary, the silent woman we prayed to, would speak. But the impulse to write the play was not political, was not to intervene in a debate about the church, but rather to work with a voice that had mattered to me personally, a voice that was iconic as well as human.

I realized that I was playing with fire. Some neighbors, and indeed some friends, despite their views on the Catholic church itself, still had a deep devotion to Mary as the grieving mother of God, all the more to be worshiped with intensity and prayed to in time of need.

Slowly, as I began to work, it was clear to me how much persistent power those views of Mary have. Even in my pages Mary indeed remained an icon. I wished to give her a voice, let her speak, but I had no interest in reducing her or bringing her down to size.

I wanted to create a mortal woman, someone who has lived in the world. Her suffering would have to be real, her memory exact, her tone urgent. But she would also have to live at some distance from the rest of us.

Category : The Lead
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2 Comments
  1. Originally a novella by Toibin, which I’ve read. Interesting, even engrossing at times, but in my view not ultimately very successful. I’m okay with someone essaying a whole new take on a well-known Biblical figure (even Jesus!) but there are some historical realities that you really just have to get right, and Toibin doesn’t. His first-century eastern Mediterranean is not convincing, which makes what he does with Mary less powerful. (Read the book. Your public library may have it. Whether you spend the money for a theater ticket is up to you!)

  2. it's margaret

    –Bill, thank you for the lead on the book. It is highly doubtful that I will ever get to see this as a play in South Dakota!

    As to addiction and despair and unbelief being the logical outcomes of trauma and loss –well…. in my experience –especially here on the Cheyenne River Reservation where trauma and loss are generational and daily experiences, that CAN happen, but it is the minority outcome.

    –margaret watson

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