The Stage Swarmed with Maggies: Helen Edmundson’s The Mill on the Floss

Last night I attended the Dalhousie Theatre production of The Mill on the Floss that I mentioned here: I was invited to give a short talk to the “Patrons” on opening night. As I explained to the attendees, I wasn’t there as an expert on Helen Edmundson’s adaptation, though I had read through most of it in preparation for the night. So, rather than pretending to explain things about the play, I tried to set up what I take to be some of the central problems of the novel so that we could all have them in mind as we watched — not to see if Edmundson “got it right” or anything as reductive as that, but to see what she did with the material, how she reworked or rethought it for a different form.

As I worked on my notes (and it isn’t easy deciding what you’ll use your precious 20 minutes on, when you love a novel as I love The Mill on the Floss), it was form that I kept thinking about. So many things about The Mill on the Floss make it seem such an unlikely choice for the theatre. There’s the ending, for one thing, but of course there are ways of evoking large-scale natural phenomena on stage: nobody expects torrents of actual water to sweep the scenery away. But what about the narrator? Though she does plot and dialogue with the best of them, so much of the wit and wisdom of George Eliot resides in her masterful exposition. What is The Mill on the Floss without my favourite chapter, “A Variety of Protestantism Unknown to Bossuet” (which contains not one line of dialogue, not one step forward for the plot) or without the great meditation on “the shifting relation between passion and duty” and the moral failure of the “man of maxims”? How will we understand Maggie’s dilemmas, her “labour of choice,” without the reminder that our striving for something better might lead us astray “if our affections had not a trick of twining round those old inferior things — if the loves and sanctities of our life had no deep immovable roots in memory”?

The narrator of The Mill on the Floss is someone special, to be sure, and the novel is inconceivable without her.  But the play is its own thing; it has its own structure and logic. It offers no substitute for the historical and philosophical commentary (for instance, it doesn’t, as far as I noticed, give any of the narrator’s best lines to characters, the way the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice becomes Elizabeth Bennet’s line in the BBC adaptation). It does draw a lot of its dialogue directly from the novel, and noticing how much of the script is right out of the novel is a good reminder of just how great George Eliot is at voices (her characters, as I’ve talked about here before, have wonderful specificity: there’s no mistaking any one of them for any other one). It was particularly delightful seeing the Dodson sisters completely embodied (go, Mrs Glegg!). In a more general way, seeing not just familiar people but familiar objects (such as Mrs Tulliver’s tea pot) appear in front of me, in tangible form, was both disorienting and quite moving. For all the vividness and intensity of the novel, my engagement with it is often quite abstract, so that even its tragedies over time lose their visceral clutch. Though watching a play is not, for me, ever as immersive or total as watching a film can be (it’s just harder to lose the awareness that this is acting — which is not a criticism, just a difference in the experience), seeing the physical objects right there, hearing people actually say the words, makes the novel’s truths that much more real. And while we joked a bit in the introductory session about how the play is the Twitter version of the 500-page novel, its minimalism also made some aspects of the story particularly, affectingly, stark, especially Maggie’s suffering and isolation as an unconventional girl. She seemed so beleaguered, throughout the play: I wanted to jump out of my seat and go be on her side!

The most interesting feature of the adaptation is its use of multiple Maggies. It’s not that surprising a gimmick to have different actresses play Maggie as a child, a teenager, and then a woman. But Edmundson goes further: rather than replacing each other in chronological order, the Maggies coexist — not literally, in the action of the plot, but on the stage. This device allows Edmundson to dramatize the moral and emotional conflicts that Maggie faces as she grows up. Young Maggie retains her passionate impetuosity and her painful devotion to Tom; ascetic Maggie struggles between the yearning of her conscience towards an idealized right and the fellowship offered by Philip; grown-up Maggie responds to Stephen in spite of herself. The multiple Maggies literally push and pull each other according to their own loves and loyalties. What ending could possibly be right for any of them, never mind for all three of them? When the ending finally came, one of them lay with Tom, while the other two were flung aside. Again, the physicality of their bodies made the tragedy George Eliot imagined for us more real, even as their overtly symbolic roles neatly laid out the thematic lines of the conflict.

Overall, then, it was a thoroughly stimulating evening. The cast all played their parts with commitment, and they did an impressive job with what I imagine is a pretty challenging script. The three Maggies in particular were busy all the time. By the time the final trial by water came, I felt that everyone in the theatre was thoroughly engaged, and then shocked by the concluding catastrophe. (“It’s so sad! I feel like crying!” said my immediate neighbour.) My only disappointment was that we only got to give them all one round of applause: I thought they deserved at least one more curtain call, if only to let us catch our breath and remember that life goes on and “nature repairs her ravages.”

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