The Mysterious Tale of Patience Worth

by Jean Schiffman

San Francisco Arts Monthly September 2011 Vol. 21 No. 3

Seances were held; novels, poems, short stories and plays were published, all of which were supposedly dictated by the garrulous Patience, a 17th-century English immigrant to America. (No proof was ever found that such a person existed.) Pearl and her husband, John Curran, even adopted an orphan, called Patience Wee, that they said was the child of Patience. (The girl was eventually sent off  to Los Angeles and died young.)

Was Pearl Curran a preternaturally gifted fraud? Was she truly possessed by a spirit from the past? Was she psychotic?

Pearl, John, Patience Wee and several other real-life historical characters–including true believers and naysayers, editors and publishers–appear as sharply defined characters in Patience Worth, a world premiere by San Francisco playwright Michelle Carter. The rising small professional group Symmetry Theatre Company offered her the commission. Carter is a novelist and Pen and Garland award-winning playwright whose past plays–Ted Kaczinsky Killed People With Bombs and Hillary and Soon-Yi Shop for Ties premiered at the Magic Theatre–have been highly acclaimed. Also a creative writing professor at San Francisco State, she had heard of Patience Worth vaguely and accepted the commission with alacrity, spending six to eight months researching the character and the context.

Pearl Curran

For much of the script, Carter drew verbatim from Pearl/Patience’s writings and from the transcripts of the séances, adding her own writing as well. Pearl’s husband kept good records during that period, so Carter had plenty of material. In 21 tight scenes, the play follows a series of actual events that transpired between 1913 and 1923 and tracks the uproar among Pearl’s family, friends, associates and the public over the whole otherworldly affair.

Linguistically, Carter’s Patience Worth is a smooth mix of early 20th-century American and Patience’s thickly formal and oddly rambling declamatory speech. (“Tomorrow comes/A new, new tomorrow/And then another morrow,/And morrows and morrows yet to come./

This moment we commune–/No coming morrow–But to hold this record,/This holy instant,” intones Patience at one point.) The play is also interlaced with popular songs, folk ditties and nursery tunes of the era and is full of humor, drama and mystery.

Symmetry cofounder/actor Chloe Bronzan had read an article about Pearl/Patience in Smithsonian magazine a year ago and was struck by the issues it brought up, including those of gender, class and education in America. Is it possible for someone uneducated to be a talented writer? She wondered. “Particularly,” says Bronzan, “it spoke to me in terms of that time, when women weren’t even allowed to vote.” Was it a miracle, a hoax, a medical or neurological condition that resulted in those writings? “What would it have been like to be Pearl?” says Bronzan, “to consciously or unconsciously have this gift? Would it have been frustrating for her not to express it as herself,” given contemporary assumptions about her place in society?

Bronzan thought the strange case of Patience Worth was an excellent subject for Symmetry Theatre, which is dedicated to equalizing the gender disparity in union job opportunities on the American stage. Fittingly, the play features four women and one man (including Bronzan and the two other cofounders, Robert Parsons and Jessica Powell), some in multiple roles.

The first thing that intrigued Carter about the subject was the class dynamics. “Pearl was very insecure about that,” says Carter. “She was ashamed about coming from the Ozarks. She desperately wanted to be a singer and got some vocal training, but it was not to be. She married a much older man and tried to ascend status that way. I think she was quite disappointed in life until Patience came. … The class element is heartbreaking.” Pearl’s friend, Emily Hutchings, announces repeatedly, and quite pointedly, that her own mother was “the second female doctor in the Mississippi Valley.” Hutchings, a writer, was the first to transcribe Patience’s utterings during the séances but rewrote them to make them sound better, until the Currans dismissed her.

“At first glance we assume that women in that era who don’t have the life they wanted, it’s the result of sexism,” continues Carter. “But I think these women are creating their own fates. Pearl made this happen for herself.” So did the ambitious Emily Hutchings, and so did another character, Agnes Repplier, a skeptical critic and essayist of the day.

Patience Worth

Carter was also fascinated by the sad life of Pearl’s adopted daughter, who was told that her real mother was Patience, but whom she was only allowed to talk to once. “How dislocating and strange that would be,” says Carter–to believe that your mother is a ghost.

It was hard for Carter to decide what to do with Patience’s pronouncements. “Either it could be completely rewritten or it could be radically incomprehensible,” says Carter. “I tried to use her language in constructive ways–at times impenetrable but at times you feel you’re in the presence of something. Her megalomania had power over people, she was very flirtatious with men. If [her speech] were completely incomprehensible, we wouldn’t get that; we’d think all these people [who believed in her, including Douglas Fairbanks] were fools. It was delicate, how to make that work.”

To direct the premiere, Carter requested local director/choreographer Erika Chong Shuch, best known on the theater scene for innovative projects at Intersection for the Arts and with Campo Santo. “Her work has a feeling of mystery and magic,” says Carter. “She doesn’t put easy explanations on things.”

Such was Shuch’s faith in Carter that she signed on without having read the script. “The thing that excites me the most,” says Shuch, “is the question about whether Pearl was thinking up the whole thing or whether it was an authentic experience. There are accounts saying she was deluded, and accounts saying she was authentic. … The play doesn’t make a judgment. … In one moment we can have a certain assumption and the next second that assumption can shift.”

Nowadays we’d be analytic about someone like Pearl Curran, and her claims to be a medium, muses Carter. “We’d say it’s a multiple personality thing. We’d say she was a faker, and we hate that. We’d psychologize it and diagnose it and manage it that way.”

Will some in the audience believe she was possessed? “I hope so,” says Carter. “I’d like there to be a feeling of mystery.”

Patience Worth, Sept. 9-Oct. 2,

Thick House, 1695 18th St. 456-8892.  www.symmetrytheatre.com

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