When Mary E. Webb was first nominated as a possible subject for one of the films in Whose History?, by Dr Hannah Murray in the Department of English at Liverpool, we were immediately drawn to her story.
The most influential version of that story was written by her husband, the novelist, journalist and educator Frank J. Webb, in his 1856 ‘Biographical Sketch’ . Mary was born in Massachusetts in 1828; her mother had escaped from slavery, and her father was reputedly a Spanish nobleman. Her mother’s determination secured Mary a good education, and she distinguished herself at school. In Frank’s words, “she exhibited at an early period a fondness for poetry”, and also a talent for performance. In 1845, at the age of 17, she married Frank, who at that time ran a cloth and clothing design business in Philadelphia. When the business failed in 1854, the Webbs turned their energies to the arts, and Mary began her dramatic readings. She knew, however, that a life in public would expose her to virulent racial prejudice. Frank describes this with deeply affecting candour in his sketch:
Hitherto, the idea that she could claim the attention or win the favour of the public, had never suggested itself to her; and when it did, in its wake came also a train of appalling difficulties, which she must encounter in her undertaking. She had not only to surmount the barriers which beset the path of every aspirant for public distinction, but above all—and most discouraging was the fact—that she must storm the ramparts of prejudice, and wring from the unwilling lips of the despisers of her race a confession of her merit. The vastness of this undertaking can only be properly estimated by those who know and appreciate the strength of complexional distinctions in the United States.
Mary studied elocution, and made her debut in Philadelphia on 19 April 1855, to immediate acclaim. Her husband noted revealingly of that first performance: “genius had become the conqueror of prejudice”. Important introductions to literary figures followed – most significantly, to Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin had become a publishing sensation on its appearance in 1852, and played a considerable role in advancing the abolitionist cause in America in the years leading up to the Civil War. Deeply impressed by Mary, Stowe adapted Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the stage expressly for her, and extracts from this play, The Christian Slave, became fixtures in Mary’s repertoire.
In 1856, the Webbs travelled to England for a reading tour, advancing the cause of abolition in America through meetings with politically sympathetic campaigners. Reviewers, though often expressing themselves through the language and prejudices of the time, praised Mary’s extraordinary skill in portraying a variety of characters and her ease at moving between these different roles. They were also moved by the control and truth of her performances. Mary gave readings at the Royal Institute in Liverpool from 20 to 23 July 1857. But her health was declining – she was suffering from tuberculosis – and by September that year, the Webbs had left England. Mary died in Jamaica in 1859.
Let Her Witness It: The Texts
As we began to think about how to approach Mary, it became clear that, despite vastly different experiences and challenges, she had one thing in common with Albert James, the subject of our earlier project Wild Laughter. Both Mary and Albert were popular and celebrated performers, but it is very difficult to access them through their own words. One way to find these elusive actors, if we want to revive them on stage or on screen, is to match up what we know of their biographies with what we know of their performances.
We know that, in addition to The Christian Slave, Mary’s repertoire included extracts from Shakespeare’s Othello, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s bestselling epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha, which had been published in 1855. (Longfellow, also a committed abolitionist, was another admirer of Mary’s performances.) Let Her Witness It is composed of extracts from these texts. Othello, The Christian Slave, and Hiawatha have always provoked questions from their readers and audiences: their authors intended them to. But other, sometimes more urgent, questions which could not have been foreseen by Shakespeare, Stowe, and Longfellow will be immediately obvious to our audiences. These questions are at the heart of what we hope to explore in this film.
Let Her Witness It begins with Othello. Thanks to Hannah Murray, we know that Mary probably performed Othello’s speech from Act I, Scene 3, which begins “Most potent, grave and reverend signors”. At this early point in the drama, Othello has to stand before the senators of Venice and account for his recent marriage to Desdemona – specifically, his detractors, who include Desdemona’s father Brabantio, want to know how he wooed Desdemona. They suspect witchcraft. Othello acquits himself brilliantly: he delivers a polished speech, which undermines his profession that years on the battlefield have left him ill suited for oratory, and he courteously emphasises that Desdemona fell in love with him freely.
In Othello, Shakespeare was deliberately exploring difference and sympathy, as he did in other works, and with greater subtlety, intelligence, and compassion than some of his play’s interpreters in the intervening centuries. But while his first audiences would have watched a boy play the role of Desdemona, Mary Webb brought arguably unprecedented meaning to Othello’s words. Her mid nineteenth-century interpretations of Shakespeare’s tragic hero provoked and recalibrated questions about race, identity and performance – and about gender. Here again, for us, there was a link with our approach in Wild Laughter: towards the end of that piece the character of Albert, played by a woman, lapses into Shakespeare and delivers the poignant climactic exchange between Rosaline and Berowne from Love’s Labour’s Lost.
From Shakespeare’s Venice, Mary takes us to the context closest to her time and place, and to the concerns of her abolitionist audiences in America and England, with an extract from The Christian Slave. Despite its original success and the progressive attitudes of its author, Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a problematic text. The history of its dramatic adaptations and interpretations, which popularised and maintained profoundly objectionable stereotypes of African American identity for white audiences, is at the heart of these issues, as the folklorist Patricia A. Turner has long shown in her vital research. Our engagement with The Christian Slave has been informed by such conversations about the obvious limitations and deplorable legacies of Stowe’s work.
In Let Her Witness It, our focus is on the character of Cassy. We develop the theme of thwarted relationships between women and men which Othello established for us, and we focus on female experience. Mary delivers Cassy’s speech from Act III, Scene 4 of Stowe’s Christian Slave. The beginning of Cassy’s story is not unlike Mary’s own: her mother is enslaved, her father is a wealthy landowner, and she receives both education and adulation in a childhood of comparative good fortune. But when she is 14 Cassy’s father dies suddenly; “my father had always meant to set me free,” she tells us, “but he had not done it, and so I was set down in the list.” Cassy’s father is not the last man to let her down. She recounts, in unsparing detail, her exploitation at the hands of the two white slaveowners who subsequently take possession of her, her agonies as a mother, and a desperate decision she takes which, in her circumstances, seems to her the only way to protect her youngest child from the unrelenting trauma of slavery.
Hiawatha and Minnehaha
We know that Mary also performed extracts from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s long poem, The Song of Hiawatha. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin earlier in the decade, Hiawatha was an instant bestseller, selling 30,000 copies in its first six months in print. While he has long since fallen out of poetic and critical fashion, Longfellow was the most beloved and successful American poet of the age, and he enjoyed fame and admiration in Britain, too, so when Mary read from his work she could bank on the appreciation of her audience: Hiawatha was a crowd-pleaser. However, Longfellow’s enthusiastic exploration of Native American mythology is fraught with problems: like Stowe, he presented archetypes which became stereotypes and, as the critic Dana Gioia has pointed out, there is also a sense that he Europeanised his subject matter. It’s a case of what we would now readily identify as cultural appropriation.
Approaching the poem for Mary in Let Her Witness It, we considered its voices. In the extract we selected, the famous and much adapted death of Minnehaha, Mary speaks mostly as the poem’s narrator, but she briefly takes on the voice of both the hero, Hiawatha, and his love, Minnehaha. Accounts of Mary’s performances tell us that during her Longfellow readings she wore a Native American headdress – a remarkable detail which brings considerably more complexity to our core questions about performance and identity. It also resonates with the controversy in recent years over the appropriation of Native American symbols in fashion and popular culture, particularly the war bonnet headdress. In Let Her Witness It, Mary never wears the headdress. Instead it appears almost as a character in itself, another presence on screen with which she interacts.
‘Let Her Witness It’ and then, ‘Put Out the Light’
At the end of the speech from Othello we use in the film, Desdemona’s entrance on stage is announced, and her husband entreats his audience to “let her witness it”. This line gives us our title. “Witness” here carries the sense of attesting to – Othello is suggesting, in other words, that Desdemona tell the story of their relationship, and corroborate his own account. Desdemona’s “witnessing” is active, not passive, and so is Mary’s. She is in control of the stories she tells, but paradoxically the stories themselves tell of characters who, one way or another, by their authors, audiences, and interpreters, and by the societies in which we find them, are denied such agency. So Mary witnesses them, bringing them forward to make us see them and show us she understands them.
We wanted Mary to retain that control until the last, which is why her final words are a command: “Put out the light, and then, put out the light.” Again they are taken from Othello, this time from the climax of the tragedy, after Othello has killed Desdemona, and they carry the weight of their literary origins. But reclaimed for Mary at the end of this piece, they also allow this great actor to call time. It’s as if she’s saying: I have done; enough’s enough; the show’s over. The rest is up to the audience – to you, and to us.