Saturday, August 15, 2015

Susan Campbell Bartoletti's "Terrible Typhoid Mary"

Susan Campbell Bartoletti is the award-winning author of several books for young readers, including Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845–1850, winner of the Robert F. Sibert Medal.

Here Bartoletti dreamcasts an adaptation of her latest book, Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America:
If Terrible Typhoid Mary were to become a movie, I envision a musical. Its pitch line would be “Typhoid Mary meets My Fair Lady.”

The film would depict an arrogant, misogynist epidemiologist who wishes to transform a quiet, diligent Irish cook into a respectable lady so that she can become presentable in society and make her way in the world -- just as the phonetics professor Henry Higgins tried to do with Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and later the popular musical My Fair Lady.

Like Higgins, George Soper saw only dirt when he first meets Mary. He wants to fix her, give her a new identity, and like Higgins, it’s for his own gain. Soper initially uses “talk therapy,” thinking if he can just convince Mary that she’s a healthy carrier, that if he can just explain the facts of germ theory to her, he will be able to convince her to give up her gall bladder. Similarly, Higgins also employs talk therapy with Eliza Doolittle, attempting to change her Cockney accent into "acceptable" speech.

The desire to transform - sculpt - those we perceive as "other" is centuries old. Indeed, the story of Pygmalion dates back to Ovid's narrative poem Metamorphoses. For example, this desire shows up in other stories such as "Pinocchio", Pretty Woman, and even The Stepford Wives.

However, there is a significant difference between Higgins and Soper: Higgins had high expectations for Eliza Doolittle and eventually grows to care for her; Soper can’t get beyond his low opinion of Mary. To Soper, Mary is – and will always be – a “fallen woman.”

In psychology, there’s something called the “Pygmalion Effect”: the greater the expectation you have of someone, the better that person performs. Inversely, the lower the expectation, the lower the performance. This latter expectation is called the “Golem effect.” In postmodern theory, we call it the Lacanian mirror.

So whom would I cast in this musical? As serious as the story of Terrible Typhoid Mary is, I’d cast comedic actors in the roles. (Mind you, I don’t know if these people can sing, but most of Audrey Hepburn’s singing in My Fair Lady was dubbed by Mami Nixon, according to IMDb.) Before you balk at this choice, consider how effective Will Ferrell was in Stranger than Fiction and Steve Carell as the sick and twisted du Pont in Foxcatcher.

In the role of 38-year-old Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary, I’d cast Tina Fey. I can imagine Tina Fey as the strong-jawed, determined Mallon who was immensely proud of her work and the wealthy families for whom she worked. Mallon was not afraid to stand up for herself.

Some called Mary Mallon “intelligent” but “non-communicative.” They said she had a “violent temper” and could silence a person “with a glare,” and who “walk[ed] more like a man than a woman.” When Soper (and later Josephine Baker) confronted Mallon with the possibility that her body harbored deadly bacteria, she attacked her accusers with a carving fork. If Fey doesn’t have the physical comedy chops to pull off this scene, we’ll use a stunt double.

I’d cast Stephen Colbert as George Soper, the arrogant bookish man responsible for identifying Mary as a healthy carrier. I view Soper as a Henry Higgins sort of fellow, a man who wants fame and prestige– and who has clear ideas about class, gender roles, and how a respectable woman should act. Colbert could pull this off in a song-and-dance number.

Dr. S. Josephine Baker was the tiny woman responsible for the successful arrest of Mary Mallon. Baker wore man-tailored suits and shirts and stiff collars and ties so that her male colleagues took her seriously.

In Baker, Mary had met her match. Once the four policemen got Mary into the ambulance wagon, Baker pinned her down, sitting on the kicking and screaming Mallon all the way to the hospital. Baker had once slugged a drunken man who had thrown scalding water on his pregnant wife. I’d cast 5’ 2’ Amy Poehler as Dr. Josephine Baker.

Admittedly, this is a 180-degree spin on a very serious story. I also confess that I didn’t think about these actors as I wrote Terrible Typhoid Mary. But I did think a great deal about the similarities between Henry Higgins and George Soper.
Visit Susan Campbell Bartoletti's website.

--Marshal Zeringue