Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 8: The Heresy of Love, Helen Edmundson (2012)
Considering our pledge to highlight works by female playwrights, this week’s ‘Read a Play a Week’ selection, Helen Edmundson’s The Heresy of Love, is doubly appropriate. After seeing a performance of The House of Desires at the RSC’s Swan Theatre in 2004, Edmundson became interested in unearthing the backstory of the 17th Century nun-cum-playwright, Sol Juana Inés de la Cruz. While Edmundson’s play is a heavily fictionalised biography, her aim to write in the style of the Spanish Golden Age of drama is fulfilled in its grandiose spirit, moralisation, and themes relating to both the secular and religious.
Celebrated for her poetic gifts within the Viceroy’s court, Sister Juana is encouraged by those around her to write. Fascinated by all aspects of life she indulges in her extensive library of books relating to all subjects, which she believes strengthen her faith just as much as religious scriptures. However, the newly appointed Archbishop, Aguair y Seijas, sees all plays and forms of entertainment as ‘sordid’, believing the newly founded Mexico to be a sunken land of heathens, imploring ‘Where is the church?’. Combined with the belief that women are incapable of having opinions worth voicing he seeks to put a stop to Juana’s unholy work.
What follows is a series of double crossings and betrayals, both accidental and intentional. The theme of corruption within puritanical authorities is reminiscent of the seediness of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, especially the element of sensuality in the duplicitous Santa Cruz’s interactions with Juana. Subplots involving Juana’s niece Angelica’s illicit relationship with a courtier, and the ravages of the plague exemplify the social crisis in Mexico. This crisis is shown to be proliferated, rather than remedied, by the Archbishop’s impositions. In a powerful scene towards the end of the play, Juana speculates that it is his overwhelming fear of the female sex which results in his denial of humanity and all the individuality, vitality, and frailty that encompasses mankind.
The prescriptive ideology of institutionalised religion is pitted against the soul-enriching personal faith of Juana. Her upholding that ‘faith should not enslave our minds, but open them’ presents a very credible and empathetic argument. It is worth noting that Juana’s view does not go unchallenged. Her unorthodox lifestyle is both exciting in its subversion but also raises questions about just how far we can modify religion to fit our more selfish motives. And while Edmundson’s focus on faith and women’s rights occasionally falls into preachiness it also successfully drives the plot as Juana’s poetic talent and steadfast religion is eventually turned against her by those she deemed trustworthy.
My only reservation would be that we’re constantly told how gifted Juana is, and her articulate eloquence somewhat illustrates this, but it would have been nice to see more first-hand examples of her poetry and drama within the play. This is only a minor quibble fuelled no doubt by my own laziness, as I’m aware that such examples are presumably only a quick google search away. Anyway, Edmundson has certainly piqued my interest in this remarkable historic figure. The Heresy of Love celebrates the endeavours of one progressive woman and playwright worthy of great attention, particularly pertinent in this age of reinvigorated feminism.