Hearing the voice of Mother Mary: A talk with Colm Tóibín

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How it’s New York: The broadway play is produced by Scott Rudin, a well-known NY producer, and author Colm Tóibín teaches a semester at TOM Rehearsals (4)Columbia every year.
How it’s Irish:Catholic imagery is ingrained in the culture of Ireland, regardless of anybody’s religion.

I spoke to Colm Tóibín while the play “Testament of Mary” was in rehearsal. Here are his thoughts on seeing his words come alive, on New York and Ireland, and inspiration.

A version of this article was first published in Irish Examiner USA, Tuesday, April 16.

It was like a gift of God. Sometimes a story takes a long time to come together, said author Colm Toíbín, whose play “The Testament of Mary” opens at the Walter Kerr Theatre on April 22.

Sometimes an idea takes a long time to percolate. Sometimes it might start as one thing and then only find its realization in another form. Sometimes, the author said, it never comes together at all.

But with “The Testament of Mary,” Toíbín said, “the minute I thought of it I had it. I knew what form it would be in. I knew I wanted it in the theatre.”


It is only the second play he has ever done. His first, “Beauty in a Broken Place,” was for the Abbey Theatre’s Centenary in 2004. Toíbín is well known as a novelist, and has written award-winning books including “Brooklyn” and “The Master.” He’s won the E.M. Forster Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Irish PEN Award for Literature.

Toíbín wrote “The Testament of Mary” for the wonderful Irish actress Marie Mullen, who recently was in New York as part of DruidMurphy. The one-woman show was in the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2011. In New York, the part is played by Fiona Shaw. Deborah Warner directs.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, tells her story in Ephesus where she lives, years after the Crucifixion, while two of the disciples are shaping their own.

‘A traumatized mother’

TOM Rehearsals (3)When he began, he said, “I didn’t know where it was going to take me. It was written in the first person. I followed the voice, and whatever image came to me, I went with.”

Toíbín describes himself as “a lapsed Irish Catholic,” which means, he said, that the

imagery and language is in my blood. It can be summoned up at a moment’s notice.”

He grew up with icons and statues of Mary, he said. In 2000, he had been teaching Greek plays at the New School (he now teaches at Columbia), and

“thinking about the idea of the grieving woman, the figure who cries out. That was on my mind. The minute I thought of it I was away.”

He saw Mary, he said, as a traumatized mother. In the play she is telling the story of Jesus years later. She is not going through it, but remembering it, the author said.

“It gives the language a sort of energy. It is an unresolved experience from someone who’s been through something appalling. It’s relentless.”

That said, there is some humor in the play, largely because of Shaw’s performance.

“The pain is still there, but what’s coming out is laughter instead of tears,” he marveled. “It’s extraordinary to watch. She can control the audience, as well as the line.”

The play is sad but also uplifting, he said. “I think people will leave wanting to talk about it to someone else.”

At home(s)

One of those people was singer Karan Casey, who told the audience about seeing the play from the stage of the Irish Arts Center last week. Hearing that, Toíbín excitedly said,

“I was listening to her singing ‘Roger the Miller’ in the summer when I was writing my first draft!” He was in Spain at the time, and made a little bargain with himself that “if I write another page, I can go and listen.”

Living in different places sharpens his creativity, he said. He lives part of the time in New York, and part of the time in Dublin, teaching one ColmToibin photo by Phoebe Lingsemester a year at Columbia.

When he returns to Dublin, he notices that there would be nobody on the street at 11:30 in the morning, maybe one person at the top. “It’s the strangest thing,” he said with a laugh.

The novel “Brooklyn,” which takes place in Brooklyn and in Ireland during the 1950s, reflects Toíbín’s experiences, he said, of

waking of some mornings and wondering why am I here. When I get the blues, I associate it with being away from home. At home, it just feels natural, maybe I haven’t slept well enough. I do think it sharpens observation. It shakes you up.

“My closest friend in Ireland is Dublin airport.”

Writing for the stage

After the Dublin Theatre performance, Toíbín said,

“I was like the boy who owns the football, and took it home. I got in a room of my own, with no director, actress, lighting designer, and went back to it. I looked at everything I had to create the theatre piece, then stitched it together again.”

He published a version as a novella in 2012, but the play was being tweaked when we spoke last week.

It is now in previews, and Toíbín is back working with the theatrical team to make changes, something he says he loves.

“You can spend your life writing novels and never see anybody reading them,” he said. “You never know at what point they thought this or that. There is an absolute sense of silence. Someone reads it in silence. You might get reviews, or someone might tell you something… the closest thing is seeing stars on Amazon.”

Even there, however, he said, you don’t really know what bit they liked, what made them laugh out loud.

“Having a live audience is both terrifying and a great relief.”

That relief is why many novelists love the theatre, he said.

TOM Rehearsals captioned (5)The process fascinates him. “Fiona and Deborah work at levels of subtlety that are beyond me,” he said, referring to how they can alter the emotional impact of a moment with a change in voice, or a lighting change, or a turn.

Anytime I want to lie down and die, they’ll say get up,” he said with a laugh.

“Sometimes I look around and say, ‘All these people are here with their friends.’ I wonder who they are.”

It’s a lonely feeling.

Then the lights go down, and everyone is there together.

It becomes the actress’s performance. And the author is another spectator.

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