Performances October 28 – November 12
From the playwright –
When I first heard that Mary Todd Lincoln was sent to an insane asylum in 1875 by her only living son, Robert, and America’s first woman lawyer, Myra Bradwell, came to her aid I couldn’t believe that this had remained a secret of history. I knew what I assumed the average person knew about Mary Todd Lincoln, and I knew nothing about Myra Bradwell. I did however know a bit about “the vast territory” which is “sanity,” as Mary says to Myra in the play, “With its tallest of mountains and lowest of caves…” and I set out to answer this single question: How did I feel about Mary Todd Lincoln, and why an asylum? In many ways my play MARY AND MYRA is the embodiment of what has burrowed deep in my heart for Mary as I learned more about her. It was only because of this discovery of love that I decided to tell this true story. But I must add that my play is not realistic as much as it is the poetic essence of Mary and her confinement at Bellevue Place.
A Patient Log written by the staff at the asylum superficially traces Mary’s days there, and this served as some kind of map for me, as if to say, “She was there on that day, she complained about the food, she smuggled letters out and got in trouble, Myra Bradwell slept there that night.” I kept on tracing the lines of the map to find Mary and Myra. And from this map my imagination was free to fly.
Mary’s obsession with fabric, which is meticulously traced in her large body of letters, inspired me as that of an artist’s but also very much as that of a survivor’s. Mary informs Myra that, “When you have lost a husband and three sons you come to know Black. I insist on the BLACKEST.” For Myra Bradwell all shades of black are the same but for Mary the various, detailed shades imply a keen communion with the gradations of grief. And I ask myself how much shock can one tolerate before it changes the inner makeup?
Myra Bradwell, who was indeed written out of history by Susan B. Anthony, due to a disagreement in the “woman suffrage” movement, has the spectacular and perhaps timeless virtue of being someone who keeps her eye on the prize. She was a hugely successful woman in her time, running the largest legal journal in the country, the “Chicago Legal News”. Forbidden to practice law by the federal supreme court because she was a woman, Myra rallied for other women’s causes all over the country. It appears to me that Myra, who was twelve years younger than Mary, knew how to operate in a man’s world: the legal world of Mary’s son Robert. Was Myra changed by entering this world to conquer it? Myra fixes her eye on championing current social causes, but the prizes in Mary’s life are ephemeral and fleeting. A life led in the emotional moment is the only life Mary can live and this eccentric method certainly opened her to ridicule.
Spiritualism, as a means of releasing grief; the popular recourse of locking away women in asylums; and the strange medical beliefs of 1875 concerning “madness in women” serve as the backdrop for this play. While some of these realities are hard for us to even believe now (serving beer or whiskey eggnog for medicinal purposes?), others haven’t changed. Is the hope of instilling self-hatred in First Ladies at the core of maligning them? For Mary Todd, her self-doubt must have certainly been fanned by the criticism she constantly received. And yet she scoured the pages of newspapers to find any mention of her name.
All correspondence between Mary and Myra was destroyed by Robert’s estate. As the smoke rose from the burning letters, the stories were released into the atoms now around us.
– Catherine Filloux