It’s difficult to know what contemporary plays are worth picking up, and most new plays are not available to the general public. This upcoming event of Hearth and Mantel’s seeks to in some small way contribute to more accessibility of contemporary plays. There is also a certain communal aspect of reading a play together that most literature can’t quite achieve in the same way, and we hope this event provides a new way of reading and interacting with each other and with the text. And so, we are excited to offer a summer reading and audience discussion for three contemporary plays.
The first of these plays is “Heresy of Love” written in 2012 by Helen Edmundson and based upon the life of Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz, who lived in the late 1600’s in a world where a woman’s place was silence. Sister Juana was a poet and philosopher, nun and fighter for the right of women to have a voice, to speak, to live without totalitarian censorship, to be free from a prescribed destiny, and to write, to be creative. Sister Juana chose to be a nun, after rejecting the notion of marriage and of any set in stone occupation which would disallow her the ability to study and write. She joined the Convent of Santa Paula of the Hieronymite order in Mexico City, took her vows and remained cloistered there for the rest of her life.
In the convent of Santa Paula, she was granted her own apartment, time to study and pursue writing, and she taught music and drama to the girls of Santa Paula’s school. She collected one of the largest private libraries in the known world. She kept in correspondence with significant scholars and figures with political power, such as the viceroy and vicereine of New Spain, whose patronage allowed her to write and defy the normal circumstances of women wishing to create and to write, desires which were for women, as a general rule, allowed under no circumstances. She received commissions to write for political events, festivals, as well as religious services.
Sister Juana wrote in a wide variety of styles and genres: sonnets, romances, ballads, poems, serious dramas, comedies, scholarly writings, popular entertainment, religious allegories, dramas, cloak and dagger plays, and lyrics and carols to be sang in the Mexico city cathedrals. She is known for writing the letter Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz, which defended women’s right to education and philosophy against the Bishop of Puebla.
However, in 1694, amid unknown conditions, possibly due to pressure from other members and officials of the church who disagreed with her perspective on the rights of women, her pursuit of writing, and her standing with political and popular members of the public world, Sister Juana ceased to publish, and, as far as the world was concerned, abandoned her literary endeavors. Her massive library was sold for alms for the poor.
The next year, Sister Juana died after a vicious plague struck the city and spread through the convent. She died taking care of her sick, fellow sisters, leaving behind a prolific collection of poetry, plays, and writings that have endured for three hundred years.
Hearth and Mantel are drawn to this story for several reasons. Sister Juana had a fierce and prolific dedication to creativity and Art despite the stigma of the predominant world around her. She endured with unimaginable courage and patience, and the last image left to us is a picture of a strong, broken, vulnerable, and kind woman who suffered the loss of what she truly believed was God’s gift and purpose for her life. And, the last we know of Sister Juana is that when the devastation of the plague swept through the city and nunnery, she was there tending to the sick and dying until she too drew her last breath.
In “Heresy of Love,” we see her closest mentors and friends fail her, and what is sure and certain is taken away, and the things she received accolades and joy for turn to ash in front of her. The play offers up valuable questions, both among secular and religious communities. How does Art celebrate life, and how do we use it to give joy and meaning, how do we use it to share with each other a glimpse of our hearts? What is it really that gives one value and purpose? How can it be that one authority figure seems to hold the ability to remake and shape an entire system of beliefs and values and what does this lean towards for the future? For the church, the play asks how does each individual’s God given gifts work in conjunction with theology and not in spite of it? And how do we use our gifts in the creation and development of loving communities where all can find somewhere to belong? Please join us in discussion of these questions and this fascinating story.
Blog written by Mac Mitchell