Tuesday 16 July 2019

How did Typhoid Mary get a clean bill of health?

  • Typhoid Mary, Viking Theatre, Clontarf, Dublin
Charlotte Bradley in Typhoid Mary
Charlotte Bradley in Typhoid Mary

Emer O'Kelly

Emer O'Kelly finds herself at odds with a theatrical interpretation.

The late Eithne McGuinness's Typhoid Mary attempts to wear its heart on its sleeve. McGuinness is emphatically on her side, portraying Mary Mallon as a gentle, sensitive creature, much put upon and attempting at all times to co-operate and give satisfaction. Yet the play leaves one with withers utterly unwrung.

Mallon emigrated to New York from Tyrone at the age of 15. Her aunt had sent passage money, but her father drank most of it, and the young woman had to travel steerage. McGuinness also portrays her as being raped on board, a fate which, according to the play, was to be repeated frequently at the hands of the butler when she found employment in a New York household. A horrible enough start in life, withal.

But there is another side: Mary was nicknamed Typhoid Mary because it was discovered that, in her work as a cook, she was a carrier of the disease without contracting it. And in 1907, far from being a delicate flower, she was a large, brawny 40- year-old who took a large kitchen fork to the doctor who came to put her in isolation due to a massive outbreak of the disease in the household where she worked.

She was found to have changed jobs seven times in as many years, leaving each when typhoid broke out in the household. (McGuinness doesn't mention this.) She also portrays her as protesting her cleanliness, loudly proclaiming that her hands are rubbed raw from washing. The historical record states otherwise: she refused while in hospital to accept the necessity for cleanliness, and resisted giving urine and faecal samples for analysis, which had to be taken forcibly. She was released from isolation in 1910 when she gave an undertaking not to work as a cook. She broke her word, changed her name, and as Mary Brown got a job as cook in a maternity hospital in 1915, where again typhoid broke out.

Typhoid Mary was identified, and again taken into an isolation hospital, where she died more than 20 years later, still refusing to take responsibility for what had happened.

While it is easy to feel pity for her unhappy life, it's entirely reasonable to accept the duty of the authorities to prevent the woman's wilful stupidity from creating further havoc within the NY public health system.

So while Charlotte Bradley's performance as Mary in the Viking Theatre production is appealing under Bairbre Ni Chaoimh's always imaginative and empathetic direction, it's at odds with the known facts, and very much in tune with the Irish penchant for claiming blameless victimhood.

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