The Puritans came all the way from the Old World in search of religious tolerance. But once they settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they began perpetrating such horrific crimes against people of other faiths that it would appear a collective amnesia had descended. Or perhaps the violence they’d suffered at the hands of religious institutions back in England and Holland had become such a way of life that they could not imagine a way forward except through more violence and theocracy. Whatever the complicated reasons, the Puritans were the first in the New World to render heresy a crime punishable by death.
Anne Hutchison was among the first condemned as a heretic by the Puritans. Her crime: organizing groups of neighbors to study the Bible without supervision of the clergy. Among other radical notions she also believed every person should—and did—have direct access to God. But worse, Anne Hutchison was a leader, a woman who spoke her mind. The play’s heroine, Mary Dyer, introduces us to Anne, her mentor and spiritual sister, as having a calm visage, something knowing and righteous about her that penetrated the air – “the wisdom that only mothers have as far back as mothers go.” Little wonder that she was such a threat to the men in charge.
And so the play’s themes of motherhood begin to emerge. The mothers in Mary’s Joy are steely-eyed visionaries and rebellious wives who endure pregnancy after pregnancy, miscarriages, stillbirths, illnesses, accidents, funerals. Childbirth and childrearing was a grim business in those days. Mary Dyer had eight babies, six of which survived infancy. Her first was a stillbirth, and the third was born with what we would now likely recognize as anencephaly: the baby had no skull, or brain. How, the play asks us, could a woman survive such trauma unscarred? But still Mary soldiered on, under and around her grief and loss, certainly grasping for something that made sense. Beyond its compelling themes, Mary’s Joy is an essential chronicle of the birth of the Quaker movement from the perspective of women.
In 1638, Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchison and their families were banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They decided to follow the Reverend Roger Williams to Rhode Island. At the time of their banishment, that territory was no more empty of people than was Massachusetts Bay, but unlike the Puritans, Williams and his followers asked the indigenous people permission to share their land. This new tribe of white settlers lived in pacific cooperation with the Narragansett people.
But in 1650, when Mary Dyer’s youngest child was still an infant, she boarded a ship for England, alone. She stayed for seven years, during which time she discovered the Seekers, a sect of free thinkers, and soon thereafter met George Fox and became part of the founding of Fox’s Quaker Movement. When she finally returned to the colonies, she came back not to her family in Rhode Island but instead to Boston, where she was immediately arrested as a heretic and a Quaker. She would have known, of course, that this would happen. She was jailed for two and a half months, and reprieved by the Governor when her husband William petitioned on her behalf. To secure her release, William promised that Mary would never enter Massachusetts again. As her husband, he exercised his paternity, posted bond, and took her home. But Mary returned twice more to Boston, each time facing arrest and possible execution.
A fictionalized account based on painstaking historical research, Mary’s Joy explores real events, relies on actual detail, and gives us the when-what-where of happenings. Mostly. For example we cannot know for sure that Anne Hutchison was a woman who seemed to contain her fierce maternal righteousness behind a calm visage, but the play helps us see this must of course be true. Similarly, we cannot know what actually occurred in that sun- dappled meadow between Mary and William, after he’d so heroically galloped all the way from Rhode Island to snatch her from prison. Or even if there was a sun-dappled meadow at all. If there wasn’t, the play suggests, there ought to have been. There ought to have been enough joy in that moment for such a tender and urgent reunion.
To reconstruct a character like Mary Dyer, who died 350 years ago, using only the raw material of history, the surviving snippets of her life’s work, means taking great care in understanding her. To attend to details, to understand the context, to live with her writings: this is how a playwright earns the right to fictionalize.
Mary Dyer was judged harshly for abandoning her children, but the play asks us to consider the courage it must have taken to let loose the bonds of motherhood; what an act of Buddhist detachment it must have been. Mary’s Joy imagines for us the fortitude, the calm, and the love for humanity of a woman whose call to fight for justice was so strong—and, it must be said, whose trauma was so deep—that she chose to turn away from a life that didn’t sustain her. Imagine the loving spirit that pulled her through to the other side.