The secret has long since been out: the great 19th century English novelist who wrote under the masculine pen name George Eliot was, in fact, a woman. Marian Evans took on the pseudonym as she entered into the world of fiction writing and well into adulthood as both a cloak and security blanket, allowing her to tread delicately into the literary field while also shielding her from harsh criticisms and personal attacks. Of course the criticism of much of her work was immediately glowing and she has entered the annals of English literary history as a major force, with her name and gender a source of fascinating biographical and psychological research.
But Cathy Tempelsman’s new biographical play A Most Dangerous Woman, now receiving its world premiere at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, is not overly concerned with the historical facts of the author’s life or even with the process through which Marian Evans became George Eliot. The play’s focus is the woman who dominates its stage. Regardless of which of the several names she espouses over the course of the play seems most fitting, A Most Dangerous Woman explores the complex emotional and psychological dimensions of a mind seemingly too brilliant for its time, and of the dangers attendant upon such brilliance.
The play opens as George Eliot (Aedin Moloney, unflappable in the face of a very demanding role) sits alone in a chair looking lost and downtrodden as Eliot’s characters recite lines from her work: “What do you know about the world?” asks a smug husband, “You have married me and must be guided by my opinion.” “We all have our secret sins” injects another. As the lights come up the distinctness of each character’s lines collides into a cacophony and we are left only to watch Ms. Moloney look out over the theater as if as the passive conduit of biting realism. This is Eliot after all her work has been said and done, leaving to posterity the job of wrestling with its truths and challenges.
But then we are immediately whisked back to the early stages of Eliot wrestling with her own genius. We first meet Marian Evans in the office of a phrenologist—that pseudoscience that posits the shape of the skull as instructive of personality—seeking answers to why she seems so at odds with her society. Quack or not, the phrenologist recognizes the great intelligence of his subject, and we are given the early picture of a woman struggling to reconcile her intellect with Victorian demands of womanhood.
The play moves from there to an examination of this woman by progressing through Eliot’s biography. We find the not-yet-Eliot Marian Evans single into her forties, working as assistant editor for the Westminster Review, a prestigious journal for London intellectuals, and living in the home of the journal’s editor (who also keeps his wife and mistress under the same roof). She seems quite happy, but a visit from her brother Isaac (Rob Krakovski) quickly reveals the familial and social scandal surrounding Marian’s lifestyle: she is bucking the expectations of polite society and her brother is at once bewildered and disgusted.
Marian only lowers her stature in the eyes of the gossip mill’s moral judgment when she falls in love with George Henry Lewes (Ames Adamson), a married scientist and literary critic attended by a good deal of scandal himself. The two travel and live as unlawful husband and wife, and it is Lewes who encourages Marian to offer her writing experiments to a publisher. As Marian Evans becomes George Eliot to the public, she and Lewes exist as conspirators in art, science, and seemingly a life of love unconcerned with the scorn of polite society.
Throughout A Most Dangerous Woman, Moloney gives us a character marked at all times by severe fragility. Happy as she may be editing the Westminster Review, she misses her family and is deeply hurt by her brother’s scorn; proud as she is with her literary success, she is never fully confident in her abilities; and for as delighted as Lewes makes her, a lifetime of being made to feel ugly has left her with deeply internalized romantic self-doubt. Tempelsman’s Eliot thus demands a performer capable of moving adroitly through any number of unpredictably changing registers, and Moloney consistently proves up to the task. This Eliot exists always on the edge of misery or despondence or anger or outrage, and Moloney treads confidently on all those many edges, showing us a character full of the depth and complexity of uncertainty. Eliot never seems entirely convinced of what she wants or does not want, but Tempelsman and Moloney have combined to examine the truly interesting contours of the space between those desires.
George Eliot is remembered mostly for the insights of her realism, but A Most Dangerous Woman has a much more elastic relationship to the real, toying freely and effectively with theatrical abstractness. Scenery is sparse and more suggestive than literal, and dramatized vignettes of Eliot’s characters drift in and out of the play, with Eliot herself occasionally interacting and occasionally not. The effect is to suggest that we are not watching simple bio-drama as much as we are joining in a psychological exploration of one of literature’s most unique biographies. The phrenologist at the play’s opening concerns himself with the shape of Eliot’s skull, but A Most Dangerous Woman is much more interested in the complexities of the brain underneath.