LIZZIE: Years ago in this country they say two women met a man and they went walking through Manchester. The women gave the man safe passage through the dangerous poor, for he believed in changing the workings of the world, and because they loved this world, they believed in him. They showed him the poor and they showed him their father and they showed their race and themselves to him, the two women, Mary and Lizzie Burns, sisters in life, sisters in love, living with Frederick Engels, for they believed in the end of the world. Listen to the world changing. Listen to the world ending.
In McGuinness’ poetic and playful telling of the story, both sisters were Engels’ lovers (not just Mary as is commonly recorded). The sisters are mythologised as elemental, lustful creatures, not entirely of this world. The play is told through song and ritual, poems recited and repeated, stories told. It’s not a chronological narrative and makes no attempt at historical accuracy. What McGuinness is doing is painting a bigger picture about gender relations, communism, colonial views of Ireland and suffrage.
FIRST WOMAN: Where are my hands?
SECOND WOMAN: You cut them off to send to your soldier.
THIRD WOMAN: So he could find his touch upon you.
FIRST WOMAN: (Showing her tongue) Where is my tongue?
FOURTH WOMAN: You bit to its root and spat it from you.
FIFTH WOMAN: The last words of love would be to your man.
FIRST WOMAN: Where are the legs that walked after him?
SIXTH WOMAN: You took an axe and chopped them off you.
FIRST WOMAN: Here I would stay until he returned.
Lizzie and Mary travel into the earth, discourse with the dead (including their mother), see pageants and hear prophecies, including one from a gentleman pig, before meeting Engels and Marx.
PIG: We’ll call the butcher empire and the knife we’ll call its greed,
And it cut the throat of Ireland, leaving it to bleed.
But what care for the Irish, aren’t they dirty pigs?
Leave them in their squalor to dance their Irish jigs.
McGuinness’ play is deeply political but will no doubt offend many with its portrayal of Engels as a randy goat, climaxing under the sisters’ attentions while he discusses class distinction. Marx and his wife Jenny are shown as repulsed by the antics and disapproving of the sisters. Despite Engels’ relationship with Mary and Lizzie and his work with Marx on communist theory, he still saw the Irish as a lower order of human being as Marx’s wife Jenny tells the sisters with some glee.
JENNY: Have you heard how he talks about you? Have you seen what he’s written?
MARY: We don’t read.
JENNY: Shall I tell you what he’s said?
LIZZIE: He never mentioned our name.
JENNY: He’s mentioned your race, however. Do you think he loves you? Listen to ‘The Condition of the Working Class’. This extract is so amusing. ‘Drink is the only thing which makes the Irishman’s life worth living. His crudity which places him but little above the savage, his filth and poverty, all favour drunkeness […] For work which requires long training or regular, pertinacious application, the dissolute, unsteady, drunken Irishman is on too low a plane.’
LIZZIE: Read on.
JENNY: I can’t, you don’t find it funny.
McGuinness has given voice to the voiceless Burns’ sisters, rendered them poetic, linked to the land and filled with song. Whether they’d like or appreciate his efforts to show them as pagan and incestuous is another matter altogether…
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Cast: 13F, 6M (some roles could be doubled)