There was always something a little odd about Mary Rose.
The play opens in the drawing room of an old house. It is alive with the presence of the past. The caretaker of the house, Mrs. Otery, is indifferent to her job, especially when periodically called upon to show it to potential buyers. It is clear she is uncomfortable in the house. She is giving a tour now to a young man who has returned to the area after the war (WWII) who it turns out, used to live there as a child.
Harry: What’s wrong with this house?
Mrs. Otery: There is nothing wrong with it.
Harry: Then how is it going so cheap?
Mrs. Otery: It’s–in bad repair.
Harry: Why has it stood empty so long?
Mrs. Otery: It’s–far from a town.
Harry: What made the last tenant leave in such a hurry?
Harry knows people say the house is haunted, “It’s a woman, isn’t it?” and plies Mrs. Otery with questions. She clearly does not want to talk about this subject, but finally admits to the presence of a young woman who is felt in the house after midnight.
While Harry waits for Mrs. Otery to return with his tea he is visited by a presence. Doors close and open and suddenly through a misty lens Harry disappears and the room becomes as it was 30 years ago and the story of the house begins.
The Morlands were the previous owners and they had a daughter, Mary Rose. When she was 11 her parents visited the Hebrides where her father loved to fish. He would take Mary Rose to a tiny island while he was out in his boat and she would sit and sketch. On their last day her father rowed over to the island and saw her sitting on the stump of a tree as usual, so he turned to row toward her, but when he got there she was gone.
The townspeople searched and searched for her. They dragged the little lake, but she was nowhere to be found. Her parents stayed on hoping she would return and one day her father saw her again sitting on the stump sketching. He rowed as fast as he could and when he got to her it was evident she had no idea what had happened; she had no idea of being gone for 20 days. Once home she never mentioned it and her parents never ever talked about it.
But they always knew if the time came for her to marry, they would have to tell her fiancé. And that time has come. Her intended is Simon, who they ask to speak with privately while Mary Rose is upstairs. When they are finished, he is not sure what to make of it.
Simon: It has had no effect on her, at any rate.
Mrs. Morland: I have sometimes thought our girl is young for her age….And she sometimes acts like she is listening for something like a sound from the island.
When they are alone Mary Rose asks about their honeymoon and Simon is shocked when she mentions a little island in Scotland she’d like to visit…her parents having just assured him she has forgotten it.
Act II opens with Simon and Mary Rose on the island four years after they married. Interestingly, it is Simon who asked to come to the island, though Mary Rose seems happy to see it. She talks to the tree stump she had sat on and to the other trees and tells them about about her life and of her two-year old son. Though these conversations seem childish, she doesn’t seem like the young girl we met in Act I.
A local man named Cameron is helping them with their lunch. He is polite and talks a little about himself, but he won’t sit down to eat with them.
Cameron: This island has a bad name. I haf (sp) never landed on it before….[The people say] it has no authority to be here…Then one day it was here.
Cameron says too many birds visit the island and they seem to come here to listen. None of the locals want to come on shore because of the stories, like the one about the baby boy who disappeared. Then he tells the story of the young English girl who once came here with her father and disappeared. Mary Rose finds the story strange–how could she not know what had happened to her? Cameron’s father was one of the searchers, so he assures her the story is true.
The three are sitting around a campfire heating up their lunch. Mary Rose hears a call, “Mary Rose, Mary Rose.” She reaches out to her husband, but he doesn’t see her. She has disappeared. He turns to Cameron and asks where his wife is. End Act II.
Act III opens 20 years later with Mary Rose’s parents and their good friend, the vicar visiting in the drawing room. They are speaking of their age, time gone by and the apple tree outside the window that Mary Rose liked, but its age is forcing them to cut it down.
Simon is due to see them today. As he sits with them he receives a telegram from Cameron who announces Mary Rose has been found and he is coming that day with her. He comes into the room and tells them she was found by two fishermen on the site where she sat at the campfire all those years ago. When she enters the room, her appearance is the same as she was then. She has not aged and for her no time has passed. She goes immediately in search of her baby boy. The scene fades into the present.
Harry is sitting in a chair as Mrs. Otery brings him a cup of tea. He is a little disoriented. “Have you seen anything,” she asks?
He wants to know the story of the family, the Morlands. He tells her he is of the family and wants to know about the ghost. “Is it true about folk having lived in this house and left in a hurry? And have you seen her?”
Mrs. Otery has seen her all over the house, passing her on the stairs even, where she let the old woman pass with a “Good evening.”
He wants to see her, but Mrs. Otery will not have anything to do with that. He takes a candle and walks down a narrow passage that leads to his childhood bedroom. Mary Rose appears, but does not recognize him.
As they speak it is clear that Mary Rose is in the liminal space between life and death and it is her concern for baby Harry that has kept her earthbound. It is Harry who tells her this.
Ghosts are unhappy because they can’t find something, and then once they’ve got the thing they want, they go away happy and never come back….What you need now is to get back to that place you say is lovely, lovely. It sounds as if it might be heaven.
As she realizes this Harry is looking out at the starry night sky and the scene fades.
The smallest star shoots down as if it were her star sent for her, and with her arms stretched forth to it trustingly she walks out through the window into the empyrean.*
*Heaven, specifically the highest part of heaven.
Shades of Peter Pan, eternal youth and flying out of windows. There is the requisite haunted house, magical island, lost time and secrets and, of course, the mysterious caretaker. (Someone should do a book on the mysterious house-caretakers of Gothic stories)!
With its heavy emphasis on stage directions and dramaturgy, the play reads like a novel and is therefore rich in background and well-drawn characters. It is a perfect Gothic ghost story with a nice balance of mystery and fantasy. I highly recommend this work in general, but I am thinking that it is perfect for the RIP challenge in the Fall for anyone in need of a break from novel reading.
I had plans to do more for this year’s club, but the year did not start out the way I’d hoped and I had to find something short. But it all worked out for the best, because reading Mary Rose reminded me how much I enjoy reading plays, something I need to get back to, even if I can’t do it with others at the moment.
Challenges: 1920 Club
Title: Mary Rose
Author: J. M. Barrie
Date: first produced in April, 1920 at the Haymarket Theatre, London