Fiona Shaw and Colm Toibin on 'The Testament of Mary' the Broadway play
Cahir O'Doherty speaks with the play's author Colm Toibin
“It’s the only way the voice will come. If you give yourself the feeling first and then see what words come. That was the way it came.”
Toibin admits that didn’t plan the play out in detail, although he did have in mind how it would go.
“When I was starting I intended that the Lazarus story, who Jesus raises from the dead, would be a small part, there would only be a glancing reference to it. Then I found that when I wrote it, it had taken pages. Of all the stories, of all the miracles, this is the one that is awe-inspiring.”
In performance Shaw memorably recreates the moment, as Mary watches her son raise a man from the dead. But to be dug out of the earth and reborn, in the sight of many, having been buried for days and left behind is, when you think about it, utterly terrifying.
Toibin recreates Mary's awe, and the crowd's awe, but he also notes that Lazarus does not speak, nor seems to know where he is, and the wonder turns to quickly to profound dread. It makes for electrifying theater.
“Any time you write a novel or fiction, it’s just an idea that someone had. Your job is to find the detail and see where that takes you,” says Toibin.
“That would include attempting to wonder and then try and write down what it might have been like if someone had told you that story and everyone around you believed it. So she has to listen to it, and she remembers it in great detail.”
In Toibin's play Mary has not ascended in to heaven. In fact she's under a kind of house arrest as the men who are writing the gospel interrogate her about every detail of her past. She’s being guarded and protected for her own good, but they pointedly need her cooperation.
“They’re attempting to put shape on what happened and to her, it was chaotic and won’t ever be otherwise. If you’re writing fiction you’re always aware that you’re putting a shape on something,” Toibin says.
“The way it was experienced might have been different. The drama that's going on in this text is between her efforts to be truthful and their efforts to be influential.”
It wasn’t always clear that this religion would hold such a place in world history, even in the first 50 years after the crucifixion, Toibin says. It took extraordinary determination on the part of a number of people and organization skills for this story of life, death and the good news of resurrection to move as it did.
“I’m catching it at a moment when it is not clear what it will do. When it may be a cult or a sect that will fade,” he says.
“It’s a key moment when a number of men have seen the possibility of spreading the good news, and a woman on the other hand has not seen that possibility. She simply remains traumatized and for her it is a simply unresolved personal experience.”
Often Toibin’s Mary is closer to Medea than the Bible's silent lady in blue, but this is intentional. Toibin knows that her son, the figure on the cross, has extraordinary mythic power, as does the idea of his life being a kind of an intervention in world history. At all points he focuses the play on what it must have cost her to witness her son’s suffering.
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