By Richelle Sutton, Dramaturg
While I was in London over the summer, I had an amazing once in a lifetime opportunity. I was able to contact Helen Edmundson, the playwright for Mill on the Floss, months before. She listened to my requests and agreed to meet with me for a personal interview about the production. In a quaint little café, we met together and conversed about the play. I was pleasantly surprised by the many insights Mrs. Edmundson shared. I am very grateful to her for taking the time to meet with one small dramaturg and enlarge her world and understanding of this beautiful play. Following is a transcript of our conversation together and I hope that you will also be enlightened by the words that she shared with us. Be warned, there are spoilers for the production and story in this interview.
H.E.: When witches get tested, if they swim then they’re guilty and then they’re going to be killed. And if they sink then they were innocent. So when I was writing it, that was sort of the plan…was that Maggie was being tested. The character of Maggie was being tested almost as a witch, so there was some sort of base-line of disapproval in society…
I think most witches, when they weren’t behaving the way they were supposed to behave, [society] maybe just labeled them as witches because they were transgressing, and that’s what Maggie’s doing. Society can’t handle who she really is. They can’t handle her strength and her intellect and sensuality and, you know, all those things about her. So, I mean, the whole thing is the testing of Maggie, which is why I opened with her reading from the book about witches being tested. And then at the end with the flood, going under the water, that she’s innocent but she dies. That’s the overriding message.
That thing of her being three Maggies is not to do with age, as some people think. They think, “Oh, there’s one where she’s young, and there’s one where she’s a bit older, and one where she’s older, but it’s nothing to do with age. It has to with Maggie reinventing herself; believing that she’s wrong, that somehow she’s wrong and she doesn’t fit into society. So she reinvents herself. She thinks “I’m going to have to change myself, I can’t be this because if I’m like this I get rejected and I cause trouble for everybody”. So she reinvents herself as the religious, mechanical, straight-laced Maggie as a way to try and find a way to live within this society that she’s in…and then she discovers not only that she gets criticism for that, …but also she finds that it’s just not within her to be able to suppress all her feelings and appetites. So third Maggie is the nearest. It’s a more balanced Maggie, but even then it’s a more spirited self with a desire to live. You know, it’s too much and so she ends up being metaphorically ducked and dies. So that’s kind of why I wrote it how I wrote it.
R.S: It’s interesting in that time period for me because of how people viewed people and how their differences were so wrong. You know, that they couldn’t accept that people were different.
H.E: That’s right, because, I suppose it’s threatening, isn’t it? And that’s the thing people are so fearful of: things being different and men being different… They felt that they couldn’t control something, they just felt like they were threatened by it and that they had to squash it out. And what’s really sad about Maggie is that she’s sensitive enough, you know. If she was a kind of rebel, in a way it wouldn’t have been so difficult… She’s so aware and so desperate to make it all right and to fit in with society and she just can’t.
R.S: …The interesting thing for me is that it related a lot to George Eliot’s own life and that intrigued me. Especially with the relationships that she had with her family.
H.E: I think she must have always felt that she was wrong, you know. She wasn’t doing what she was supposed to do and being what she was supposed to be. I just– you feel it, don’t you? The passion in which the book is written. Maggie, I think, is related to George Eliot. You can’t– it’s just the detail of it. I always remember the really tiny little lines where she says things like ‘Maggie moved away’ and ‘Maggie checked in the mirror’ and ‘she’d look at this doll she’d been having a conversation with about these people’…and it’s really disturbing. You don’t write that boring character…you write it because that’s how you view yourself.
H.E: The flow of the thing [the production], the way the scenes just kind of lay on top of each other, is so important. [I’ve been seeing productions] for a long time, seeing what’s quite literally[them] bringing lots of stuff in, trying to [make it real] and in fact it just made it feel lumpy; unnecessary. I think it’s best, people can fill it so much with imagination. I always try to give strong signals within the dialogue of scenes. Right from the top I give strong signals about where we are, what sort of situation it is…because that’s the style of theatre I was writing for. So…the words have to bring the life.
R.S: Are there any other aspects of the work that you feel are the most important?
H.E: I think the transition from Maggie to Maggie, finding the right way to show that. To be completely bold about having one Maggie so that you see that it’s not simply just a question. You actually see that this is the new Maggie that’s being born, and that it’s strange to be the one Maggie to try to connect them [the other Maggies]. If it feels like this moment where we suddenly moved on from second Maggie to third Maggie, I think it’s important to note that first Maggie and second Maggie are still there interacting with third Maggie.
Thank you again to Helen Edmundson for taking the time to broaden our understanding of the beautiful production!