Leaving Swive a few nights ago, I found myself thinking about story quilts, which I dimly remember learning about in elementary school. Some of the most famous examples are the late nineteenth century work of Harriet Powers, who used quilted squares to tell Bible narratives and records of events of her lifetime, such as a meteor shower. It’s believed, therefore, that the style originated with American slaves, though early evidence seems (understandably) scant.
I also found myself thinking about Emilia, another recent Globe new writing commission that sought to reimagine a famous early modern woman through a contemporary feminist lens.
Both Swive (which is about Queen Elizabeth from the accession of her brother King Edward to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, sort of) and Emilia (the highly fictionalized life and times of poet Emilia Lanyer) share a fragmented structure, a vision of history that is more episodic than smoothly narrative, and is concerned less with direct cause-and-effect continuity of either event or character development than in creating what comes to seem like a collage of a life–or, perhaps, like a narrative patchwork.
It’s a structure that’s partly enabled by both plays’ framing devices, which place the older version of their central character character looking back on and partially narrating her own life. The narration can fill the gaps the patches leave, or draw out implications they don’t have time to show; it also enhances the impressionistic and highly subjective feel of this structure. This is not the entirety of these women’s lives, but their recollections of the moments that really mattered, partly enacted by a second actor playing their younger selves, someone who both is and is not the person they are now.
It seems important to this structure that both of these plays are at their core not really about a woman who must discover herself, as the traditional biographic coming-of-age narrative depicts, but one who must make herself seen by others in spite of the constraints of early modern English culture. Through the patchwork recollection of their lives, both Elizabeth and Emilia are able to make the audience see and understand truths about themselves and their remarkable abilities that their contemporaries could not. The essential relationship of the play faces outward, demonstratively, not inwards. It’s sort of logical, therefore, that other characters in both plays are almost exclusively antagonists, representatives of society and its oppressive attitudes. Swive emphasizes this with its tightly doubled cast of four: Dudley, Elizabeth’s would-be lover, is the same as her stepfather Seymour, who possibly molested her. Both plays have a difficult relationship with the idea of heterosexual romantic love (while simultaneously vilifying the notion of queer female desire) that perhaps stems from this sense that the men who love and are loved by these women also represent the threat of subsumption into the patriarchal, inferior position of ‘wife.’
Like most folk crafts, quilting and story quilts are a feminized art form. Similarly, I’ve been wondering how or if Emilia and Swive’s structural similarities can been seen as reaching towards a feminized form of historical narrative. There are certainly similarities between this style and the historical works of Caryl Churchill– I think Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is probably more effective than either of these plays at creating a collage effect, a fuller expression of this impulse to undermine traditional historical narratives not only through destabilizing narrative linearity, but by rejecting the notion of ‘great man’ history that can be told through focus on the achievements of a single figure rather than the experiences of a collective.
Thus Light Shining in Buckinghamshire makes no effort to centralize around a single character and thus can use its diffuse structure to achieve scope without worrying about specificity in the same way these biographical plays have to. These plays seem to be seeking a dramaturgical middle ground between innovation and tradition, attempting to simultaneously appropriate and deconstruct the dramaturgy that has long been used to spotlight male historical figures by casting that light on women– at once skeptical of the storytelling structures that have held men up, but wanting women to get their chance to stand center-stage anyway.