The Story of Maggie Reid / by Marsali Taylor

Cast:

MAGGIE REID
WILLIE GOODLAD - her fiance
ELIZABETH - her mother
TAMAR - her friend
TAMMY GOODLAD - her fiance's father, later her husband
HAKKI - her fiance's friend
CHORUS 1
CHORUS 2
CHORUS 3

The play can be done for examination purposes with Chorus 2 being doubled with Elizabeth and Chorus 3 doubled with Tamar. The Chorus characters must be female. With this doubling, we have a nicely balanced piece with a cast of 7: 3 boys and 4 girls. Alternatively, if not an exam piece, this play can be done as an atmospheric tale, against a constant background of the wind and the sea, with an extended chorus of as many as you like. This version would also include the non-speaking roles of the children, who Maggie looks after.

The play lasts about half an hour.

`The Story of Maggie Reid' is based on the known facts of a Burra story of the 1840's. [Burra is in the Shetland Isles.] Margaret Reid was engaged to William Goodlad in Burra in the middle of the nineteenth century. William went to sail in the Merchant Navy to get some money before getting married and Maggie stayed at his home, living with his father, Tammy [Thomas] Goodlad, who had recently been widowed and had four young children to bring up, the youngest of a family of eight.

Time passed and William did not return when expected. News came that he had left one ship he had been on, and then a story arose that he had died or been killed on shipboard. Eventually, Maggie was prevailed upon to give up hope of him returning.

Instead she married Tammy Goodlad, so she could continue to help bringing up the children she had been looking after.

One winter night, about a year after her marriage, an unexpected visitor appeared at the door. It was Willie Goodlad, who had changed ships a couple of times but was now home, with money, and ready to marry his sweetheart.

The next day, Maggie's clogs and wedding ring were found on the edge of the cliff at the back of the house and her body at the bottom. It is still known as `Maggie Reid's Geo' today.

Willie Goodlad left Burra again, never to return but Tammy married for the third time and had another seven children.

Sample Pages from the script

Extract 1

We hear the sound of the sea. Maggie is sitting at the table, head slumped on her hands, crying in an exhausted, gulping way, as if she has drained dry all the tears that are in her. The Chorus look at her compassionately.

CHORUS 1
This is a true story.

CHORUS 2
One version of a true story.

CHORUS 3
Who can say, now, what really happened?

CHORUS 1
Why Maggie did what she did.

CHORUS 2
She is long dead. We cannot ask her.

A pause. Maggie rises, moving blindly, stumbling, as if she does not know where she is going. The Chorus move around her, talking over her.

CHORUS 1
Why Maggie? How did she deserve that the world should turn on her?

CHORUS 2
It was her own fault. She was weak. A coward.

CHORUS 3
She chose security over love. Death over life.

CHORUS 1
Must it always be someone's fault?

CHORUS 2
Yes. We must have someone to blame.

CHORUS 3
How could we bear an uncertain universe?

CHORUS 1
Perhaps it was just bad luck. Perhaps Fortune spun her wheel.

Still moving blindly, Maggie mounts the cliff, ending at the highest point; The Chorus move around her.

CHORUS 1
The top of the wheel.

CHORUS 2
The lucky one.

CHORUS 3
Everything going well for her.

ALL CHORUS
Remember, Maggie, remember.

MAGGIE
Willie...

The lights change. We see her memory, as Willie comes and spins her round, laughing. Then the lights return.

MAGGIE on a sob
Willie!

CHORUS 1
The wheel begins to spin...

CHORUS 2
The person on it begins to fall ...

CHORUS 3
Luck changes...

ALL CHORUS
Spinning, spinning...

They whirl around Maggie, drawing her forward until she reaches the front of the stage and falls to her knees.

CHORUS 1
The bottom of the wheel. The lowest point.

They all kneel with her,

CHORUS 3
What goes down comes up again.

They begin to move on, whirling inwards, leaving Maggie kneeling by the front of the stage.

CHORUS 1
The fallen rise again.

CHORUS 2
Bad luck turns to good.

CHORUS 3
She should have waited.

CHORUS 1
Waited for the wheel to come full circle, and bring her with it.

The Chorus have spun round to the upstage higher level where they stand tall, watching.

CHORUS 1
Rise, Maggie, rise.

CHORUS 2
Remember.

CHORUS 3
Three years ago.

CHORUS 1
Saying Goodbye.

CHORUS 2
Do you not remember?

MAGGIE
I remember.

Maggie stands slowly and moves to the door of the crofthouse. Willie comes to stand at the door. She turns to him.

MAGGIE
Six months. A year. Two... only God can tell.

WILLIE
Not so very long. It'll soon pass and then I'll be home, with money in my pockets.

MAGGIE falling in with his mood
And tales for the long winter.

WILLIE
Icebergs taller than the cliffs o' Foula.

MAGGIE
Whales bigger than ships.

WILLIE
The Arctic skies, as thick with stars as buttercups in the meadow.

MAGGIE
Polar bears... and seals with moustaches...

WILLIE teasing
I think you fell in love with my travels, not with me.

MAGGIE suddenly clasping him to her
Willie, I'm afraid.

WILLIE
Now then, sweetheart, what's this? Afraid?

Maggie lets her hands fall

MAGGIE
I have a feeling. There's so much could happen to you.

WILLIE
Now, Maggie, that's no way for a seaman's girl to think.

Extract 2

CHORUS 1
Did you think life would be fair?

CHORUS 2
When has life ever been fair?

CHORUS 3
It never was. It never will be.

CHORUS
I The rich are struck by plague just like the poor.

CHORUS 2
The poor work all day and still are hungry.

CHORUS 3
We all die in the end.

ALL CHORUS whisper, diminishing as they back away
All, all, all...

Women pause on stage, stretching backs, rubbing hands across brows. The men return, whistling. A moment, then one woman spots them and points them out: Excitement, joy, tweaking of shawls and smoothing of hair and rubbing of cheeks as they come to look, wave, run to meet their men.

MAGGIE
Where's Willie?

The laughter stills. They come towards her, uncomfortable, unable to meet her eyes, almost ashamed of being alive. Her mother comes to her, puts an arms round her. She breaks free.

MAGGIE
Willie.. [She looks around at all the faces, closed against her, looks last at Tammy, who has realised his loss and looks steadily back at her. A great cry.] No! [Softer, working into crying.] No, no, no, no, no...

The women surround her, lead her to the house, sit her down. Tammy comes to lay a hand on her shoulder.

Lighting change. It's harvest and the cast is in the field, reaping. Maggie works with them, but apart. The Chorus talk as they work.

CHORUS 1
What good does it do, crying against fate?

CHORUS 2
The work's still to be done.

CHORUS 3
Feed the children, bake the bread.

CHORUS 1
Shear the sheep and spin the wool.

CHORUS 2
Stook the hay and grind the oats.

CHORUS 3
Dig the crops, salt the fish.

The Cast repeat the lines from Feed the children...', working on. The Chorus pauses, weary but proud of their work. Maggie works on. Tammy approaches her.

TAMMY
Lass, take a rest now.

Maggie lets him lead her aside, sits down. She moves like a sleepwalker. The others look at her, concerned.

ELIZABETH
Six months.

TAMAR
She should be getting over it by now.

HAKKI
We don't know for certain that he's gone. He just didn't turn up when the ship was leaving.

TAMAR
He could have taken another ship.

HAKKI
The law says to wait seven years.

ELIZABETH
She can't go on like this for seven years. [She goes over to her.] Maggie, lass ...

The face that looks up at her is blank

MAGGIE
Yes, Mam?

TAMAR
We're having a bit of a party tonight, in our barn. Will you come?

Maggie shakes her head, mutely.

HAKKI
You could dance with me... why not?

Maggie shakes her head.

TAMAR
You could come along at least, and listen to the music. Would you not like that?

HAKKI
You used to enjoy listening to music.

Maggie shakes her head, rises, begins working again. Freeze,

The sound of then sea. The cast goes back, watching. Maggie comes forward, looking out. Behind her, the cast speak.

ELIZABETH
A year now. She does this every night. Watches the sea, as if she expects it to bring him back.

Maggie begins pacing, slowly at first, then with energy, as if seeking to escape.

TAMAR
Pacing the beach, up and down.

HAKKI
Two years.

Extract 3

MAGGIE stopping, a little self-consciously. She turns and looks at him
Oh, Hakki, I envy you!

HAKKI
Why?

MAGGIE
You can escape. I can't. At first I was just numb. I didn't feel anything. How the whole world hurts so much I can't bear it. I want to get away from here, away from everything that reminds me of...

HAKKI
Lass...

MAGGIE
The whole village is filled with him. I can see him walking over that hillock, or mending his nets on that stone. That road there - that was my last sight of him.

HAKKI
Maggie, you mustn't keep brooding over the past.

MAGGIE
If I could go away - travel - see all the sights he told me of - icebergs taller than the Foula cliffs, and polar bears.... you're so lucky to be born a man!

HAKKI
Lucky! [He laughs shortly and then becomes serious.] Maggie, if I had any choice, I'd never go away from home.

MAGGIE
Never go? Give up all the excitement?

HAKKI
Life at sea's not like that. [He sits down and she sits with him.] The strange sights is what we tell you about when we come home, because we can't tell you about the rest of it.

They hesitate, looking at one another.

MAGGIE fiercely
I lost my man to the sea. Haven't I earned the right to know the truth?

Hakki moves forward, looking out into the audience, reliving it.

HAKKI
There was a day, once, at the Horn, when we were sailing in company with this other ship. Just the two of us, on this wide ocean. And a squall came over, and a wave with it, and when it had passed over the other ship was gone. Gone - just like that, with no trace - and the hundred men aboard perished in those two minutes. I've never forgotten that. [He comes back to Maggie.] Then there's arriving in another foreign port where you're a stranger, and can't trust the natives. And there's the food. It's fine and plentiful when we set out but by the end, Maggie, you wouldn't believe the things we've been forced to eat. Rotten meat. Biscuits with weevils crawling inside them. The best times are the long tedium of day after day on a still sea, with nothing to do but polish up your tales for when you come home. And you make it at last, and bless God for bringing you safe. You tell your tales and make it sound exciting and envy the old men that can stay home.

MAGGIE standing
It's like a conspiracy. You go to sea and pretend to like it and we work our fingers to the bone, and scrape and save and make ends meet somehow and tell you it's all been fine while you've been away. [She moves away from him.] Is this all there is to life? Work and death? Is there nothing more?

The Chorus moves around her.

CHORUS 1
There's the satisfaction of a job well done.

CHORUS 2
A clean bank, a tilled field.

CHORUS 3
The joy of escaping in dancing or laughter.

CHORUS 1
There's the closeness of family.

CHORUS 2
Bearing your children and watching them grow.

MAGGIE
Children who will grow to keep the conspiracy going.

ALL CHORUS
There's love.

MAGGIE
My love is dead.

ALL CHORUS
Love, love, love...

MAGGIE
Well, I'm not going to play your game any more. I won't pretend everything's fine. I won't marry another seaman and keep smiling as he goes. I won't spend the rest of my life worrying. I'll marry a man that stays at home.

ALL CHORUS
Careful, Maggie, careful.

CHORUS 1
Do you think you can trick Fate?

CHORUS 2
Do you think you can order your own life?

CHORUS 3
Say -'I will have this, I won't have that.'?

CHORUS 1
Don't challenge the gods.

CHORUS 2
Careful.

CHORUS 3
Careful.

Sample Pages from Production Notes

INTRODUCTION: THEMES, THE PLAY’S INTENTIONS

Mainly this play is an atmospheric retelling of a local story by writer Marsali Taylor, who lives and works in the Shetland Isles. It works best if an effort is made to give a historical feeling to the piece, showing the poverty and hardship of the inhabitants, wresting a living from the land and sea. The chorus helps in this, emphasising the daily rhythms of their lives: women and older men at home, working the fields and younger men at sea.

Originally, the play was performed by quite a large cast, the Chorus being swelled out with more women and with children. This would undoubtedly benefit the atmospherics of the piece but should not deter you from attempting a pared down version as an examination script. To retain the atmospherics, effort should be made, I feel, to use a soundscape background of the sea throughout much of the script, especially through the Chorus sections. I think characters when they are not ‘on’ as themselves could become part of the background of island inhabitants at other times; this would make the play a very ensemble piece.

The main theme of the play is that of Fate. At times the three Chorus women [and here the exam version of the use of only three works well] can represent the three Fates themselves; at other times they can represent the pagan portrayal of the three stages of woman: Maiden [Tamar], Mother [Elizabeth] and Crone - for this reason playing Chorus 1 as an old woman. There is enough emphasis on both the role of Fate in the story and the pattern of women’s lives, tied up with the rhythms of the land, to justify this approach - and it gives an added depth to the piece. Maggie feels the brush of Fate on her at times, and these moments can be emphasised and there is a feeling of inevitability about the whole story. The sounds of the sea calling Maggie at the end show that even her suicide is not really something she can choose to do or not to do; there is no free will in this play; everything is pre-determined by destiny.

The style should be appropriate to the theme. It should not be naturalistic, though some parts of the conversations between characters may be. Aim for a stylised, ritualistic feel, using patterned repeated movements. The page-by-page notes will give you some ideas here.

CHARACTERS

Ideally, all the characters should use a Shetland accent - the soft Scottish accent of that region. I realise that this would be difficult - but at least attempt a Scottish accent, and not the harsh Glaswegian one. If your students are finding this really difficult, the play at a pinch could be relocated to any other small island community using the appropriate accent [e.g. the soft Irish lilt of the Arran Isles in the West or the Cornish sing-song of the Scillies. Though historically inaccurate, at least some kind of universality can be used as justification for this.]

The characters do not have the kind of depth used in a naturalistic play. The following descriptions are therefore more indications of manner of playing, looking for contrast between characters and so on.

MAGGIE REID is a young woman. We see her change from a hopeful, joyful excited girl to a sad embittered person, driven to take her own life. She is different from the other women of the islands because she seems to feel things deeper; she lacks the ability to live through tragedy and simply to endure. This is evident from the fact that she grieves for far too long, in the opinion of the others. She does try to snap out of it, to accept her loss. This results in her marriage to Willie’s father. But by so doing it is clear that she has betrayed her inner self and I think this should be evident in the acting of the role. The latter Maggie lacks the inner light and joy of the Maggie who loved Willie.
Much of her part shows a kind of consciousness of her tragedy as she looks back at her life from the moment just before her death. This should not be too melodramatic. Too over-emotional a rendition might tip the play over the edge into being irritating rather than tragic: aim for a tone of quiet acceptance through which the tragedy will find its own way of expression. The contrast comes in Maggie’s joy in her love with Willie. Tone of voice here needs to be lighter and higher, pace quicker. Then there is a third contrast with the sadder Maggie who finally accepts that Willie is dead and agrees to marry Tammy.

WILLIE GOODLAD, her fiancé. Willie has left the more usual trade of fisherman or of whaler, both traditional to the men of the islands and joined the Merchant Navy. This will enable him to earn more money so that he and Maggie can have a good start to their married life. We see him as a character at the beginning of the play and then, when he returns, at the end. In between, with a plaid wrapped round his head, or a hat overshadowing his face, he could become a member of the chorus. So long as the actor uses his body in a different way - for instance, shoulders hunched over, back a little stooped, head thrust forward for the Chorus character - head back, upright stance, strong striding walk and open-chested body language for the younger Willie. Willie’s anger and jealous disappointment at the end must be as strong and fiery as his earlier entry, though the emotion is opposite.

ELIZABETH her mother. I am assuming for this that Elizabeth doubles with Chorus 2 - who represents the ‘mother’ aspect of the three stages of woman. Though a sympathetic character, Elizabeth is used to the harshness of life and shows that it is possible to be resilient, to accept fate and to endure. She should not be too soft when talking to her daughter; she has seen all that Magggie has and more and is there to show that it is possible to carry on. Her voice should be strong, perhaps a little harsh in tone.

TAMAR her friend. Tamar is the same age as Maggie and, if doubled with Chorus 3, represents the maiden stage of womanhood. She should act young and carefree, representing the hopefulness of youth. She also shows another sort of resilience, advising Maggie to move on and consider perhaps marrying Hakki, at least to make herself available to other options than grief. She thus has the seeds of the same kind of ability to endure as does Elizabeth, an inner strength which is necessary for survival in this harsh world.

TAMMY GOODLAD, her fiancé’s father, later her husband. Probably in his 40s. Tammy should not be played as old. He is a robust man who in fact fathers a considerable progeny. The writer tells us that many of his descendants people the area. Though not old, he does not take the young man’s part in life of whaling or long-haul fishing. I imagine that he is a farmer, and this would mean that he can join in with the choric activities throughout. Having been widowed, he needs a woman to look after his children and Maggie has fulfilled this role. So long as she is engaged to Willie, this is perfectly respectable, but with Willie ‘dead’ what was fine before would now be frowned upon. We can see how this puts extra pressure on Maggie, who has looked after those children and who loves them. She cannot bear to think of someone else doing what she did.I think it will be more poignant if Tammy looks more of a real rival to his son by moving and standing with strength and dignity. Played by a young actor, he should concentrate on giving him a slower more dignified way of moving and a lower and slower way of speaking. But avoid ‘old’.

HAKKI her fiancé’s friend, gentler and quieter than Willie. Aim for a contrast of this kind with Willie as more ‘electric’ and fiery. The only clue we have that he likes Maggie in the boy/girl way is Tamar’s say-so. He is obviously far too respectful both of Maggie’s grief and his friendship with Willie to try to push himself on her, but his attraction towards her and feelings should be put over nonetheless, through his eyes and body language, especially in the scene between the two of them where Hakki lets go of his true feelings towards the sea. The actor playing Hakki can play a part in the ritual choric parts of the play too.

CHORUS 1, 2 and 3 are not so much characters as representations. They are embodiments of Fate at times and at other times embodiments of the role of women in this society. I have mentioned that they could and probably should be played as Crone - Old Woman [Chorus 1], Mother [ Chorus 2], and Maiden [Chorus 3.] So they are distinctly different age-wise and this should show in voice-tones and body language. They are onstage at all times, overlooking the action when not participating.

SETTING

The play has many locations, so should be on as empty a stage as possible, to facilitate this. The landscape, however, plays an important part and, with the sound of the sea a constant background, this ought to be shown in some way. It would be good if you could have the back of the stage steeply rising to show the cliff from which Maggie throws herself at the end. This can be done with stepped rostra, the fronts and edges of which can be built out with papier mache and chicken wire or similar. Make sure that easy access - steps or whatever - though disguised from the audience are still available for cast use. A couple of platform levels on the way up would be useful for various parts of the action; so you have a back part of the playing area with a variety of levels built in to it. There needs to be a low level towards the front of the rock which people can sit on. If this ‘cliff’ was towards one side of the stage, you have an added advantage of an extra entrance round the back of it.

Otherwise, I would show the interior scenes just through lighting and minimal furniture. If the table and chairs were set towards one front corner of the playing area, they can remain there, thus avoiding the clumsy bringing on and off of stuff. The placing of the furniture here has another asset: the audience can presume that the rest of the house and even the kitchen is in the wings - thus Tammy enters from there and Maggie, when she’s busying herself about the house, can dart on and off to bring in props from the wings to the table.

Stage furnishings then are: the cliff [to make - you can be as fancy as you like with this, if you have time and inclination]
a wooden table and two chairs [make sure these look likely to be used in a poor cottage nearly 200 years ago.]

For the purposes of the lighting and page by page directions, I am assuming a front seating area at the base of the cliff, towards centre stage, a mid level partway up, sufficient for three people and a top level, also sufficient for three or four people to stand on.