A Mormon Apostate goes to see The Testament Of Mary
In all my time growing up in the Mormon faith, going to church and listening to intensely friendly and faithful grown ups tell me how wonderfully lucky we are to be living in ”the last days” I never heard much talk about any of the women in the bible or in The Book Of Mormon. Women were very important as back round support to the men doing all the exciting and dangerous stuff. It was a women who was so unfaithful that she wanted to see concrete proof of these golden plates that her husband claimed to be translating. Because of her demand a section of the golden plates was lost. She was meant to simply believe all her husband told her. How annoying of her and her critical mind. There was the woman who was turned to salt because she could not resist looking behind her one last time and catching a final glimpse of her home burning. Women were special and a requirement of gods great plan. It was a shame they never got more than a word in edge ways. I could not count how many times I was shown the Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saint’s version of the crucifiction of christ on VHS. With very little talk of Mary as anything more than ever faithful and subservient.
It was with excitement and a little trepidation that I sat down in the front row a few moments before the show started. I was not scared that I would be offended. It was more just anxious excitement that this time I was ready to experience this sort of story without the pressure to believe it as a fact. I could watch this play and react to it as I chose or as I was moved to by emotion or intellect or both. This could be enjoyed as fiction. You do not need to believe a novel is true in order to enjoy it on a deep and meaningful level. It can feel as though it shines a light on an aspect of your soul you did not previously acknowledge or have the language for.
The older women sitting on my left with perfectly done make up and hair asked me to watch out for her cup of water. She was quite excited to see this play as well. Have you seen the Book Of Mormon Musical? I ask her. She says she has and loved it. I tell her I think that this production is going to be more serious. I tell her I was raised Mormon and her face lights up with interest and curiosity. The house lights dim and we turn to the stage.
There are 9,312 words spoken in this production and Jesus is not one of them. This could very well be one of the reasons this play spoke so much to the little girl inside of me that was thirsting for stories about strong female characters in my religious education. Unlike the crying Mary I saw so often in my Sunday school teachings and family night scripture readings, this Mary was fiercely intelligent, poetic and dry humoured. Pamela Rabe does a brilliant job of creating a Mary that is able to hold your attention for the entire one hour and fifteen minutes. You do not even feel that time has past. She is able to weave the past trauma of her sons death with the anger and impatience of a women who is forced to tell her story to men with very strong self interest. They tell her this story will change the world, the whole world. They want to make a god of her son. While she is simply mourning the loss of someone very dear to her. According to this mary, the fact that her son will change the world is not worth what it cost him, and what it took from her.
This play is set a couple of years after Jesus was killed and it is unexpectedly moving to hear Mary describe watching her son struggle to move or dislodge the crown of thorns from the top of his head. You can feel the sharp thorns and the weight just by the description and tone of Rabe’s voice as she embodies the pain of a mother forced to watch thier child suffer and know they can do nothing to help. It made me wonder how many women in the audience were thinking about a time in which they had to do a similar thing: watch a child show pain or anguish and know they could be there but not take the pain away at all. It is trite but it did make me think of my own mother. All those times she had to watch me hooked up to things in hospital. At least she could trust the people looking after me. If Mary had called out to her son, she would have been taken away.
The stage is set up like a room but modern with blue lighting and there is a feeling of the type of room where criminals are kept for questioning, that same unforgiving office room lighting. We are told that it is here that the men come who want to writer her story down for the benefit of mankind. They dont like how she tells it though. We are told that these men do not care to hear her poetic asides about the wind or stars. As a person who was forced to read the bible and hear it read aloud as well as read The Book Of Mormon, this part of the play spoke to my boredom of these two texts. They are not literature, Perhaps if more women were aloud to have their say, these books would be more interesting. Regardless it is through this production that we the audience are given the gift of what the ancient bible stories lack: the truth as told by Mary herself. She is telling us her most precious truth and it is tinged with understandable rage. She is not unquestioning or subservient. She is a mother mourning the loss of her boy. She is grappling with the guilt that she could not save him.
Has his death changed the world? You could argue that it has and not in a good way. So many institutions have twisted and manipulated this story for personal and political gain. Believing in jesus does not make you more empathic or sensitive. Some of my most painful memories have been cemented by people who believe in a certain kind of jesus. While some of my happiest memories involve people and activities I was raised to view as impure or sinful or simply ”frowned upon by The man upstairs/” I am done living a life for that man or any other. .
When Mary is pleading for strength she is not doing so in the name of the Heavenly Father and her son she is calling on Athena the goddesses of wisdom, Nike the goddess of strength. The goddess Minerva of intellect and may other ancient and strong diety that are not mentioned in the Bible or The Book Of Mormon. I feel I would have read more intently if they were.
When The play ends I feel disoriented and foggy as if waking from a dream. As it is opening night my companion and I get some finger food and free sparkling wine. As we are leaving my companion pulls me to a bench that is shrouded in shadow. There I meet Pamela Rabe who is sitting there smoking a cigarette like she is a regular person and not the mother of Jesus. I tell her she was wonderful. My friend tells her that I was raised Mormon. Pamela raises her face to mine in interest. ”You didn’t find it blasphemous? She asks. I shake my head enthusiastically. We chat and it come up that myself and my friend are in a program to write plays of our own. ”I am terrified.” I tell this amazing actress who responds that the fear is a good thing. I say how I would like to maybe write a play from the perspective of a young mormon woman or an old one who have lived a live by all the rules stipulated to them by the man upstairs and the large group of men here on the lower level. The Book Of Mormon is a great musical but it says nothing of the women in the church and how they feel. ”I think you might have a play right there.” Pamela says. I leave the theatre that night feeling inspired and wishing my mother lived in Melbourne so I could take her to see this play.