Last year, the York Civic Trust caused a minor stir with its efforts to pay homage to the Yorkshire author, mountaineer, and English queer icon Anne Lister. Outside the church in which, in 1834, she declared a marital commitment—with the church’s blessing, remarkably—to Ann Walker, a rainbow-bordered plaque recognized Lister as a “gender non-conforming entrepreneur.” Some saw the descriptor as one that devalued her contributions to the lesbian community. It’s since been updated to “Lister . . . of Shibden Hall, Halifax, Lesbian and Diarist.”
After getting to know Lister a bit via Emma Donoghue’s chamber drama I Know My Own Heart, which is inspired by Lister’s extensive volumes of diaries (the naughty-bits coded in a flamboyantly complicated enigma of symbols and Greek letters), I can’t help but wonder what, if anything, she’d think about the plaque row if she were around today. Based on her witticisms and unyielding societal defiance, I imagine she’d either a) not care one way or the other or b) have quickly and casually written 30 pages of brilliant nonfiction prose about it. Or maybe she’d agree with her girlfriend Marianne’s clunky summation: “Well, you’re sort of a . . . female gentleman.”
Director Elizabeth Swanson’s production of I Know My Own Heart for Pride Films and Plays marks the U.S. premiere of Irish- Canadian Donoghue’s 1993 drama. Fans of Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film The Favourite may find some satisfying similarities in Donoghue’s tribute, which is another semi-fictionalized account of badass women undergoing the messy, exciting venture of rewriting the unofficial rules of relationships in English high society. While The Favourite pits its protagonists against one another in an 18th century Mean Girls dynamic, I Know My Own Heart follows a different trajectory, one that blurs the lines of monogamy and friendship and sex among a community of women who ultimately have each others’ backs.
And yet, even as Anne blazed her own trail when it came to how and who to love, the trappings of heteronormative relationships seep in and cause trouble in interesting ways. “It is strange that the kisses are always best after we have quarreled,” Lister observes about one of her many partners.
Donoghue admittedly takes sweeping liberties with Lister’s biography (including a complicated intra-family affair), but many of Lister’s onstage Carrie Bradshaw-style soliloquies are verbatim passages from her writings. As Lister, Vahishta Vafadari achieves a colloquial, confident charm that comes across so naturally and easily that it’s easy to forget how radical Lister’s perspective was in the society in which she lived. Likewise, as Lister’s lovers, Jessie Ellingsen, Eleanor Katz, and Lauren Grace Thompson find nuance in the various layers of jealousy and support and platonic, unconditional love shared by a group of women very much committed to finding their own way to happiness, judgements and street glares be damned.
Onstage, the format Donoghue uses to dramatize Lister’s written excerpts makes for an inherently more passive theatrical experience than contemporary audiences are used to, and I wonder if all of the simulated sex acts would have been seen as more scandalous during the play’s early-90s debut. Counterintuitively, the action here is less interesting than the straight recitations of journal entries, which feels like a subprime use of the stage as this story’s medium.
Typically when directors and scenic designers place the action in the middle of two blocks of house seat rows, the view of audience members across the way is intended to heighten the communal sense of reactions and ground them in the live event. But on opening night, Swanson’s staging achieved the opposite effect, instead brightly lighting the three of the seven viewers across the stage who were sound asleep. And I suspect, based on the sounds behind me, that the dozy energy in the house wasn’t limited to the folks on the other side of the stage.
Still, there’s much of value here to be learned about Lister’s outlook and philosophy, even if Swanson’s production is more of an intellectual accomplishment than a visceral and dramatic one. At its most fun, I Know My Own Heart escapes its stuffy collars and labyrinthian complications of relationships altogether and depicts the joys and solidarity of 19th century women enjoying each other’s company, having an eye only for the present. It’s there and there alone, Lister tells us, that we have any agency at all—in love or anything else. v