“I’m a bull in a china shop…
You want a training ground for good pious wives?
I’ll give you full evolved human beings.
So you’re afraid they won’t find husbands?
I say: if a man is interested in headless women
send him to France.”
These are the first lines spoken by Bryna Turner’s dynamic lead character, Mary Woolley, in the fast-moving, Queer historical piece Bull in a China Shop. Turner based the play on letters between the real Mary Woolley, a former president of Mount Holyoke, and her longtime partner, Jeannette Marks. It’s a treatise on love and ambition, but more simply, it’s a play about women: how we love, how we grow, how we speak truth to power, and what we’ve learned to sacrifice in the unbearably slow march toward equality over the last 150 years.
From the moment “Woolley,” as she’s referred to by those close to her, utters those opening lines — a practice pitch for the position of president at the then-failing women’s seminary — we, as readers, are witness to her raw power. In the stage directions, Turner notes that Woolley has “the swagger of a gunslinger buttoned into an ankle-length dress.” Her fight against “headless women” at the turn of the twentieth century is not an easy win, and to get what she wants, she finds she must censor herself, think strategically, and always keep some measure of her power buttoned.
The forty years covered in the play, portrayed in biting, beautiful contemporary dialogue by the playwright, go by in fits and starts as Woolley struggles with the political strategy of what to say to whom when. This is not an unfamiliar negotiation to modern women in positions of political power — or even to modern women in any workplace. The struggle to “lean in” and embody one’s power as a woman is tempered by the very real difference in how strong women are labeled (“shrill,” “bossy,” “pushy”) in comparison to strong men (“assertive,” “confident,” “straight-shooter”).
As with the historical figure she is based on, Turner’s Woolley does away with “domestic services,” “Equestrian studies,” and other frothy courses designed to create “pious wives.” She ushers in philosophy and literature classes designed to inspire the “fully evolved human beings” she hopes to create. She brings her partner, the cigarette-smoking, Virginia Woolf-loving Jeannette Marks, to the school and nearly immediately promotes her to chair of the English department, to the chagrin of the dean and the school’s donors. The bull is unleashed, but her charge is not without consequence. Woolley quickly finds herself having to make up for fifty percent of the school’s lost endowment when its donors protest these changes.
Bull in a China Shop is no feminist fairy tale. It portrays the dance of acquiescence that comes with trying to be a powerful woman in a china-shop society built by powerful men. Woolley hesitates to take a vocal stand on women’s suffrage for fear of further alienating the school’s donors and rages when Marks is arrested for trying to cast a vote. She does eventually decide to give an impassioned speech in favor of women’s suffrage once the tide of general opinion has finally swung in favor of it. She then rides the wave of her newfound popularity on a six-month-long journey around the world, abandoning Marks, who is only at Mount Holyoke because she followed Woolley there.
On her website, Bryna Turner says that she wrote Bull in a China Shop in one long go in the wake of a breakup. The flood of rage and passion that can come on the heels of such an event bursts through the page. Woolley and Marks are a Queer couple in the early twentieth century, and the play certainly does not gloss over that fact. The two women struggle under the watchful eye of the Mount Holyoke administration, who will only sometimes turn a blind eye to their relationship. Marks and Woolley fight about Woolley’s ambition and Marks’s out-spoken and unpopular political views. They fight about who has more experience in love and who will abandon whom. While these are issues that can tear at any coupling, Queer or not, the struggle of two female-identified people in a romantic relationship is unique.
Visibility is power. And even as the tide of general opinion has swung toward equity, lesbian voices and stories are still seen onstage much more rarely than male-centered stories. Bull in a China Shop is a rare play — by a woman, featuring roles for five women, and telling a story to which ambitious women the world over can relate. Woolley and Marks struggle to make a place for their love and their work in a world not built for them. Promises are broken; world wars are waged; the journey is not smooth; and neither woman remains unbroken. But in the wise words of Jeannette Marks…
“Who ever heard of a smooth revolution?”