I don’t suppose I was unique in having only heard of Emilia Lanier in passing. Although it is a little embarrassing for me, an English literature graduate and a feminist activist not to be familiar with the work of one of the first English women to be published as a poet. In my defense, by the time I was likely to learn about Emilia, her male contemporaries had already put me off renaissance poetry entirely. I remember male lecturers shaking their heads when I said I found John Donne boring, as if my failure to connect with a genre that could only ever see me as an object was some deep deficiency in me as a scholar of literature.
So I went into Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s “Emilia” relatively blind.
Of course nobody knows much about Lanier. One of the great injustices that this play seeks to redress is that this woman did something incredible, and most of what we know about her comes from the diary of a man she wouldn’t sleep with. History, they say, is written by the victors. It’s more than that. Just the power to write history is a victory. It is rarely one that women win.
The historical Emilia was of Italian descent, probably had Jewish heritage and maybe North African. The decision to portray her as black was a political one. The play deals with ideas of intersectionality with a level of explicitness that could have come off as heavy handed. Emilia, however, brings its audience with it so that lines such as “no. where are you really from?” and “you’d be pretty if you smiled” evoked rounds of applause and a tangible sense of solidarity.
The fictionalised Emilia follows a path that will be familiar to many, including myself. From a girl who struggled to fit into a world that sees her as less than, through a journey of trauma and constant frustration to a community organiser and writer of subversive literature. The three actresses who portray Emilia at different ages are nearly always all on stage, evoking the image of the triple goddess even as the story subverts it. A maiden who is known as an adulterer, a mother who most values the fertility of her mind, a crone who is far from finished.
The decision to invert shakespearean casting convention and have actresses portray both male and female characters moves focus from the society in which the show takes place to the women who navigate it. When placed in direct conflict with women, the men move, their constant motion betraying a weakness of intellectual position which contrasts with the calm dignity of their adversaries’ stillness.
Female relationships are explored with an affectionate yet critical eye. The mistress who teaches Emilia that her sexuality is her meal ticket, the mother who declares pride in her unruly daughter even as she tries to subdue her, the serpentine Mary Sidney whose encouragement of the poet is secondary to her desire to seduce this “exotic” young woman. The show never shies away from portraying the duality of female relationships under the patriarchy. There is solidarity but there is also fierce competition for whatever scraps of space there might be to be occupied. These relationships can be as toxic as they are empowering. The relationship between privileged and unprivileged women is frequently explored. We see Emilia’s experiences as a woman of colour dismissed by her white contemporaries and her dawning realisation of her own class privilege. These conflicts are never excused but they are overcome and Emilia’s book is imagined here as the ultimate victory of a female solidarity that transcends divides of race and class but which, crucially, does not ignore them.
It’s interesting to speculate what the real Emilia would have made of this play. Would she have loved the passionate, political heroine it made her into, or was she enough a product of her time as to be offended by it’s radical message? Maybe she would have just been thrilled that a play written, directed and performed by women could even see the light of day. Of course the play was never just for her. It is, explicitly and unapologetically, for all the women who came before her and all those who came after. Still, you have to hope that the historical woman would take hope from her counterpart’s final words – “Look how far we’ve come. We can’t stop now.”
I recognised so many parts of this story. For all my privilege, I am a woman with an intersectional identity who has been talked over by sisters who were more palatable to the patriarchy too many times to count. When I entered the theatre I was teetering on the brink of a severe case of activist burnout. A couple of particularly bad experiences had left me about ready to leave the organising to those who would not have to fight so hard to be heard. I left the theatre determined to keep fighting.
We can’t stop now, because sisters, look how far we’ve come.
By Rachel Krengel
Rachel is a co-organiser of Women’s March on London. She is a dedicated activist and campaigner, with years of experience in creating grassroots movements and change. A vocal advocate on the government’s two child policy, period poverty and women’s including trans women’s rights she has worked tirelessly to further intersectional causes.
Please note Emilia was performing between 10 August – 1 September 2018 at The Globe.
All views expressed in this post are that of the author and do not reflect those of She Speaks We Hear.