Four hundred years ago, Emilia Bassano raised her voice. The world did not listen. Who was Emily? Was she the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets? What about his own poems? And why was his story erased from history? Fierce and provocative, the play Emily was written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and tells the story of a woman and her sisters who call out to us through the centuries with passion, fury, laughter and song.
The work is a mix of laughter and fury – a piece that takes its audience on an exuberant and moving journey through love, loss, identity, ambition, power, rebellion and what it is. is to be a woman in a man’s world.
With a cast of 13 incredible women and non-binary performers, this play – which will be released shortly will be presented at the Canberra Theater Center – celebrates all voices through the pioneering story of a woman who refused to take no for an answer. Ginger Gorman, editor of BroadAgenda, interviews director Petra Kalive.
If you explained the series in a few words to someone who knows nothing about it, what would you say?
Emilia is the story of a woman who lived in Shakespeare’s time and who many believe was Shakespeare’s muse – his “Dark Lady” of the sonnets. But she was much more than that. Writer, poet, leader, mother and teacher. We are finally sharing her story and it is funny, powerful and inspiring.
Like so many women, Emilia has been erased from history. What can you tell us about her?
Emilia was born in 1569 into a family of musicians. It is difficult to pinpoint her heritage exactly, but she was definitely Italian, Jewish, and likely of North African descent. Her father died young and so she was placed in the care of Countess Susan Bertie, a noble favorite of Queen Elizabeth.
It was under Bertie’s care that Emilia was educated and presented at court. Emilia became the mistress of Lord Henry Carey, a very powerful nobleman and courtier and patron of Lord Chamberlin’s men (William Shakespeare’s company). Lord Carey provided Emilia with financial security, independence and literary connections, including an introduction to Mary Sidney (a noblewoman who developed and led the largest and most influential literary circle in English history, now called Wilton Circle).
Time, for Carey’s mistress meant time to write, but soon Emilia became pregnant and was married to her cousin Alphonso Lanier. During her marriage she continued to write and it was at this stage that she met Shakespeare.
It is suggested that they became lovers and there are many different schools of thought on Emilia’s contribution to the works of Shakespeare. First, his knowledge of music seems to have had an influence on the works of Shakespeare.
Her name appears in multiple iterations in many of Shakespeare’s works, as does her home, Italy. Interestingly, Shakespeare wrote such rich female characters, with voice and agency, but didn’t teach his own daughter to read. This begs the question, who else was pushing to support Shakespeare to realize these perspectives in his plays? We are thinking of Emilia.
After the death of her daughter and multiple miscarriages, she will teach women “south of the river” to read and write. At the age of 42, Emilia publishes a collection of poetry entitled Salvo Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews).
Emilia’s book was the first substantial and original book of poetry written by an Englishwoman. It was about the crucifixion of Christ from a female perspective. It was groundbreaking for its time and within the text were radical messages and ideas for women to stand up, have agency and a voice.
While she was a product of her time, the writings reflected progressive ideas for a classless world where men and women were considered equal. I like to think of it as one of the first feminist works, subversively buried in religion so as not to alert the censors. Emilie died in 1645.
This cast is extremely diverse. Why did you take this approach? What does it bring to the scene?
The piece was written to be performed by an all-female cast made up of diverse women and non-binary performers. It wouldn’t be the same game if that was ignored. Morgan Lloyd Malcom also wrote Emilia to be played by three different actors, challenging the idea that a piece about one person should be a vehicle for one actor. It allows for a depth of perspective as these three different performers bring their different lived experiences to the role and I think it gives the audience more entry points into the work.
In a way, we are all Emilia. Personally, I want to see works on our stages that reflect the world we live in. I wouldn’t call this cast “extremely diverse”, it just reflects the reality of the world.
We spent a lot of time in the theater excluding people for no good reason. The piece is about a history erased from history – I was determined not to erase the intersection of multiple female and non-binary experiences from the conversation in the rehearsal room and thought it was extremely important for a public to also experience this intersection of feminisms/experiences.
What is your favorite quote or scene from the play and why?
There are so many moments in the play that are my favorites. I like the humor in the work – it’s so funny and subversive. But the monologue delivered by Emilia 3 always makes me cry a little. This may sound trivial to you, but I think it’s an experience that so many women (and especially women of color) have had.
It’s a wonderful thing when someone inspires confidence in you. Hold out your hand. Believes you can do it and only you. Doesn’t see you as a risk or a trifle, sees you as not being patronized or fired. And I see through my many years now how valuable that is for any type of creation. And how lucky some were to have that from birth. An assumption that “you will”, instead of one that says “you shouldn’t”.
The piece is described as both hilarious and furious. What can you tell us about the emotional landscape of the piece?
What Morgan Lloyd Malcom brilliantly balances is the deep fury and injustice felt by the generational legacy our society holds at its heart of silencing, disempowering and hurting women while celebrating our strength, our fallibility. and our humanity.
Morgan balances laughing at the absurdity of patriarchy while acknowledging the very real impact it has on women’s lives and bodies. And it’s one of the brightest things in the play, it contains these two seemingly contradictory truths simultaneously. He uses the form of theatre, in a very Shakespearean way to allow these ideas to clash.
Morgan (like Shakespeare) uses humor to speak to as many people as possible so that her audience breathes in and enjoys storytelling, and uses poetry and drama to elevate the story of a forgotten woman. It’s been an absolute gift to achieve, to be joyful and playful (there was so much laughter), but we’re never far from the truth about the experience and the impact inequality has had on women and continues to have.
It’s amazing that the problems women had 400 years ago are still relevant today. As a feminist, how does that make you feel? How to keep hope?
Yes, there is still a long way to go and although we are constantly taking steps forward, we also seem to be taking steps backwards and sideways. I think power and privilege are hard things to recognize and give up.
But more and more, I see and experience a cultural shift. Some people are stepping back – but more importantly, so many people are speaking up and speaking up. It gives me hope.
There is serious scholarly work exploring whether Emilia was actually Shakespeare and whether he published her work and the work of another woman under her name. Does the production challenge us to determine if Shakespeare was really a woman (or two)?
No, the production does not ask us to consider whether Shakespeare was a woman. This leads us to think that he may not have been a soloing genius. He questions the idea of the child prodigy. That Emilia contributed significantly to his labors and works and that if he had written today the line of credit for his works might have read – by William Shakespeare and Emilia Lanier with Lord’s Men Chamberlin. I believe it was an act of collaboration – like any good theatrical creation.
- Image above: In Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s electrifying new play, Emilia and her sisters challenge us through the centuries with passion, fury, laughter and song. Image: Provided
Ginger Gorman is a fearless, multi-award winning social justice and feminist journalist. Ginger’s bestseller, troll hunting, came out in 2019. Since then, she’s been in demand both nationally and globally as an expert on cyberhate and the real damage predator trolling can do. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of BroadAgenda and Gender Editor at HerCanberra. Ginger hosts the popular “Seriously Social” Podcast for the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. Am here on Twitter.