Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Grace of Mary Traverse is a political period piece. Set in the 18th century it’s about the journey a spoilt young woman takes to learn to be human.
Mary Traverse (most of the names in the play say a lot about the characters) is a young woman being groomed by her father to make a good marriage. She is practiced in conversation and thought, but protected from any knowledge of the outside world or anything that might sully her innocence. Mary attempts to walk without leaving an imprint on the carpet, trying to make herself ethereal and ghostly, as befits a woman.
MARY: I’m trying not to breathe.
MRS TEMPTWELL: Your mother was good at that.
MARY: Was she?
MRS TEMPTWELL: Said it thickened the waist. She died of not breathing in the end, poor thing, may she rest in peace, I’m sure she does, she always did.
MARY: Could she walk on a carpet and leave no imprint?
MRS TEMPTWELL: She went in and out of rooms with no one knowing she’d been there. She was so quiet, your mother, it took the master a week to notice she was dead. But she looked ever so beautiful in her coffin and he couldn’t stop looking at her. Death suits women. You’d look lovely in a coffin, Miss Mary.
Mrs Temptwell, Mary’s diabolical servant, lives up to her name and offers to take Mary out of the house to experience the real world. She sets her up for disgrace to fulfill the vendetta she has against Mary’s father, but she doesn’t take into account Mary’s appetite for the seamier side of life.
Mary lacks compassion or empathy and searches for ways to give herself the power she witnesses in men.
MARY: I’ve seen them walk the street without fear, stuff food into their mouths with no concern for their waists. I’ve seen them tear into skin without hesitation and litter the streets with their discarded actions. But I have no map to this world. I walk it as a foreigner and sense only danger.
Mrs Temptwell offers Mary the key to this male world and Mary leaps at the chance to ‘run the world through her fingers as men do’. She revels in depravity, uses and abuses other women and glories in her power to command and destroy lives.
Wertenbaker’s play is a strong feminist piece filled with humour and lust. The lust is for life, not just for fleshy delights, and in its larger than life grotesqueries it holds a mirror to our paler power plays.
Publisher: Faber and Faber (published along with The Love of the Nightingale)
Cast: 5M, 4F (with lots of doubling)