By Retta Blaney
As a student at Yale University 62 years ago, John Wulp was chatting with professor and literary critic Paul Pickrel at an Elizabethan tea. Pickrel mentioned that he had just read The Book of Margery Kempe and found it hilarious.
Wulp, who had no background in faith, could not imagine how an autobiography by a 14th-century English mystic could be that funny, but he read it and agreed.
“I felt it was what you make comedy of: a person who has ambitions that exceed their ability, so I decided to write a play about her,” Wulp said.
That play, The Saintliness of Margery Kempe, is now being revived Off-Broadway at The Duke Theatre on 42nd Street, 59 years after it last graced a New York stage — or any other.
In all the years between productions, Wulp has traveled a long and varied road, just as Kempe did. Born in 1373 in Norfolk, England, Kempe never learned to read or write, so she dictated her story, which is considered the earliest known autobiography of an English person.
And what an autobiography it is. Among the highlights of her life are marriage at 20, a vision of Christ during a spell of madness after the birth of her first child (there were 14), failure of a brewery she bought and tried to run, and a quest for a spiritual life that often prompted her loud weeping and cries that unnerved many fellow travelers on her pilgrimages throughout England, Europe, and the Holy Land.
Wulp saw in her “a universal comic figure” and likened her to his idol, Charlie Chaplin: “He was a little man who had these big ambitions.”
Although he had never written a play and had no money, Wulp saw a way around this in the looming Korean War.
“I decided to enlist and somehow get two years in which to write a play. I wrote Margery Kempe.”
Wulp shared much of his life story one Monday afternoon in late June while the production was in rehearsals. His home for more than three decades is on Vinalhaven, an island off the coast of Maine. In preparation for the show, for which he designed the sets, he was camped out — fold-out bed open in the living room, an unmade bed in the bedroom — in a furnished corporate apartment on the outskirts of the theater district.
About a half-dozen prescription bottles surrounded him on the counter where he sat in front of the kitchenette. A walker with wheels and a seat was nearby. He is, after all, 90. But he has a recall for dates, names, dialogue, and the book’s passages that can rival that of any college student.
Here’s the story of Saintliness, which draws heavily for plot and dialogue from the original source. While he was still in the Marine Corps, Wulp sent an almost finished copy of the play to New York to see if there was any interest. There was. While on guard duty one day, he received a message that theatrical producer Irene Selznick was considering the script.
That did not pan out, and neither did the option taken by Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre, which wanted José Quintero to direct and Alice Ghostley to star.
With a persistence Kempe could appreciate, Wulp spent time trying to persuade Robert Whitehead, one of New York’s most successful producers at the time, to stage the show after Whitehead expressed interest. This effort also failed.
Wulp’s break came after Whitehead’s secretary sent a copy to the managing director of the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“Within a day they agreed to do the play. It was an enormous success.”
The play drew great reviews and earned Wulp a Rockefeller Grant. That was in 1958.
The next year it was produced Off-Broadway with vastly different results. He was living with a man “who fancied himself a director” and who encouraged Wulp to “rewrite it out of existence.”
“It was a total disaster,” Wulp said, even though it starred Frances Sternhagen, who in later years won two Tony Awards, and Gene Hackman, who became an acclaimed movie star.
“It was so awful it was unbearable, so I put it in a box in the attic and tried to forget about it, but I never really did.”
The play remained tucked away all that time until two years ago, when Wulp was approached by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, which wanted to buy all of his theatre and dance photographs. His career has included photography, painting, Tony Award-winning producing, directing, and award-winning scenic design. When he went to the attic to search for the negatives, he found the four plays he had written as a young man.
As he reread them he had a strong sense that Kempe’s story was a good play and could be revived successfully if he could persuade Austin Pendleton to direct it. Through a connection, he sent it to Pendleton, a highly respected director, actor, and writer, who said yes.
“I read it about a year ago and really loved it,” Pendleton said in a phone interview. “It’s not like any other play. I thought it was funny and I was kind of moved by it. A story of someone who tries to find themselves, no matter how outlandish they are, is always moving if it’s well written.”
In that aspect, Pendleton sees Kempe as a woman of our day.
“In that period of time it was not a quest a lot of people took on. They weren’t allowed, especially women.”
The production features nine cast members taking on all the parts, with Andrus Nichols in the lead. Cynthia Nixon, who is running for governor of New York, played Kempe in a reading last fall. Her mother had been in the previous production all those decades ago.
Wulp said audience members who love the book “probably take Margery very seriously,” but hopes they will have a good time and learn that “life is funny.” He says he heard no objections from the book’s fans during past productions.
“Nobody writes plays for women anymore, so the possibility of finding a women’s play is odd, in a way,” he said. “It’s about what’s going on now. As soon as she sets up in business, people mistake her reasons and think she’s out for sex and harass her.
“I feel it somehow affirms life, all that energy going into being something special. We all think we’re the center of the universe. It keeps us alive.”
What would Kempe think of her stage portrayal? Wulp believes she would be delighted.
“It’s what she wanted to do, to be famous.”
Retta Blaney is the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors.