The Bard of Burford?

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Elizabeth Cary

Elizabeth Cary

2013 marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of Elizabeth Tanfield Cary’s play The Tragedy of Mariam, Fair Queen of Jewry, the first original play in English written by a woman.  But it is really hard to appreciate in 2013 just what a risk Cary took in publishing her play;  for a woman to publish anything then was social death but a play was particularly risky. Remember this is three yeas before Ben Jonson published his First Folio and made a claim that plays could be taken seriously as literature.  And Mariam like no other early modern play.  It is over 300 lines into Act I before Cary allows a male character onstage.  The play is feminist in its politics and astonishing in its dramaturgy.  And on 12 June 2013,  at 4.30 in the afternoon, the voices of Cary’s assertive, self-confident and vocal women characters will be ringing out in the church in which Cary got married – St John’s in Burford.  Why is this important?  Because this presents a unique opportunity to hear early modern women characters written for women and girls to perform – instead of the usual early modern fare of ‘women’ characters written by men for men and boys to perform.  And Cary’s women characters are a real handful.  They are angry, they are jealous, they are Machiavellian. Once they start talking they don’t shut up in a hurry.  The splendid villainess, Salome, is a Richard III in high heels.  Mariam is a conflicted wife who wants her abusive husband dead.  A chorus of Jeremy Clarksons complain about the women’s behaviour.  The play is by turns operatic, comic, melodramatic.  It is early modern drama but not as you know it.

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Author:Elizabeth Schafer

Elizabeth Schafer is Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is currently writing a performance history of The Merry Wives of Windsor and running The 'Mariam' Project.

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