Arts & Life


In 1860, in Illinois, Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard did the unthinkable. She questioned her husband's religious teachings. For that, Mrs. Packard was confined to the Jacksonville insane asylum.

(Soundbite of play "Mrs. Packard")

ELLIOTT: Her story is the subject of the new play "Mrs. Packard," written and directed by Emily Mann. "Mrs. Packard" had its debut at the McCarter Regional Theater in Princeton this spring. I saw it this week at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Playwright Emily Mann joins us from Princeton where she is the artistic director at the McCarter. Thank you for being with us.

Ms. EMILY MANN (Playwright; Artistic Director, McCarter Regional Theater): Pleasure, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: We should emphasize that "Mrs. Packard" is a true story that after 21 years of marriage and six children, Reverend Packard did indeed send his wife to this terrible place.

Ms. MANN: Mm-hmm. He certainly did. Actually, it was utterly within his rights to do so. A man could, in the state of Illinois in 1860, could have his wife committed to the lunatic asylum without proof of insanity if the superintendent at the insane asylum gave his permission and said it was okay. And that's what was often done to get rid of the obstreperous wives and so that's what happened to Elizabeth.

Her husband was a very, very old school Calvinist preacher. And she was becoming infected by the very interesting liberal ideas of the day especially in terms of religious dogma. And she started to question Calvinist doctrine and that to him was an unpardonable offense.

ELLIOTT: All the time that she is confined in this place, and it's truly horrid. You hear screams of women who were being beaten by the people in charge there. You hear people who really are mad.

(Soundbite of screeching)

ELLIOTT: She keeps her wit about her and starts to document the abuses that she sees going on around her. And then after she's released, she uses this material to expose what was going on. She writes books. How did you learn about this woman and her books?

Ms. MANN: Well, I was very fortunate to be living in this wonderful town of Princeton where at different dinner parties, I would say, I'm looking for my next play story. I cannot find it. And because it takes me two and a half, three years to write a play, I have to really love the story. And so I said, if you hear anything - it can be gossip, it can be historical, it can be something out of the newspaper, but you think it's a fantastic story, let me know. And a friend of mine was doing a New York Times crossword puzzle, and she was stumped by a particular question, and when she looked at the answer the next day, there was this name Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard. And she thought who the heck is that? And she Googled her, and up came this extraordinary story and she called me immediately and said Google this name and I did. And it was like a Malcom Gladwell blink moment. I read that story, I was stunned by it, and I've been looking on it ever since.

ELLIOTT: Was there something that you read that she was writing about that actually, you know, as a playwright, started you thinking this belongs on the stage?

Ms. MANN: Yes. From Googling, I then went on to find her books. And one of the first pages of one of her books was about her meeting in the lunatic asylum with Dr. McFarland - the superintendent of the institution. And after he had left, she was left alone with her husband and she tried everything she could to convince him that she should come home.

(Soundbite of play, "Mrs. Packard")

Ms. KATHRYN MEISLE (Actress): (As Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard) For now on, I will keep my thoughts hidden, I promise. No one will ever know what I feel inside. Grant me this one favor and I will bless you forever. I will be forever in your debt.

Ms. MANN: And he fell asleep while hearing her.

(Soundbite of play, "Mrs. Packard")

Ms. MEISLE: (As Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard) Are you asleep?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DENNIS PARLATO (Actor): (As Dr. Andrew McFarland) I'm sorry. I have been broken of my rest.

Ms. MEISLE: (As Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard) You have been broken of your rest?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MEISLE: (As Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard) I see.

Ms. MANN: And that odd response was something that stuck in my mind as being something you just could not make up.

ELLIOTT: It is not legal for husbands to commit their wives to insane asylums without evidence today. I'm wondering why you think Mrs. Packard story is relevant in today's society?

Ms. MANN: Well, that's a very good question. I really did not write the play because I wanted to discuss the mental health system either historically or today. It's really quite more a metaphor for what has happened to women when they are up against religious fanaticism, or when absolute power is given to another human being over another human being. Her husband was an old-school Calvinist, which really was Puritanism. And we see all over the world when there is fundamentalist religious thought or fanatical religious thought that one of the worst things that happens societally is that women on some levels silenced, imprisoned or stripped of their personhood. That's really a very key part of the play.

ELLIOTT: You draw from her writings for this play and most of your plays are like this - are documentary in form...

Ms. MANN: Yes.

ELLIOTT: ...using historical events in accounts from those involved - topics like the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the struggle for civil rights. I've seen it called theater of testimony?

Ms. MANN: Yes.

ELLIOTT: I read one critic who suggested that you could be reasserting theater's claim on the country's moral conscience. Is that something that you think about?

Ms. MANN: I would say that certainly is what I aspire to, sure. That's why I get a lot of people really mad at me.

ELLIOTT: Has theater lost its standing when it comes to moral plays?

Ms. MANN: In this country, I think it's certainly deteriorated since the heydays. There was a time for example and just look at "The Crucible" of Arthur Miller. I think "The Crucible" is more the mother of "Mrs. Packard" as a play than almost any other play in the canon.

ELLIOTT: Emily Mann, your father was a history professor. Is that where your passion for this documentary form of drama comes from?

Ms. MANN: I'm sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MANN: He was an extraordinary man and extraordinary mind. And yes, dinner table conversation was about what was going on in the world and what that had to do with what has gone on in the world. And from a historical perspective, I was always looking at the world we live in. And of course, his greatest friends were also great scholars and for some reason they all like to speak to young people. So from a very early age, I was talking with some of the most interesting minds in our country.

ELLIOTT: You studied theater at Harvard and someone there told you at the time, oh you know, don't think about this - women can't direct.

Ms. MANN: That's right. I'm afraid that's true.

ELLIOTT: That really happened?

Ms. MANN: It's even worse than that. I was watching my friends try to decide whether they wanted to go to graduate school in drama or whether they wanted to go to the West Coast and do film. And I was sort of thinking about that as well. And this lovely man - may he rest in peace - said to me but Emily, no matter how talented you are, you know, women can't direct plays professionally or movies professionally. I think you should think about children's theater.

And I remember thinking huh? Children's theater - I don't like children's theater.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MANN: And I absolutely - I felt the blood just rush up into my skull and I said, you know, I'm so lucky that my father taught me rightly or wrongly that women could do whatever they wanted do. And so by the time I was told I couldn't, it really was too late.

ELLIOTT: And that was your senior year in college.

Ms. MANN: Yes. It was not ancient history. I can tell you I'm not ashamed of my age. It was 1974. And one wouldn't have thought you'd hear that in 1974.

ELLIOTT: Now, one of your most successful plays was about two women who didn't listen much either when people told them what they could and could not do because they were women and because they were black women. "The Delaney Sisters," your play based on their book "Having Our Say" had a very long run on Broadway. What did you learned from those two extraordinary women?

Ms. MANN: They were just life-changing people to meet. I think they really taught me how to go about living well and dying well. They enjoyed their lives more than any two people I've ever met. But they didn't let all of the barriers that were put up to stop them, stop them or have them live in bitterness or anger. So they were the first African-Americans often to do whatever they did. Certainly, often one of the first women to do anything that they did. They stayed buoyant. They kept looking at the joys given in life and remember Sadie Delaney, the sweet sister - there was a sweet sister, Sadie and there was Dr. Bessie, who was feisty and angry and full of beans. And Sadie said to me once, life is short, and it's up to you to make it sweet. And that has stuck with me and stuck with me all these years after meeting them.

ELLIOTT: Playwright Emily Mann, her newest work is "Mrs. Packard." It's just finishing a run at the Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Thank you for your time.

Ms. MANN: Oh, a pleasure, Debbie.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: For more information about the life of the real Mrs. Packard go to our Web site,

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