Saturday, 21 November 2015

Newes from the Dead

I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Prof. Jane Taylor at the Thackray Medical Museum last Thursday, on the creative processes which led to the creation of her play, After Cardenio, which drew its initial inspiration from the title of s lost Shakespeare play. Taylor's play dramatizes the events surrounding the supposed resurrection of Jane Greene, who was hanged at Oxford in 1650, but, when taken to be prepared for dissection by anatomists, it was discovered she was breathing and she was revived. She was thereafter pardoned for her crime - infanticide - and lived for another 15 years, bearing several children. The events surrounding her attempted execution led to much debate about the nature of resurrection from numerous scholars and surgeons at the time,

 After Cardenio uses puppetry as a means to explore the sense of disconnection between the physical and the metaphysical - how we apply definite boundaries to the notion of 'brain death' as a legal means to draw a line where none can physically be drawn. Prof. Taylor has also written a novel about the first heart transplant in the 1960s, which took place in her home land of South Africa, which necessitated the legal definition of brain death to be established so that heart donors could be found. The puppet in the play represents Jane Greene, as does the visible puppeteer and the female actress who voices her. 

We were shown video excerpts from the play, as well as experiencing a short theatrical interval by the Puppet Parliament, a local group using the puppet from the play. 

The lecture being held at the Thackray struck a chord with me: I have long felt the continued display of Mary Bateman's remains at the museum was a continuation of an outmoded form of posthumous punishment and the idea of a resurrection on the dissection table was highly symbolic to her story, being as her 'life' as anatomical model began at that point. I wondered if Prof. Taylor was aware of this synchronicity and planned to ask her at the event, which I did, but prior to the lecture I checked in the gallery where Mary was displayed and she had disappeared. 

Some discussion with Prof. Taylor and the Thackray curators provided us with some information. Mary had been removed from display at the end of July, and Leeds University will be conducting research on her before they decide whether to display her again. That evening I read this post by Marisol Solchaga, whose work placement at the Thackray whilst undertaking an MA in museum studies led to the discrepancies in the manner of Mary's remains being displayed being investigated and ultimately her remains being removed from display. I had flagged up the fact that her display was at odds with the current guidelines for museum displays of human remains to the Thackray for several years now, so it is a great relief to see something finally being done to remedy the issue.

 It is interesting to note that a male relative of Mary came forward to voice their unease at her treatment, I would very much like to get in touch with that person to discuss the best possible outcome for her remains. Leeds university, I am told, has a good track record with the proper treatment of sensitive materials, I hope to discuss the matter with them shortly. The physical afterlife of Mary has perhaps gone on too long. 

It was  a poignant moment for me from Prof. Taylor's discussion of the play that she described a newborn infant as a thing 'of cloth and bone', who she supposes is a blank canvas for us to gaze upon and imprint with our own ideals. The empty vessel of her description is a contradiction of my own experiences with a newborn, whose wants and desires are complex and insistent from the moment of birth, and even before. Birth is as much a liminal area as death, the moment we consider life to start and end is continually being reconsidered and re imagined - we now read about the chimeric cells of lost fetuses and siblings being mingled with those of future babies, and becoming part of the mother's genetic material too. The pathetic figure of the dead infant from the play is absent but for small gestures from the actress and puppet, wrapping two brass tankards in a blanket and cradling it, which the puppet, a more worldly creature, cannot pretend is it's child and throws the bundle across the room. The cloth and bone of Prof. Taylor's description reminded me of the creature from Eraserhead, dehumanizing the tiny infant as a means to cope with it's precarious mortality. 

The innocence of Jane in her child's death is ambiguous, the precarious position that women held in 17th century England demanded they declare a pregnancy or be accused of concealing it and therefore endangering the baby. Stillbirth therefore could be considered murder, as it was in Jane's case until her 'resurrection by god' absolved her of guilt. 

After Cardenio is sadly not currently being performed, however there is a lecture by Prof. Taylor available online, and her talk at the Thackray was both fascinating and inspiring so I highly recommend watching this in the meantime, while hoping the play may be performed again in the near future. 

GT/BQ 2013 - Jane Taylor - After After Cardenio - 09 May 2013 from GIPCA@UCT on Vimeo.

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