Saints be praised, Jane Anderson is on fire right now.
Still hot off writing The Wife, her recent big-screen adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel about a woman emerging from her husband’s shadow, Anderson returns to her stage roots with Mother of the Maid, currently making its off-Broadway premiere at the Public Theater.
Mother of the Maid takes on the legendary tale of St. Joan of Arc, the 15th-century heroine and martyr who led the French army to victory during the Hundred Years War, from her mother’s perspective. Directed by Matthew Penn, the historical drama stars Grace Van Patten as Joan and six-time Oscar nominee Glenn Close (who also headlines The Wife) as Isabelle Arc.
Anderson, Emmy-winning screenwriter of HBO’s Olive Kitteridge and The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, tells NewNowNext how her own positively true experiences helped her relate to one of the world’s oldest queer icons.
George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan was revived on Broadway earlier this year, and the Public premiered the musical Joan of Arc: Into the Fire last year. Why are audiences still wild about Joan?
I think she’s compelling because she was real, because this outrageous story actually happened. We still can’t believe that an illiterate peasant girl from a tiny village could have had such an enormous influence, and culturally we’re gobsmacked that a young woman could be so powerful.
Do you see Mother of the Maid as timely with respect to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements?
I suppose so. But I started writing the play four years ago, before that zeitgeist hit. I also wrote the screenplay for The Wife, but that movie took 14 years to make. So I feel unbelievably blessed and astonished that both projects have come out now, when female empowerment and rage are popular and part of the conversation again.
Why did you choose to place the focus on Joan of Arc’s mother?
When I was a gay girl growing up, I loved Joan of Arc, of course, as all gay girls do. I wanted to be Joan. But when I became a mother, I suddenly understood how hard it must have been for my own mother to raise a strange and gifted daughter. So I wanted to write from that point of view and turn the Joan of Arc legend on its head. It’s hard to be a Joan, but loving a child like Joan is a whole other thing.
Do you consider Joan a queer icon?
Oh, yeah. I did a lot of research, and many thoughtful essays talk about her as a queer icon or symbol for young women. There’s the appeal of her cross-dressing in armor and other fabulous guy’s clothing, but her story is also about being independent, leaving home, and doing outrageous, brave, important things.
The queer subtext in Mother of the Maid is pretty clear.
Yeah, the first scene is basically Joan coming out to her mother about hearing voices. Emotionally, I drew on the fear and agony of my own experience coming out to my mother—that need to hide it from her until I couldn’t stand it anymore, until I was forced to confess. If Isabelle hadn’t kept nudging Joan—“I know something’s wrong, I know you’re different”—I imagine her daughter would’ve taken off without telling her.
As described in the play, Joan’s visitations from St. Catherine have a sexual element. Is that based on your research?
If you look at any medieval statues or paintings of saints praying, they have that same look of arousal, their eyes rolled back. Catholics describe religious ecstasy as a bodily experience—feeling the tingle, the chills, of enlightenment. So going along with the queer theme of coming out, I imagined that Joan fell deeply in love with the gorgeous St. Catherine. When she describes the visitations to her mother, she says, “I feel it here,” touching her heart and her crotch. Why wouldn’t she go back and pray every day?
The play also makes it clear she has no interest in boys. Is yours a definitively queer interpretation of Joan?
I don’t necessarily want the audience to make any determination of whether she’s queer or not, but she is seen through my lens. Whether or not Joan was gay is irrelevant to me. But as a dramatist, I saw the metaphor there for myself. It’s a very personal play for me, told through a historical context. It’s up to the audience, gay or straight, to see what they want.
It’s difficult to look back at Joan in 2018 without questioning her mental health or gender identity. Did the current social climate influence your interpretation?
No, because I think it’s very important to write from your own truth, rather than write a polemic. I’m aware of all the social and political dialogue, but if I lean too far in that direction, my writing becomes agitprop.
Many writers and scholars have posited that Joan was transgender. What do you think?
Well, I believe she wore men’s clothes for protection and convenience. Part of the reason she was burned was because she wouldn’t give up her men’s clothes in prison, but the guards were always trying to rape her, and she felt less vulnerable in men’s clothes. So if you look at medieval culture, Joan was being practical.
Isn’t it possible she made up her voices and went to battle so she could wear men’s clothes freely?
That’s a lot of work to put on pants. [Laughs] She was a deeply religious person with a vision. Without that connection and commitment to spirituality, she couldn’t have gotten so many high-ranking people to follow her. Otherwise she just would’ve been the queer girl in the village, wearing men’s clothes and getting rocks thrown at her.
You tackled LGBTQ topics in the early 2000s as writer and director of the TV movies When Billie Beat Bobby, Normal, and the first segment of If These Walls Could Talk 2, but much of your work is not LGBTQ-focused. How do you see your relationship to queer stories?
I’m just drawn to whatever my subconscious muse tells me I need to write about. I write out of my own truth, and that includes being a gay woman. I’m 64, so I came of age in the ’70s, when it was still unspeakable to be a lesbian, and dealt with a lot of shame and self-loathing. Early on in my career, I didn’t touch queer topics. I didn’t want to be labeled as a queer writer because I thought—and I was probably correct—that I wouldn’t be able to do mainstream work. Now that I have an established career, I’m free to be more open about who I am, and I’m also much more comfortable with who I am.
You honored your lesbian great aunt with the 2015 documentary Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson. Do you have more queer stories to tell?
Actually, because there are so many wonderful stories being told, I don’t feel that responsibility. Culturally, things have changed, and so many TV shows and mainstream films are comfortably integrating queer characters. Right now I’m leaving it up to the younger queer artists to tell their stories. But who knows what I’ll be writing in 10 years? If my subconscious tells me to write a queer story, I will.
Until then, there’s always subtext.
Yeah, exactly. I’ve always preferred subtext anyway.
Mother of the Maid runs through December 23 at the Public Theater in New York.