The Next Mary
by Mairy Beam
The Next Mary is my first and only historical play. Its genesis was in 2013 during the Write Now playwriting challenge at Alumnae Theatre, where we were given 48 hours to write a play that related to an incident that occurred at the Grange in the 1850s that involved an Irish maid. As I was doing research I became fascinated with what was happening in Toronto in the 1840s. Between May and October 1847 close to 40,000 Irish immigrants arrived in Toronto which had a population of 20,000. Most of the immigrants were malnourished because of the failure of the potato crops. Many were sick with Typhus.
This got me wondering about what it would be like for a young Irish woman coming to Toronto at this time. Also about what it would be like for those living in Toronto already, whether they were English or Irish. I began my research. My first three characters were quickly born – a newly arrived Irish Catholic maid, the English housekeeper/employer, and an Irish protestant cook.
The reading at Write Now went very well and I was encouraged to expand the script. I was keen to do more research and develop the characters more. One of my sources was Roughing it in the Bush by Susanna Moodie. That was where I got the inspiration for the uppity Yankee. A version of this play received a reading in Big Ideas in 2014. It has been much revised since then, including at a workshop with the Wet Ink Collective in 2017.
While working on a family history with my sister, I realized that my grandfather’s family emigrated from England in 1844 just prior to the time period of the play. They joined relatives who made a living fishing on Toronto Islands (though in those days it was a peninsula not islands). They would have been a witness to the influx of the Irish.
It seems to me that the issues faced by immigrants today are not that different from those of the 1840s: their religion is suspect; their names are changed for our convenience; the difficulty finding work; racism.
It’s a challenge to write an historical play – to use language appropriate to the era, to make appropriate cultural references (what did they eat, what did they read, if anything?), etc. I am grateful to google and the public library for giving me some insight into such matters. I was also able to draw on my experience growing up in a small farming village in southern Ontario where, in my youth, the vestiges of Protestantism vs Catholicism could still be found.
I am delighted that The Next Mary was chosen to be in PinkFest. My heartfelt thanks to Marcia Johnson for her insight into my characters, and her suggestions for improvement. My usual response to her suggestions was “Of course. Why didn’t I see that?”, though I remain stubbornly attached to Mrs. Brown.
I was excited at how my characters came to life at the table read -- very talented actors and a terrific director. Even more excited to have people come to the reading, perhaps some whose ancestors were in Toronto in the 1840s, and some who themselves are new immigrants.