In conversation with Julie McNamara: the making of Hold the Hearse!
In June, Vital Xposure’s new production Hold the Hearse! will tour medical museums around the country. The play was commissioned as part of Exceptional and Extraordinary – Unruly Minds and Bodies in the Medical Museum. Writer and performer Julie McNamara talks to Emilia Teglia about the themes of the play, why it is important to talk about medical history to understand the way we perceive difference today and her personal response to the collections.
Emilia: Hold the Hearse! tells the story of Walter Riddle and Mad Mary, two characters on the run, hiding amongst museum collections. How does the play relate to the collections?
Julie: Both characters’ stories are taken from the museum walls. The names are slightly changed to protect family who may still be around, because they’re real people. And I think when people are wandering around the museum they tend to forget: these are real people, you know, even down to the pickles in the jar, this is somebody’s son, this is somebody’s child we’re looking at. Anyway the intention behind the piece is to flesh out how we’ve come to treat disabled people so harshly as freakish and so differently. That’s really come about because of the context, in the way we collect and label human remains like ‘monstrous births’, ‘flawed samples’, ‘unviable fetuses’. Even the way people have been categorised has been informed by advances in biomedical discoveries. Of course the advance of science and surgery and health has informed us, but it has actually created segregation.
I became really excited by the content of the hidden collections, i.e. the collections that the museum curators may be disturbed by, that there may be some ethical questions about, that they don’t or can’t show the public. I’m also interested in the relationship each curator or collector has with the collection. Because they’re not very willing to let them go regardless of the ethical dilemmas. I asked everybody two questions, at the beginning of my process, I asked everybody who showed me around both the hidden collections and the collections on public display: “What would you crawl on your hands and knees through a fire to save?” and “what inside your collection most disturbs you, or you’re most afraid of disturbing the public with?”. And I was quite surprised at what they showed me.
With regard to the last question, I think I have a tougher muscle. I’ve been raised around disabled people all my life, I’ve got two sis… – well, one’s dead now but I had two disabled sisters. That’s my normality, that’s my ordinary world, you know people with different shapes or functioning in the world, that’s my reality. Diversity is at the heart of nature and without diversity we wouldn’t exist or function. So I wasn’t at all afraid of the things I was showed. In fact I wanted to see some things, some bodies, some remains that looked like my own sister because my mother was never allowed to touch her or hold her or keep her close and they left her to die. She was described as a ‘monstrous birth’, she’d given birth to a monster, basically. And her understanding of that was terrifying. She was 18 years of age, unmarried, her first child, and she was never allowed to see or touch her. She was told it was ‘God’s way’ and this was her ‘punishment’ and they left her to die. Then she was given some information about the condition. She was told this was an anencephalic still birth and it couldn’t have been a still birth because they’d left her to die.
So, given that that has been one of my mother’s hauntings all of her life I thought actually I would like to see what could be so frightening that you couldn’t touch or see your own child.
Dan [names have been changed] who curates the museum with all those human remains collections for the college of surgeons didn’t want to show me any of the foetuses at all. He said he found that very painful and he didn’t want to be the one to show me around. So his colleague Laura said she would do it. “I don’t feel squeamish, but” she said, “I understand why Dan is squeamish, some of them are hard. There’s a baby’s head here that has clearly been dissected in half, and it looks very much like a two-year old child”. I said: “to me it doesn’t look like a baby, a doll or something, you know” but she said: “no, that’s very real, very real and very frightening”. And I went: “ok…”.
So I saw that part of the collection that’s all about unusual-shaped births, foetuses that weren’t fully developed, with extraordinary shapes and differences in the way they’d developed and most of them that were collected had not come to full term. Some had, interestingly, and I know how they died. One of them looked like he’d been smothered to be honest. And so I saw children with two heads or you know four legs or four arms or something and it was fascinating but I thought…I’m a little afraid of spiders so I didn’t like the one with too many legs, for me, anyway. I wasn’t sure of that one. But all of the others I would have no problem holding, being near, suckling, and I just thought, wow, that we can do that to a human being, to deprive her of flesh-to-flesh contact with her own baby. Knowing that that baby was possibly gonna die. I wonder if they do that today?
Emilia: So what was the response of other curators to your questions?
Julie: One person showed me the thing that she was most distressed by. It was two sheep’s stomachs, and it was like a dandy’s blouse, very frilly, and I can’t remember why she was distressed by them actually, I just remember feeling a sense of awe at the things that people are shocked by and all that tells me is, it’s about the filter we bring to any subject, whatever we bring we carry our own particular lens that we perceive the world through. And so it’s our fear that we project onto that sheep’s stomach, or onto that halved head, or on to that… (giggles) There was someone that showed me this collection of dolls and she said: “I find it bizarre, frightening” she said, “the first time I’d seen these they actually entered my dreams”, and I went: “oh, what is it that frightens you about them?” and she said: “look at them they’re sinister, and I thought it’s just a collection of dolls” (giggles) And they had been bandaged up in different ways and one of them was on a crucifix which apparently was to show a particular kind of nursing procedure with a child who had flexible limbs and they hadn’t set properly and they needed to be held in place so that the hips would settle and the shoulders would settle, and this was a child whose every joint was out of place and had been bound to a crucifix. And I thought, gosh, that says a lot about the Christian world and the way we are obsessed with certain shapes and forms that we bring into our every-day practice. But I looked at them and I thought – well they’ve got boggly eyes but they’re just dolls, you know, they don’t frighten me, so I couldn’t get that at all, I don’t know what she was bringing with her.
Emilia: And these foetuses, are they somehow related to the story?
Julie: There is a foetus in the story. Because of Mary’s story. She spent long years in Bedlam – ahem, in Bethlem hospital, for “excessive grief over the loss of a child”. And so I decided that her journey through the play is to reclaim her child so that she could bury her bones because she was haunted by the loss of her and the child had been taken away from her because it was a ‘monstrous birth’. And that child had landed up in a pickle jar in Hunter’s museum, and she knew, she’d been rattling around for centuries trying to find which jar her child is in: “I want to reclaim her bones!”, and rattling through the museum until she can. And she’s the one who says “this is not natural. This is no earthly thing, why would you put it in a jar to stare at us forever? You know, the natural thing is to plant it in the soil, let it be a tree, let it feed the daisies”, and on and on. Her journey through the play is to retrieve the child so she can give it a decent burial. But that’s not what happens, that’s what she wants – but that’s not what happens.
Emilia: and what about Walter Riddle?
Julie: He’s in there. He’s haunted by the giant. Charles Byrne who is known as the Irish giant, he came from County Tyrone, he’s 7 foot 6 or 7 foot 8 I think, and his body was intercepted on its way to being buried in the sea, the hearse was intercepted, hence the title ‘Hold the Hearse’. Five hundred pounds was the money that “changed hands”, if you like, and he ended up being displayed in Hunters museum. Byrne had deliberately left clear instructions, because he knew Hunter was after him when he was not well, he’d said: “God forbid my bones should be with that man there”. And he wanted a burial at sea to be out of Hunter’s grasp but Hunter got him and he’s still there to this day on display. And when I asked about the ethical dilemma around that, they’re not willing to let him go. Even the Irish government intervened some years back, I think it was 2005, and suggested that he should be returned to Ireland and his bones laid to rest in county Tyrone, in his family resting place and the museum people, including Dan, said no, quite clearly he’s owned by Hunter. It belongs to this collection, it belongs to this museum. And I said: “oh, that’s a bit awful, shouldn’t the family have the body?” And Laura said something that was interesting because he said none of our bodies are owned, even to this day in a court of law the body is not property it is fair claim to anyone and given that body was purchased and money changed hands the body belongs to Hunter. So those remains, are still on display in Hunter’s museum. And by the way Walter wins the day at the end of the story…