This play was born from the film that is on everyone’s lips at the moment: Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, yet the inspiration came not from the film itself, but from someone’s reaction to the film. At the end of the evening, after a lengthy discussion, someone turned around and said “but the three girls were fantastic”. It was a throw-away thing, but I couldn’t help thinking that if any actresses are to be described as ‘girls’, it is strange to pick the three powerhouse performers that are Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone.
Why is challenging the infantilisation of women so important? My answer would be that calls out the notion that women are to be, quite literally, patronised. A ‘girl’ has less authority than a ‘man’. A ‘girl’ can be doubted, blamed and discounted with far more ease than can a ‘man’, and it is a great and terrible shame that this is the case in Tess. It is worse that it is still the case over a hundred years later.
The story of Tess has been at the back of my mind for a long time, and for many reasons, but it comes down to this: Hardy’s Tess, much as I applaud its daring choice of subject matter (for the time), is lacking in its feminist stance. And this goes further than infantilising Tess: Tess’s rape is delicately ‘suggested’ - to the extent that whether she ‘wanted it’ or not is debated. Her entire story revolves around the men she encounters and the things they do or do not do to or for her. Indeed, Angel’s character arc is almost as prominent and important as Tess’s whole story, with Tess almost acting as a symbolic every-woman (whilst also being an epitome of purity, fertility, virtue and natural voluptuous beauty) to counter Angel representing the ‘natural’ male reaction and experience. Hardy is using Tess to demonstrate to the typical Victorian male how to be sympathetic to the experience of poor unfortunate girls - and whilst doing this, his narrative casts too forgiving and sympathetic an eye on the behaviour of Angel and indeed most of the men in the novel. They make mistakes, yes, but it is possible, says Hardy, for men to change and to make up for their errors. He is not so generous with Tess. Tess is hung for murdering Alec, her rapist - she is held ultimately accountable to society. Angel, on the other hand, who initially abandons his wife to live in poverty and shame, returns to question what is ethically right and wrong about Tess’s situation, and is applauded for doing so.
And why is it that Angel is left free to ponder the rights and wrongs of Tess’s experience while she is hung? There began to emerge a broader theme, which is hot on everyone’s lips at the moment: truth, female credibility and investigating who wields the authority over what is and is not true. Tess’s virtue, and her downfall, is her relentless advocacy of the truth of her experience, but her honesty is held accountable to a larger ‘truth’ which is not created and decided by her, but by an integrally male, patriarchal voice. “I’ve been told many things in my life that have been both true and not right, sir.” says Tess in one of the crux scenes of our play, and this sums up our response to the novel perfectly: Tess’s commitment to truth and honesty may be unwavering - however the authority on what is ‘true’ has spoken: and her voice is incorrect. When Tess tries to protest, in our script, that she didn’t ‘ask’ to be raped, and Angel retorts ‘You must have done’, we hear the confrontation of two ‘truths’. Angel’s ‘truth’ is, that if Tess has been assaulted, Tess must have wanted it. There can be no other explanation. And as the perspective of power and authority in the argument, he wins.
Why is Tess condemned and shunned and blamed for something that was forced upon her, when Angel’s choices, freely made from a position of power, are forgiven? Why are men still believed when women are questioned and doubted? Why is the Tess’s truth unheard and dismissed? So long as this culture of men demeaning and infantilising women persists, they will always be doubted, abused and caught out by the patriarchal double standards that have been set up against them, because they are, when it suits, ‘children’, ‘infants’ and ‘inferior’.
As women it is our responsibility to tell the truth of our experience - even if it feels that we will be questioned and doubted and unheard. And to tell it now, in an era and in a culture where perspectives feel, at last, as though they are shifting, is a responsibility even greater than ever, because there is at this critical moment a sense that we might at last be heard. That the things we are telling might be believed to be true and right.
As a final point, to close: the characters that anchor our Tess are, you will see, not the men, but the women: Tess, her mother, her sister, Mrs D’Urberville, Izzy and Annie, and even a few new characters that existed in Hardy’s text, but are now named and brought to a more prominent position. They start the play and they end it, and fill our retelling with female love - platonic, friendship, sisterly, motherly, and all kinds. These women and their relationships were existent as much in Hardy’s day as they are in ours, and their characters and voices are at the forefront of our storytelling.