“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” That’s the central question in Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton. But for women in history, the answer is usually quite simple: no one tells their story. Morgan Lloyd Malcolm changes that with the play Emilia, based (loosely, because there are very few sources of information) on the life of writer Emilia Bassano.
Both Hamilton and Emilia retell history. Why? To redefine well-known narratives in new terms and to question the stories we tell. But there’s a key difference. Hamilton expands on the story of the American founding fathers. That’s a well-known, glorified, story. The musical does not fill in the gaps of history. It zooms in on one man to portray the genesis of modern American capitalism.
Emilia does something much smaller, but also much larger. It fills in the gaps. Lin Manuel Miranda had cut out the swathes of records about Hamilton’s life; Morgan Lloyd Malcolm had to write on a blank page.
So Emilia Bassano’s life presents a different case for retelling history. Emilia fills a space that wasn’t even thought to exist previously. She was not overlooked, she was omitted. Even as a friend of Shakespeare and the first Englishwoman to publish a poetry collection, she was written out of history. The most attention she receives is speculation that she may be the muse of Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ sonnets (which is a real thing that generates a LOT of speculation in English literature circles).
Why was her life overlooked? Mainly because she was a woman and therefore unimportant. Really, in the 17th century, it was that simple. The main source of our knowledge about Emilia is her own book. And that was enough to make her into a feminist icon, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm tells me.
“She published a series of religious poetry with some very radical feminist thinking in them,” Morgan says. “She knew that as a woman she was only permitted to publish religious texts so she made the most of that.”
Emilia’s most notable description by astrologer Simon Forman claims she was a whore and a harlot. That was after she refused to sleep with him. “Myself and Nicole Charles, who directed the original production, read his account and saw a woman protecting herself from the abusive and coercive behaviour of a man with the power to do what he wanted,” says Morgan.
There was a lot of gap-filling involved. Morgan wouldn’t describe it as a history play, exactly. “We call it a 'memory play' because myself and the creatives that made this play felt like we related to so much of what we were interpreting within her story.”
The play can teach us about contemporary feminism, too. “So much of what we still struggle with is rooted in trying to operate within a structure that isn't built for anyone who isn't a member of the dominant population,” Morgan tells me. Emilia witnessed the rise of capitalism, patriarchy, and the British class system. She shows that “[w]hat we are struggling against is something womxn have been struggling against for centuries.”
In New Zealand, Emilia will be performed at the Pop-up Globe in Auckland. Miriam McDowell will direct the all-female cast. And she has been deliberate in her casting choices, saying “I also want to see the diversity of our country reflected in the stories we tell.”
This is a substantial change from the Pop-up Globe’s approach in 2016 and 2017, when they showed plays with all-male casts. That stopped after controversy around their all-male production of The Taming of the Shrew which they tried to align with contemporary feminist movements including #MeToo. In short, it’s a refreshing change in approach that they’ve decided to put on a play with an all-female cast.
Emilia has a lot to show us about feminism, Morgan says. It’s not about what her retelling teaches us about history; it’s about what it teaches us about ourselves. Emilia teaches us that there is power in contemporary feminism. As the play tells us: “We are only as powerful as the stories we tell.”
Emilia will be performed at the Pop-up Globe in Auckland from 4 to 22 March 2020.Support Villainesse