“I Wanted It to Be a Comedy”: On “The Saintliness of Margery Kempe”

Clare Davidson and Boyda Johnstone review Austin Pendleton’s “The Saintliness of Margery Kempe.”

“I Wanted It to Be a Comedy”: On “The Saintliness of Margery Kempe”

WHEN HE FIRST READ John Wulp’s script for The Saintliness of Margery Kempe, Austin Pendleton was struck. Readers may know, if not recognize, Pendleton as the voice of Gurgle in Finding Nemo, but he is also a director, and his off-Broadway production of Saintliness finished up its run at the Duke Theatre on 42nd Street in New York in August. The play, initially performed in the 1950s, is based on The Book of Margery Kempe, a manuscript from the 1430s that is thought to be the first autobiography in English. In the original, Margery describes her experiences as a Christian mystic: her visions, passionate spiritual and domestic relationships, business ventures, social persecution, interactions with religious authorities, and her peripatetic travels abroad. Despite the medieval material, Pendleton was struck by the contemporaneity of Wulp’s adaptation. For him, the play is about “the #MeToo movement in 1400s rural England” because Margery did not want to rely on men: “She wanted to define her own life.”

A cultural recuperation of #MeToo moments throughout history is sorely needed, as are models of women, like Margery, who stood up to male authorities, refusing to conform to societal pressures, and deliver new ways of reading and seeing the world. Unfortunately, The Saintliness of Margery Kempe does not achieve these goals. Instead, the production presents us with a world where rape threats are acceptable within the bounds of marriage and women who attempt to write their own fates are self-centered, a danger to themselves and society. Margery is played by the remarkable Andrus Nichols, a master clown who recently played Joan of Arc to widespread acclaim. But in this context, the character exists as a fetishized male vision of what female agency might look like in low-level lighting if you’re a little bit drunk. Throughout the play, Margery is marginalized, misrepresented, and mishandled while Wulp invents an entire set of hyper-gendered and stereotypical supporting cast members who did not appear in Kempe’s text: women named Dame Rumor, Mistress Prattle, and Mistress Spiteful, and men named Timothy Pounce, Peter Poke, and Joseph Pinch, names that manifest the violence disguised as humor they enact.

At least some of these problems can be traced back to the play’s tormented composition in the late 1950s. According to a memoir published on Wulp’s website, the first production of the script in 1957 at the Poets’ Theatre in Massachusetts was a “great success,” although a contemporary review in The Harvard Crimson claims it began as a “fairly amusing comedy” that later turned to “junk.” Wulp decided to fund a second, unsuccessful production in New York and appointed James Price, an old friend from Yale who was also his lover, to direct it. He soon relinquished all creative control to Price in order prove his affection and combat claims of egotism. According to Wulp, Price effectively rewrote the entire script: “Jim acted out all the scenes, playing every part himself, in order, he said, to see if the ‘feel’ of the characterizations was right. Now he was Margery gazing skyward, a kitchen towel draped around his shoulders to serve as shawl.” Margery has, in fact, been seen by many scholars as a queer figure, but Wulp includes these details in order to show how his script was ruined and distorted beyond recognition. He describes the relationship between himself and Price as punishing but predictable because: “The only love I had known up to then was punishment […] He gave me exactly what I craved.” Wulp goes on to describe the disastrous incidents surrounding the first production: “I see them as comedy now. If only they had not been so sad.” Wulp and Price’s relationship was to end ingloriously soon after, but Wulp was haunted by him, his first lover and his mentor: “I believed then, and I believe now, that in my play about Margery Kempe, he saw another, probably better, play than the one I had actually written.” After unanimously bad reviews, Price’s commandeered version of the play closed early in 1959. Wulp lamented that “[n]obody loves me” — echoing his agonized depiction of Margery, who remarks at the end of the play, “I wanted people to love me so much that I never took time to love anyone else.” Wulp’s memoir reads like a hagiographic version of a mistreated artist plagued by self-loathing. Perhaps Pendleton’s newly revived version, 60 years later, became a means of redemption for Wulp, who, now 90, set up camp in a furnished apartment near the theater district and had a hand in designing the scenery.

Like Wulp’s play, Margery Kempe’s manuscript nearly vanished into the folds of history. Kempe was born in 1373 in the prosperous region of Norfolk, England, the daughter of the mayor of Lynn. The astonishing material of her tale only survives in a single manuscript which was discovered in the 1930s by a group of carousing young people, two of whom happened to work for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The manuscript was hidden in a cupboard in a Derbyshire country house and discovered only when the two were looking for a lost ball during a ping-pong game. Two printed editions of the work became available shortly after, but both reflect the cultural attitudes of the period and depict Margery as relatively insignificant and neurotic. The only modern English version moved significant portions of the text, including a preface and 13 chapters, to an appendix because the editor was worried these might prove boring for a modern reader who would not take Margery’s spiritual aspirations seriously.

Using this modernization as inspiration, Wulp retells Margery’s life in a way that undermines her autobiographical authority. In his script, surviving the blow from a dislodged shard of the church’s ceiling has the comedic effect not only of proving her sainthood but also knocking loose some of her sanity. Kempe may tell us that she is visited with a divine vision after her grave sickness, but Wulp shows us her visions were more likely an attempt to avoid the unwanted sexual advances of her husband. Kempe tells us that she is a highly accomplished brewer and that her brewery failed because God deemed it must. Wulp shows us that she goes out of business because she won’t provide sexual favors for her clientele who complain that her beer tastes like shit.

When asked in 1957 who the play was about, Wulp’s father replied that he thought it was really about “John.” It is unclear whether he was referring to Kempe’s husband or Wulp himself — it may well be both. John Kempe is depicted as heroic in his long-suffering, forced to live in a sexless and partnerless marriage for years and maintaining a steadfast philosophy of traditional marital vows and spiritual piety. Margery not only leaves him but cheats on him with the Devil, embracing vice and spiritual depravity and requiring an exorcism. John tries to remind Margery of God’s plan, confesses his love only to be scorned, and is forced to raise the children and water the flowers on his own. At the end of the play his relief at having her home is quickly dispelled when he discovers with horror that she’s going to engage in the outrageous behavior of writing a book. The play thus ends where Kempe’s book begins. By displacing her act of composition to the end of the tale rather than the beginning, Wulp similarly displaces her own agency in how the story gets told, paving the way for a liberal suffusion of details regarding her personal life that are not detailed by Kempe. She is deemed an unreliable narrator of her own life, and the multiple male voices who over-write her story tell it through the point of view of the family members she has abandoned. “What about the children? Don’t they mean anything to you?” John pleads when she leaves. And when she returns to him the end, “the house has fallen into rack and ruin,” the children simply gone.

But more alarming than the redirected focus on John is the sexual violence in the first act of the play presented in the guise of humor. Rumsey Goodfellow speaks for a group of men who have assembled at Margery’s brewery even though their wives have forbidden them to consort with such a fallen woman. He accuses her of being an alcoholic and mutters, “We know all about you. That’s why we are here.” The men mock her for rejecting their sexual advances and then taunt that she is a tease, wrestling over her cloak. Is this Pendleton’s #MeToo moment? If it wasn’t meant to be a comedy, we might see her defiance in this scene as potent, but misogynistic comments punctuate the exchange: “Women! They’re all alike. They always promise more than they can deliver,” Poke remarks. Margery rushes home, defeated and in tears, where her husband advances threateningly upon her, although this is also played off as unnervingly poetic humor: “Now that you’re home it’s only natural that my Love for you should make itself known in the form of Children, just as in Spring, God’s Love of Earth reveals itself in each small tendril and shoot.” The threat of rape hovering under this entire act of the play is made explicit when he declares, “Just this once I am going to have my way.” Margery feigns spiritual ecstasy and wards him off by claiming she is having a vision, replacing sexual with spiritual climax in a motif that is repeated throughout the play. Later, a devilish man grabs and kisses Margery against her protests and then mocks her as a whore when she gives in to his advances.

Whether fraudulent or genuine, Margery's spiritual fervor is villainized and dismissed in the play because it takes her away from her domestic duties. When she describes visions in which she gives service to the Holy Family including setting chairs, opening doors, and putting heaven-sent flowers into vases, a vicar describes them as “too homely” to really be “divine.” Attempting to dissuade her from her religious vocation, Margery’s husband tells her “the moon won’t fit into the kitchen. You can be sure of that. So content yourself with the luster in your pots and pans, the radiance in your children's smiles.” There are moments in the third act when Margery’s visions and tears are presented with more reverence, such as when she is “overcome with the sweetness God has wrought in my soul,” but still we are not given access to her revelations, a central feature of her original text. Once she has been abandoned by her fellow travelers and left to consort with a disabled man, a thief, and a prostitute, her laments become positively Lear-ian: “Deafen my ears with Thunder […] Let the rain come down. There are not enough tears in Heaven to show my grief.” In these moments, we may sincerely sympathize with her desolation, but it only underscores how far she has strayed from the domestic sphere.

In The Book, Margery finds a network of women who inform her spiritual practice, including the eminent Dame Julian of Norwich, an anchoress whom she visits in 1413. In Saintliness, her spiritual consort is parodied through a chorus line of female gossips and shrews. The neighborhood women such as Mistress Prattle believe her to be a prostitute intent on luring their husbands away with her “rounded bosom” while filling their beer mugs. She sneeringly reduces Margery to a “creature, for I have no other name for her.” In The Book, Margery herself adopts the title “creature” to signify her identity as God’s created being, and so Wulp manages to transform a self-elected term of personal empowerment into a slur. When Margery is on pilgrimage her female traveling companions deride her for traveling alone, and the one time a powerful woman, Bridget of Sweden, is brought into the play, who in the book serves as a spiritual model as both saint and mother, she becomes Margery’s adversary to prove her sanctimonious lies. There are in fact no agreeable female characters in this play that Wulp claimed was written for women.

Whereas Kempe’s book provides us with an early account of meaningful transcultural and multilingual connection, Saintliness depicts a medieval world that is fueled by racial stereotypes as well as misogyny. Visiting the holy lands of Jerusalem, Kempe’s original work describes how “she found all people good to her and gentle with the sole exception of her own countrymen.” In Wulp’s script, this is reimagined to suit a conservative agenda in which foreigners are hostile and the English language is superior, humor that rings hollow in the current climate of the refugee crisis and the rise of the conservative alt-right. In his memoir, Wulp remembers how he wrote the play peeling potatoes on kitchen patrol in the Marine Corps, “all the while a group of Puerto Ricans and Latinos […] jabbered away excitedly in Spanish,” and when obliged to visit Chinatown searching for a suitable set designer for the first production, he remarks that he had to “endure the hostile stares of passing Asian immigrants for what seemed like an eternity.” In the play, when a group of prophets and seers approach the English tour-group in Jerusalem, Margery exclaims in disgust how dirty they are and discredits their religious authority using bigoted rhetoric: “They can’t even speak a word of English” while they “sit on their haunches mumbling incoherencies into their beards and expect the world owes them a living.” In Kempe’s autobiography, she works around linguistic differences, but Wulp’s play emphasizes linguistic barriers, substituting the multilingual culture of the Middle Ages with the monolingual fantasy of the midcentury — and modern — United States.

Wulp has described Saintliness “as a statement of the universal conflict between the forces of earth and sky, body and mind, flesh and spirit.” But in the view of these two reviewers, The Book of Margery Kempe represents anything but universality. Kempe has always been a divisive figure. Medieval or modern reputation aside, she was an extraordinary author whose work continues to have an extraordinary textual afterlife. Even though Kempe’s writing is now readily accessible and the subject of wide-ranging discussion, Austin Pendleton’s revival of Wulp’s 1950s script continues to mirror the biased early editions of the medieval text. This was not inevitable given the strange story surrounding the midcentury birth of the play to Wulp and Price and the increasing historical interest in Margery’s own queerness. For instance, a queer or cross-dressing production would have been a better way to proceed with the modern revival. Other modern appropriations form and repurpose an affective relationship with narratives from the past to bring recognition to the historically marginalized, such as Marge & Jules, which stages the encounter between Margery and Julian of Norwich and thus highlights female friendship and networks of care, or Robert Glück’s 1994 novel Margery Kempe, which interprets Margery’s mystical relationship with Christ alongside his own queer love and romantic obsession. There are so many ways the tale of Margery could serve progressive, feminist, LGBT-friendly agendas which are crucially needed in the modern political landscape. Instead, Pendleton serves us with an outdated comedy fueled by misogyny and xenophobia, betraying his profound misunderstanding of the #MeToo movement. Some texts, unlike Kempe’s, are better left to the shadows of the past.


Boyda Johnstone completed her PhD in medieval literature at Fordham University, and is now assistant professor of English literature at Borough of Manhattan Community College (part of the City University of New York).

Clare Davidson completed her PhD in medieval literature at the University of Western Australia where she is currently a research fellow. She is working on her first book, titled My Middle English Body in Love.


Photos by Carol Rosegg.

LARB Contributors

Boyda Johnstone completed her PhD in medieval literature at Fordham University, and is now assistant professor of English literature at Borough of Manhattan Community College (part of the City University of New York). She has published and taught on medieval and early modern drama, and facilitated the student production of the medieval morality play Mankind at Fordham University in spring 2017. You can find her on Twitter @BoydaJosa. 

Clare Davidson completed her PhD in medieval literature at the University of Western Australia where she is currently a research fellow. She is working on her first book, titled My Middle English Body in Love.


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