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  • Chris ORourke

Typhoid Mary

Charlotte Bradley in Typhoid Mary. Photo by Futoshi Sakauchi


Facts and Truth

Tales of Irish women who emigrated to America in the 1800’s, and of the wrongs they suffered, are fruitful grounds for revisionist and feminist re-examinations. Given that the first registered immigrant at Ellis Island was an Irish woman, Annie Moore, there's plenty of fascinating stories to be explored. Margaret Atwood might be said to have got the ball rolling with her 1996 novel Alias Grace, recently adapted into a hugely popular mini-series for Netflix, which tells the tragic tale of Grace Marks. Around that same time, the late Eithne McGuinness staged her similarly themed revisionist work, “Typhoid Mary” at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 1997. Setting out to give voice to a woman whose name has become synonymous with disease and death, McGuinness’ tale reimagines Mary as a modern day metaphor for the silencing and abuse of woman.

The tale itself is simply enough. Mary Mallon, from County Tyrone, departs to the U.S. in 1874 at the age of fifteen. There, working as a cook, she was deemed to be a carrier of typhoid given her poor personal hygiene and the fact that almost everywhere she worked people went down with the disease, several of them dying. Even though Mary vehemently protested her innocence, she was forcibly quarantined at Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island in the East River from 1907 to 1910, and again from 1915 till her death in 1938. Mary would eventually spend over a third of her life in semi or full isolation, gaining the nickname “Typhoid Mary” which followed her into folklore.

If Mary’s tale is straightforward enough, the facts are often less so. Evidence might indeed suggest that while Mary Mallon’s incarceration was excessive and unjust, her claim not to be a typhoid carrier might well have been incorrect. Yet in McGuinness’ “Typhoid Mary” the facts, spread across its crisscrossing narrative interrupted by songs and cooking recipes, don’t speak to the truth entirely. For they don’t tell the full story, or ask the question McGuiness is striving for you to hear: was it typhoid, or Mary’s indomitable spirit, that they wanted to quarantine from the world?

Under the direction of Bairbre Ni Chaoimh “Typhoid Mary” takes on a distinctly didactic feel. Looking and feeling like an overly long history lesson given by a highly imaginative teacher, “Typhoid Mary” delivers its revisionist take courtesy of some chalk and talk, chalking up dates and times, the lost years, and the false assumptions on a large blackboard. Charlotte Bradley as the eponymous Mary ensures Mary is no shrinking violet, tackling themes of rape, abuse, lack of education and endless confinement with great verve. Her Mary is an independent soul with a relentless hunger for living life on her own terms, personally, financially, and sexually, who refuses to have her feisty and indomitable spirit broken. Only the possible loss of an ailing lover gives her a moment’s unguarded pause, allowing the heart to surface briefly before being shielded again, protected from the battles that yet await her.

If “Typhoid Mary” feels overly didactic at times, its power lies not in the selected facts it offers, but in the truth that inspired it. Performed with passion and conviction by Charlotte Bradley, “Typhoid Mary” gives voice to a woman who was unjustly treated, yet one who, even to this day, refuses to be silenced. Timely indeed.

“Typhoid Mary” by Eithne McGuinness, runs at The Viking Theatre until January 20th

For more information, visit The Viking Theatre.

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