N.B.: this is not a “review,” strictly speaking. Nor is it “well-organized” or “orderly.” I hope it’s enjoyable regardless.
N.B. 2: this is my reflection after seeing the show once. I will have definitely forgotten some details, especially relating to the music, and I may not be entirely accurate on all points, but I wish this to be my immediate and most true reaction. There therefore are elements that I will not discuss, or that I will not discuss in detail, because I don’t remember them well enough. I will continue to talk about this show as I build and deepen my understanding.
Two years ago, in May 2017, I first heard about a little musical called In the Green. At that point, it was in development, hosting the occasional reading; I myself was about to graduate high school and was feeling trepidatious about the whole “college” thing. My fascination with In the Green (which, though it had just come into my consciousness, had been in development for several years) grew from my love of the more-popular musical Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812, in which In the Green composer Grace McLean played a principal role. It was a fragile time in my life, and I responded with attachments to the oft-abstract things I loved; musicals that I thought I would never see or that didn’t even exist yet factored among them. Despite a paucity of content relating to In the Green anywhere online – just a few songs were on YouTube, just a few scraps of news on readings, development, ideas – I clung to it. I even wrote a (highly embarrassing, in retrospect) letter to Grace McLean, the last sentence of which referenced my excitement to see In the Green, whenever it happened to be staged.
None of this is the point of this post, so I should probably stop reminiscing and move onto more pressing matters. But there’s something very special, a specific and peculiar kind of excited-anxiety-tightness-in-my-chest about the story of this show in my life, a specific poetry to the narrative I have crafted around this show. Writing this reflection reawakens those feelings – feelings of wholeness, completion, a finality of this part of my life coinciding with the beginning of something else not quite the same. It’s probably ridiculous to track my life in eras of the media I have loved, but that is how I sometimes conceptualize time. Grace McLean’s work, including In the Green, has set my life in a certain narrative that I don’t believe would exist – in fact, that I don’t believe I could conceptualize – had I not found it.
So I saw In the Green on Sunday, June 23, 2019, more than two years after I first heard about it. (I included the full date so you know it’s important.) And there are so many ways to take that sentiment, so many possible things to say next, but I think the best way to start is to talk about that lack of sureness, how that was so much a factor in the experience of seeing the show. Even though I devoured every little scrap of information I could find about the show, seeing it was like jumping off of a cliff in terms of how I was plunged into newness, unexpectedness, surprise. No amount of background information or discussion of themes or even plain explanation of the show could have predicted what it was like to be there, experiencing the show itself. No amount of overdone description or adjectives could express, now, what that experience was like. It’s something that’s often said about live theater, but I believe this is particularly true of Grace McLean’s work: nothing is ever expected; nothing is ever routine; nothing can be replicated in the exact same fashion as it was once done. Having faithfully followed the show for years, it was still like awakening in a completely unfamiliar environment and having to wind my way back to stability. Walking away from the show was still like being abruptly plunged out of geostationary orbit and back onto Earth.
And, in more personal terms, I have found another piece of art that I want to integrate into my soul (not that I expected anything less). I have no shortage of artistic works I love deeply, but, every so often, I encounter something that I love so fiercely and viscerally that I want to spiritually commingle with it. In the Green was that for me; the themes and the music and the staging all felt overwhelmingly right. If I took no other time to evaluate my feelings on the show, that was the most important to me – that it hit me in a very perfect way; rather, it buried itself in my heart, it took up permanent residence there. No intellectual exercise could ever supersede that feeling of knowing how incredibly important this masterpiece is and will become for me, that deep but slightly ambiguous feeling of rightness.
Beyond all that, though, there is so much to evaluate and puzzle out and expound upon in this show, and I am going to use every tool in my English-major toolbox to delve into that. But first, some context on the show itself: stated very simply, In the Green examines the early life of twelfth-century nun/mystic/artist/composer/polymath Hildegard von Bingen, which she spent locked in a cell with another woman, Jutta von Sponheim. Because little is definitively known about the life they shared in that cell, much of the story is fictionalized, exploring the divergent paths of the two women. Second, a caution: this is going to get pretty thorough and definitely involve what would classically be known as “spoilers.” If you have any intention of seeing this show (and you should), I would wait until you’ve seen it to read on.
The cyclical quality of In the Green, ideas of repetition and shared experience/ trauma/ healing, are prevalent throughout, but I first want to talk about this from an extra-narrative position: the fact that a twelfth-century figure inspired this modern musical. Just as the stage is set in a revolving half-column, just as the narratives of In the Green’s women repeat and cycle and continue, so too does the influence of Hildegard herself. Eight hundred years after her death, she still hangs around; she still influences modern creativity and creation and modern women. She remains a cultural ancestor. I like to think that, somewhere in the universe, she’s aware of her lasting influence, she can see how her story is still used in complex and important ways today, and that makes her happy.
Though the score is largely composed by Grace McLean, there is the occasional Hildegardian snippet that anchors it firmly in Hildegard’s influence. However, the music and the overall tone of the show – not to mention of the technology used to create it, as Grace remotely operates a loop machine during much of the show – are distinctly modern. It makes sense that a show that examines the trauma society inflicts on women, the lack of choice and autonomy many women face, should be similarly modern in tone. Never once did I feel a conflict in the more anachronistic aspects – it was simultaneously fully Hildegardian and fully modern, fully rooted in the twelfth-century narrative and yet stirringly relevant. The loop machine adds another element of that cyclicality, a kind of aural repetition to emphasize the historical and generational repetition with which In the Green grapples.
Those cycles aren’t just a narrative device; the show goes much more deeply than that, examining very real cycles of violence and trauma – but I’m getting ahead of myself. I suppose I should start at the beginning.
The first scene opens with Hildegard being brought to Jutta as a young girl. Jutta is already entombed in her cell; Hildegard is to serve as an attendant to her and to learn from her. Outside of the cell, Hildegard is played by one actor operating a child-sized puppet. Once she enters, however, Hildegard is played by three people – Hannah Whitney, Rachael Duddy, and Ashley Pérez Flannagan. Thus begins the emphasis on physical forms, the importance of the body to the women of this show. Early on, Jutta, played by Grace, sings of her life outside the cell, referencing that “out there,” she had a body – in here, to the contrary, she lives as if dead to the world. She may still inhabit a physical form, but her body is not important to her. However, though she spends her days yearning for “the light,” a spiritual awakening that transcends the physical self, Jutta’s physicality is still significant. The historical Jutta engaged in self-flagellation as part of her philosophy of asceticism, while In the Green’s Jutta is heavily influenced by the loop machine she operates by means of a button in her ring. Each looped segment of a song corresponds with Jutta’s movements, mirroring the religious devotion of the real Jutta in a simulacrum of self-denial. This aspect of the show was absolutely fascinating to me – the physical movements required of the technology became integrated with the character herself, the loop machine melding with Jutta’s devotion as a tool of her independent, ascetic routines.
Furthermore, this exploration of the physical form connects to the pressures of living in a body deemed “female.” Then, as now, possessing a female form inflicted a specific set of traumas and burdens on women. (A note: this discussion includes traits associated with cisgender women. Transgender and nonbinary people both share in some of these difficulties, and, beyond that, face specific difficulties and violences of their own.) Beyond the physical difficulties of pregnancy, childbirth, and menstruation are the smaller violences of beauty standards and societal expectations, the pressures constantly trying to mold women to be a certain way. I don’t believe it to be a coincidence that Jutta’s commitment to religion includes injury to her physical self, nor her denial of herself and her body. Living as a woman allows her to feel that isolation from her physical self, allows her the ability to further inflict harm on her already-damaged self. It is another aspect of this show that feels too relevant – the struggles so many women face in understanding, accepting, and being kind to their bodies. There, again, is the sense of cyclicality (and not only in the generational inheritance of such trauma): because of the ways Jutta herself experienced society, she internalizes those traumas and comes to replicate them towards herself – and towards Hildegard.
Seemingly in contrast to the “whole” Jutta, who has just one physical self, Hildegard’s form has been fractured by her own trauma. She no longer sees herself as whole. Though her three actors often sing and speak together, there are times when they reflect that fractured discordance, as well as times when they speak individually. Arguably, though, each aspect of Hildegard is necessary, and it is in her brokenness that she is whole. Each Hildegard represents one part of the whole, each an essential part: the mouth, the eye, and the hand, all larger-than-life sculpted representations. Jutta’s job, as she sees it, is to make Hildegard whole again, and therein arises a conflict. While Jutta has found her version of wholeness through self-denial, that same denial in Hildegard represents profound loss. Jutta’s view of womanhood has been, in part, internalized from her own trauma, leading her to expound upon the “curse” of menstruation and of femaleness in the song “Eve.” This is what allows her to deny and further harm herself – seeing herself as fundamentally wrong, forcing herself through pain and her own version of fracturing, represented in part by her looping – she may not have multiple physical forms, but she has multiple vocal forms.
As it relates to Hildegard, however, Jutta forces her into constant labor digging in the ground of the cell, denying her food and rest (as we later find out, she is digging her own grave). Through these hardships, each part of Hildegard gives herself up – each actor straps her piece to cables; the mouth, the eye, and the hand all hang above her head in a symbolic gesture of her physical denial. She first gives up the mouth to represent a fast or a denial of hunger, then the eye to represent a denial of sleep, and finally the hand. To Jutta, it is a step towards wholeness, relinquishing the elements that separate the three. But, as I mentioned, the conflict here exists between the Jutta’s forceful denial and the essential quality of each of the Hildegards. In giving up parts of herself, Hildegard does not become whole, because wholeness is not eliminary. It is coagulative.
I will further discuss this idea of wholeness, but first I want to examine Jutta and Hildegard as women in a hostile society. I believe something akin to W. E. B. DuBois’ idea of double-consciousness is apt here. As DuBois developed this idea to describe the experiences of Black Americans, I can’t directly apply this term without misappropriating it, but the concept still rings true. According to DuBois, Black Americans understood themselves both through the eyes of their oppressors and through their own experiences. They internalized stereotypes and inaccurate ideas propagated by white society, but they knew themselves to be different, to be better. I think something similar affects Jutta and Hildegard. Both have internalized trauma of being a woman in a patriarchal society, but Jutta especially feels herself to be cursed with womanhood, and she projects this view onto Hildegard. Hildegard, however, understands herself differently – at least, she does after the pivotal scene that reveals Jutta’s brokenness.
For Jutta has already revealed that she “once” was broken, and, in the context of Hildegard’s multi-formed type of brokenness, this presumably implies that she was once in the same state. The arrival of Jutta’s “shadow” – another of Jutta’s physical forms, played by Mia Pak – confirms this. The shadow reveals how Jutta inhabits the same state as Hildegard, broken into multiple parts, no matter what wholeness Jutta claims. As the shadow directly mirrors Jutta’s movements, there is a small detail separating them: while Jutta’s dress has gray straps crossing her torso, the shadow’s hangs free. I may be reading into this a bit too much, but, to me, it seemed that Jutta’s costume communicates how she is physically holding herself together.
The set then shifts into a view beneath the floor of the cell. Jutta is gone, and Hildegard (all three of her) encounters Jutta’s shadow below the ground – or, as the shadow herself says, Jutta’s bones. This too is significant to me, as it reveals that the Jutta Hildegard knows is missing the element of herself that provides structure and support. Locking herself away from the world perhaps reflects this, mirroring how she only has herself and lacks outside support as she attempts to heal. This is also, to me, when the significance of Hildegard digging her own grave becomes clear – as Jutta has made herself “whole” again by burying this one part of herself, she wishes Hildegard to do the same. Jutta’s understanding of her healing is that, because she has buried this part of herself, she is once again an unbroken and singular person. From a feminist perspective, it may be that Jutta has killed the parts of herself that do not align with how society says a woman should be. There are more layers to this, however, because this is the scene in which both Jutta and Hildegard’s traumatic stories are revealed. Essentially, Jutta has buried the one part of her with the ability to tell her history, buried the part of her that faces her truth rather than face it herself. From another view, however, Jutta has fractured rather than accept the whole of herself – both the lightness and the darkness, the easy parts to accept and the difficult parts. This is the part of In the Green that hit me most strongly; reflecting on this aspect of the show brought me a sudden realization of how I see myself. Without the shadow, Jutta is not her whole self – she may insist that she is, she may see the shadow as an unneessary aspect of herself, but that denial is part of what prevents her from being whole. It feels so intensely relatable to deny part of yourself to move on – to pretend that part of you doesn’t exist, to bury it, just so that you live with yourself, creating an image of who you are that you can tolerate to keep living. Jutta can only keep living without acknowledging an entire segment of herself – and so that is what she does. Likewise, I craft my own version of myself, understanding only the parts of myself that I can accept, to live as the persona I have created, pruning the parts that don’t agree with my preconceived notions of myself. It’s an act of ongoing harm, a self-fracturing that feels difficult to reconcile.
So it is here, underground, that Hildegard tells her story. She tells of her sister, Agatha, who has been referenced throughout. In the event that first brought Hildegard to Jutta, Agatha died from ingesting substances meant to abort her pregnancy, substances that Hildegard gathered for her. This is the event that broke her, the guilt she feels in her sister’s death. And again the cyclical nature of violence appears – Agatha is a victim of her society in many ways, in the fact that she can be forced to carry a child, in the way her abortion must be done in secret, in the lack of a safe way to stop her pregnancy. Again appears the presence of physical violence to women’s bodies. Again, it is another aspect of this show that is far more relevant than it should be, far too reminiscent of today’s stories – those who cannot access a safe or legal abortion, those who are injured or killed pursuing an abortion, those who are prevented from a medical procedure by politicians who deny them autonomy. The structural violence surrounding pregnancy and abortion is an old fight. But, through all of the structural factors that cause Agatha’s suffering, Hildegard blames herself, inherits her sister’s trauma. She shoulders that burden and it breaks her.
Through this story, the shadow is the witness to Hildegard’s pain, reacting with tenderness that Jutta had not shown her. It is perhaps even possible that the shadow represents traits Jutta has cast off, replacing softness with strictness and discipline. The delicate way of handling trauma – the shadow tells Hildegard that she doesn’t have to share, that she can wait until she’s ready – is hugely significant to me, as it acknowledges the difficulty of what Hildegard does. Facing her pain and telling her story is treated as heavily as it deserves. But then it is only the shadow to tell Jutta’s story and her trauma – Jutta herself does not speak these words. She is still broken, not just in the fact of her two forms, but also because she refuses to accept her shadow.
Hildegard, on the other hand, returns to Jutta renewed. She accepts the mouth, the eye, and the hand once more – and that, I believe, is the most significant statement of Hildegard’s healing. Because Jutta only saw how she was broken, Hildegard lost parts of herself when trying to heal by Jutta’s instruction. While Jutta “healed” herself by digging a grave for the shadow and burying her, Hildegard’s self-created grave goes empty, because she comes to see how her wholeness involves every part of her. Wholeness, as I said before, can’t be eliminary. A fractured soul can still be whole, through every part of itself and all of its lightness and darkness. Hildegard goes into the darkness of the underground to find a type of enlightenment, reinforcing the essential quality of the darkness, flipping the trope from darkness as bad to darkness as necessary. But Jutta, too, has been in search of “the light” – God, the spirit, Heaven, goodness, however you categorize it. And once Hildegard returns, having found her own light (and faced her own darkness) without Jutta, Jutta despairs. She apologizes that Hildegard had to see her darkness, her other self, still rejecting her wholeness, but now reflecting some of the delicate sensibility her shadow had expressed around their trauma. But then she laments that she has supposedly done everything right; she has been devoted, and disciplined, and faithful, and yet she has not found her own light. And then she exits.
Jutta is dead, and thirty years have elapsed since Hildegard first entered Jutta’s cell. Another girl has come to the cell to be mentored by Hildegard, as Jutta did for her. Grace has now assumed the role of the young girl, mentor to mentee, introducing another element of cyclicality, while Hildegard has now assumed just one form. The girl’s mother expects her to have an experience like Hildegard’s own childhood, locked in the cell, but Hildegard rejects that existence to step into the world. Here, again, arises a difference between Jutta and Hildegard. Jutta chose her life in the cell – she chose it as one of the only ways to control her own life and her own fate, one of the only ways she could claim autonomy. Separating herself from the world was her response to the harm the world had done to her. Hildegard, on the other hand, was given this life. She did not wish to be entombed in the cell, and her thirty years inside gave her great fervor for the life she can build beyond her small existence thus far.
By my interpretation, though, despite Hildegard’s singular form, her two other forms do not fade. The now-free Hildegard devotes her life, in part, to aiding other women who are broken and healing; these other women are played by the same actors who once were Hildegard’s other parts. By one view, this is just a smart use of a small amount of actors. However, I believe this could also be a reflection of Hildegard seeing her own pain in other women, recognizing the traumas she faced in those she now helps. And, again, it’s one of the ways women inherit and share each others’ pain, how some of those painful experiences are near universal, how women as a whole carry the burden of a society that diminishes them.
On that note, one very significant theme that I have not yet discussed is the idea of “too much.” Part of the trauma Hildegard faces is rejection of her whole self as “too much” by a society that expects her to shrink. And, again, this is just another way that In the Green rings far too truthfully. Women are still condemned for being big and loud and taking up space and using their voices and claiming their existence and rights. Women still face rejection for not being accommodating, for rejecting the narrow roles created for them, for speaking up against the harm and pain a patriarchal society inflicts on them. For Hildegard, though, the traumatic event that breaks her is the culmination of many, many smaller acts of violence. It’s not just the trauma of her sister’s death, although that is a crucial part of it. It is Agatha’s death amid years of living as a girl in a society that tries to deny her and shrink her. The irony of this, though, is that Hildegard’s trauma just makes her more. On quite literal terms, Hildegard triples by her trauma.
The very last scene shows Hildegard meeting a young girl named Sigewize, a member of a Christian sect called the Cathari. She is a survivor of anti-Cathar violence that has killed her family members, and she claims that Hildegard’s public speeches have incited the violence against her people. Combined with the final song of the piece, which discusses trouble in “the community,” In the Green concludes with the need for ongoing healing, ongoing dialogue and ongoing examination and ongoing reflection, to protect against the type of trauma Jutta inflicted upon Hildegard, the harm Hildegard (however unintended) now inflicts upon the Cathars. Watching this scene, I was painfully reminded of some of my own communities and the harm they have done to their most vulnerable members – the feminist community’s mistreatment of women of color and LGBTQ women, the LGBTQ community’s mistreatment of its trans members and members of color. I think that’s why this final scene is so striking and important – it is a reminder to interrogate ourselves, to examine the harm we might be doing even through our attempts at help. And it’s a reminder of all of our brokenness, especially those of us with marginalized identities, and how those parts of our histories so strongly influence our futures.
And I think this is where I stop. I can’t touch on everything, and my own memory and evaluation skills are limited. This post can’t come close to the experience of actually seeing the show, but it was a new type of catharsis to process all of this. I still feel that there is so much more to say, but, more importantly, there is so much more to feel, so I’m going to stop writing and go cry a little bit. I am only hopeful that I can continue to feel the feelings that In the Green awakens in me, and that I can go out into the world and make art that touches souls as deeply as this piece has touched me.