I’ve forgotten whether I saw Diana Rigg in London or Dublin. In the early '70s Rigg starred in a production of Abelard and Heloise, a play based on the love letters of a young woman in the Middle Ages and her tutor. The play opened in New York in 1971 and was staged the next year in London.
That can’t be completely right because I saw it either in London or Dublin in 1974, in between my junior and senior years of high school. I’d saved money working on Saturdays in a clothing store called Strawberry, owned by Syrian Jews who lived on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. The clothes were made of cheap, shiny fabrics that easily got hitches in them like stockings. I resisted squandering my paycheck on them, saving so I could travel with my boyfriend on his high school graduation trip to Ireland and England. The airfare was something like $100. We got rail passes and stayed in bed and breakfasts that cost a couple of pounds and served us fresh eggs and tomatoes with actual taste, unlike the ones I'd grown up on.
His relatives in Galway took us to an after hours bar in a hotel basement. Bullet holes from 1916 pocked the walls. On the Aran Islands, we stayed on a farm with no electricity with gas lamps and big featherbeds. They didn’t believe we were married, but they pretended. I wore my mother’s wedding ring. She’d given it to me rather cavalierly. Inside the gold band it said: Cartier, Forever, 1952, or something like that. My mother was done with it.
I was enamored of the Diana Rigg I’d seen in The Avengers, of course, so when I saw that she was in a play, I persuaded my boyfriend to go. I knew nothing of Abelard and Heloise.
The theater was in the round, the set simple. Diana Rigg played a young woman renowned for her erudition. Heloise read Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. She was a scholar. A writer. According to the histories, Heloise was born in 1011. This was not the Middle Ages but the Dark Ones, so her story is all the more remarkable, and furnishes an unaccustomed view of the period.
Abelard was a philosopher, a poet, a logician. Contemporary records describe him as "the keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the 12th century.” We’ll take the writer at his word. In the play, Abelard was tall, rangy, blond, Scandinavian-looking. Intense in that way. The lessons he gave Heloise? Taken in earnest, the intensity nonetheless palpable.
Here is what the seventeen-year-old me remembers:
Diana Rigg: tall, lean, barefoot.
A memory jogged by later research: a nude scene entirely in keeping with the play, the tortured intensity of these two people who could not stay away from each other.
A son. Heloise named him Astrolabe, after the scientific instrument.
A secret marriage after the birth of the child. Not enough to appease the uncle.
The way I wanted to rise out of my seat when the men captured Abelard. The screams offstage — male screams, less familiar to us — when they castrated him.
Diana Rigg in a nun’s habit. Abelard sent her to the convent to protect her from her furious uncle. Later, when he became a monk at the monastery of St. Denis, near Paris, he insisted that she, too, take vows.
In her letters, she protested that she had no vocation.
She ended up founding an order. As a monk, Abelard attracted followers. He was a cause celebre. He continued to burn, ex-communicated, then reinstated.
More letters. For years. They read them aloud, to us, separated by the dark. Dead silence in the theater. I didn’t want to breathe, just listen.
They never saw each other again, but when Abelard died, his body was taken to Heloise.
They were buried together.
The letters remained.
I went to see Diana Rigg, not the play. Diana Rigg and Heloise fused for me. An unintelligent actress could never have played that role, the range of it, from the untouched girl to the woman annealed by betrayal and endurance, by a love that refuses to be extinguished, changed but still true metal.
So many years later, I see myself in that archetype, marveling at Diana Rigg, who showed this to me when she was younger than I am now.
The wedding ring? I never found it again. If I gave it back to my mother, it wasn’t in her effects when she died. She was done with it.
Or so she said to me, and I believed her. I was seventeen.
Susan Zakin is an editor of Journal of the Plague Year.