The Joy: The Mary Dyer Story by Jeanmarie Bishop reviewed by Kirsten Ebsen
While I was attending Westminster Meeting in London four years ago, two Friends from separate continents raved to me about a play they had seen at the FGC Gathering that summer. They spoke of The Joy, written and performed by Jeanmarie (Simpson) Bishop, concerning the life and death of Mary Dyer. Westminster Meeting is a stone’s throw from the parish of St Martin-in-the- Fields, where Mary and William Dyer married in 1633. Today, three hundred and eighty-three years later, their story has been published as a book containing Bishop’s play.
Mary Dyer was a seventeenth-century Quaker. This play is set during the last twenty-four hours of Dyer’s life, prior to her hanging on Boston Common on July 1, 1660, for refusing to stop preaching Quaker Truth. In Bishop’s telling, we are privy to the joy and conviction that Dyer found in the Inward Light, her love for her family, and her willingness to die in order to reveal a Truth that had been censored by Christian institutions for centuries.
Bishop has woven her tale around the very few historical facts that are known about Dyer’s life. She married William Dyer, they emigrated to New England in 1635, and she was executed by hanging in 1660. In Boston, the Dyers supported Puritan Church reformers. That, combined with the birth and death of a deformed baby, forced them to move to Rhode Island. Mary returned to England in 1651 and joined that first generation of Friends who were convinced by George Fox. Seven years later, she returned to Boston, but was jailed, then banished, for having become a Quaker. Bishop fills in the details of Dyer’s life, within these factual historical parameters, in a plausible and deeply moving way. Her use of language, at times heightened to imply a past century’s culture, is easily read by a contemporary audience. Her switching back and forth between mid-seventeenth century Quaker-style speech and a more modern voice is almost imperceptible.
Mary Dyer’s family rescued her twice from the authorities that sought to destroy her. But the third time, none could sway her determination. She became a martyr for the sin of following her own conscience. Her seventeenth-century feminism raged against the old biblical patriarchy and the injustices inflicted by that hierarchical mind-set – not only upon women, but on all who sought to worship God as they understood him and to live in a manner meaningful to man and woman alike.
It is clear in Bishop’s telling that Dyer could have avoided her execution. If she had been willing to compromise, her liberty would have been assured. So, how could she have done that to her husband and children? All is revealed in Bishop’s sensitive and insightful portrayal of Dyer searching her conscience and her memories, during those final hours of her life. Dyer was a passionate woman, unafraid of following her leadings, and prepared to die for her belief in God’s direct guidance. She wanted to ensure longevity for Friends in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and to convince its rulers to revoke their laws banning Quakers.
The thought of dying for one’s faith causes particular distress in our world today. We hear, almost daily, of fanatics who clothe themselves in perverted religiosity, executing horrific acts of violence and suffering as a means of addressing worldly injustices. Mary Dyer’s sacrifice, on the contrary, was an act of love. It was an act of allowing herself to become a vehicle for bringing the awareness of a loving God into the world.
The Joy is a wonderful addition to both home and meeting libraries, and can add to our knowledge of Early Friends’ history. It sheds a little more Light into our understanding of the mid-seventeenth century, in both Old and New England. ~~~
Kirsten Ebsen is a member of Vancouver Meeting, British Columbia. She was awarded a Woodbrooke Scholarship to research her play, Margaret of Swarthmoor, which had a rehearsed public reading at Oxford (UK) Meeting in 2010. She is currently working on a play about two seventeenth-century Quaker feminists, Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers, who were apprehended by the Inquisition in the mid-1660s.