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"At The Wedding" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

A dramaturgical note in support of our Spring 2024 Acting Capstone Production.

An old engraving by Gustave Dore shows a ship sailing between looming icebergs.

A plate from Gustave Dore's illustrations for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1876.

By Savannah Reich, Production Dramaturg.

It’s perfectly fine if you’ve never heard of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner '' before watching Bryna Turner’s At The Wedding- the show speaks for itself, and the characters will tell you everything you need to know. But the ideas of the poem are woven deeply throughout the play, to such an extent that it can be read as a very free adaptation, updating the poem’s ideas to strikingly modern themes. Both pieces begin with a strange intruder on the outskirts of a wedding, compelled to tell their chilling story to certain wedding guests. In Turner’s play, the story that the guest tells is about heartbreak; in Coleridge’s poem, it may be about original sin. Reading the two side by side suggests that Turner is talking about more than just an ordinary heartbreak, and that this story is more than it might seem.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an unknown 26-year-old English poet when he wrote “Mariner” in 1798, already depressed, stuck in an unsuccessful marriage, and deeply addicted to opium. As James D. Boulger of Brown University hilariously writes in his Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner: A Collection of Critical Essays, Coleridge lived “a life mainly of failure and humiliation”. Coleridge seems to have achieved fame in his lifetime largely due to his friendship with the more celebrated English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, and to the notoriety of “Mariner” and his other lastingly popular poem, “Kubla Khan”. The poem was originally published in a collection called “Lyrical Ballads” to little critical fanfare, but gained devoted fans and followers over time as a key example of the emerging Romantic style. While Coleridge grew popular enough to eke out a living lecturing on Shakespeare and publishing dense philosophical texts on Christian theology, he never wrote anything else that approached the critical acclaim of these two poems. Perhaps due to his addiction and general difficult personality, his marriage dissolved, his plans came to nothing, and even his treasured friendship with Wordsworth ended in an argument in 1810. There were only six people in attendance at his funeral in 1834, and they did not include his wife, children, or any of his closest friends. Like our protagonist Carlo in At The Wedding, Coleridge seems to have known something about being your own worst enemy.
While scholars have argued for decades about the meaning of the poem, most agree that it takes the shape of a dream or a drug trip, perhaps inspired by one of Coleridge’s opium visions. Although written at the dawn of the Romantic Era, the poem is made to resemble an old anonymous tale, passed down from storyteller to listener since medieval times. The language is powerful and dense, using many archaic words and odd structures, and seems to aim at creating a creepy, gothic mood at least as much as conveying a story. In the beginning we meet the Mariner; an old man who accosts a group of wedding guests as they move into the church. Although there are three guests walking by, the Mariner only chooses one;

It is an ancient Mariner,

And he stoppeth one of three. 
“By thy long beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me? 


The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st hear the merry din.”
He holds him with his skinny hand,
“There was a ship”, quoth he. 
“Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!” 
Eftsoons his hand dropt he. 

Although the guest would rather continue on and join the rest of the party at the wedding feast, he finds himself unable to ignore the Mariner’s story. As if by magic, the guest sits down; he “cannot choose but hear”. For the rest of the long poem, the guest is held rapt by the Mariner’s tale- perhaps due to the art of his storytelling, perhaps something more occult.

Later on in the poem, the Mariner reveals that he also does not choose when to tell his story, or to whom. The guest who hears the story is the one who needs to hear it. It’s an interesting question to keep in mind when watching “At The Wedding”; why is each guest chosen to hear Carlo’s story? In the beginning of the play, we meet Carlo as she explains what heartbreak feels like to a group of children- in fact, the kids table at her ex-girlfriend’s wedding. It is funny, relatable, and wildly inappropriate. Through the course of the night, she has conversations with many other guests at the wedding, hoping to eventually work her way to the bride herself. With every conversation, she tells her own version of the Mariner’s story- she needs them to see her pain and her essential exclusion from the happiness of the crowd. She needs them to see that this is no ordinary heartbreak, but, as she says in the opening monologue, “the ache of knowing that you are yet again / unknown and unknowable / to anyone, by anyone”. She does not know if she will be able to make it through this feeling to the other side. Like the Mariner, she is lost at sea, and there is no reason to believe that she has any hope of rescue. 

The Mariner’s story begins like this: he was once a sailor on a ship that was headed south, when it was driven off course by a storm. The ship gets lost in the icebergs and fog of the Antarctic Ocean, and the sailors worry that they may be trapped there forever. There are no other ships and seemingly no other living things in that cold and alien world, until the sailors see an albatross- a kind of sea bird whose giant white wings allow them to fly far out across oceans without coming to land. 

At length did cross an Albatross,

Through the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.
It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!

The sailors grow to love the Albatross. The winds begin to blow again once the Albatross arrives, and it serves as a kind of guardian and good luck charm for the whole crew. It comes when they call, and visits the ship every day. Since the Albatross joins the crew as they eat and as they pray, it becomes humanized in their minds- a friend in this strange land. At this point in the story, the Wedding-Guest re-emerges to ask the Mariner why he looks so pale and haunted by the memory:

'God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look'st thou so?'—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.

Why does the Mariner shoot the albatross? There is no explanation anywhere in the poem. Many critics suggest that the crime, in its utter lack of motive, represents original sin. Coleridge would likely agree- in a letter he wrote to his brother George soon after the completion of the poem, he said, “... I believe most steadfastly in original sin; that from our mother’s wombs our understandings are darkened; and even where our understandings are in the light, that our organization is depraved and our volitions imperfect”. Perhaps to a troubled addict like Coleridge, the concept of original sin intrinsically made sense, and helped him to answer some questions about his own behavior and desires. The crime in the story is heinous on a number of levels; the innocence of the bird, the pointlessness of its death, the fact that the bird was a guest onboard the ship (fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones may recall how the Medieval English felt about killing a guest in your home), and for another reason, the most simple and heartbreaking: the Albatross had loved the Mariner. To “shoot the Albatross” is, perhaps, to hurt yourself for no good reason, or to hurt someone who has only ever loved you.

Bryna Turner has their own explanation of what it means to shoot the Albatross in “At The Wedding”. As one character asks, “Haven’t you ever been scared of something good?” It’s not all that uncommon, Turner suggests, to act against our own best interests, to hurt the ones we love for no reason that we can see or control. We are driven by deep, sometimes half-remembered traumas, by our complex internal chemistry, and by our irrational fears and self-doubt. The impulse to hurt someone who would never hurt you is terrifying, and perhaps as mysterious to the perpetrator as to the rest of us. Where Coleridge and his contemporaries were concerned with Original Sin, our culture is more interested in trauma and brain chemistry, but it all comes out to the same questions: why do we sometimes have the urge to do things we know will end horribly? Why are we like this? Why can’t we always be the best version of ourselves?

After the Albatross dies in the poem, all manner of hallucinatory hell breaks loose. The Mariner's shipmates, angry about the killing of the Albatross, make him wear the dead bird around his neck where he used to wear a cross. Setting aside the psychedelic nature of wearing a dead bird that probably weighs 25 pounds as a necklace, the fact that the evidence of his crime has replaced his cross means that he is emotionally in exile; outside of God’s love and outside of the community onboard the ship. The winds stop, and the ship is becalmed again. The crew begins to think about how they may die- the first thing to run out will be the water, since the salt water of the ocean is undrinkable (here we find the often-quoted line, “water, water every where, nor any drop to drink”). He sees another ship and thinks they are being rescued, but it only holds a talking skeleton he calls Death and a pale, beautiful woman he calls Death-In-Life, who play dice for the Mariner’s soul. When Death-in-Life wins, everyone aboard the ship suddenly drops lifeless to the deck, and the Mariner is adrift in the wintry ocean with only a pile of frozen corpses for company. He is desperately lonely, and the only other living things around him are strange, unidentified sea monsters, “slimy things” that “crawl with legs upon the slimy sea”, which the Mariner watches in horror. Although his shipmates are dead, he is something much worse; entirely alone.

The many men, so beautiful!

And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.

The Christian reading of the poem would be that the Mariner has sinned and failed to repent, and so is separated from the rest of humanity. In a modern reading, we might say that the Mariner’s self-defeating choices have left him unable to connect with his loved ones or his community. He is desperately lonely, and metaphorically one with the slimy things and their unnatural crawling. He feels responsible for the death of all his shipmates, but when he tries to pray, the words wither in his mouth. He is too busy with his fear and shame to find true repentance. 

The Mariner’s mindset in this moment aligns perfectly with Carlo’s in the beginning of At the Wedding; obsessed with her heartbreak but unable to see her own part in it, still deeply in love with her ex-girlfriend but unable to wish her well, and wildly, blisteringly alone. Her shame is the albatross that hangs around her neck, and her hopelessness is the water that surrounds her in every direction. Carlo’s heartbreak reminds me of how many of us have felt after a breakup- that our pain is the most pain anyone has ever experienced, that we will never feel all the way alive again, and that our sadness is to other people’s feelings like the Mariner’s journey is to getting stuck in traffic on a trip to the grocery store. It’s a kind of miracle that the Mariner is able to get back home from this journey, and the play keeps us in suspense as to whether Carlo can make it to the other side of hers. 

For the Mariner, salvation comes, mysteriously, from within. He looks again at the monstrous sea snakes, and instead of hating and fearing them, he blesses them. 

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.


The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

In this moment, the Mariner finds a way to forgive himself; at least enough to understand how to feel love for another living being again. He starts in the smallest of ways; by wishing the snakes well instead of wishing for their death. Perhaps, if he can find a way to forgive the snakes, he can find a way to forgive himself, or at least live with his crime. Some shadowy sea monsters are the first step on a journey that will lead the Mariner back to being a part of humanity again, and not banished to the cold land of death and dark magic in the ocean. 

At the end of the poem, the Mariner has returned to his home port. He has atoned for his crimes, but not forgotten them, and he must forever carry their curse: 

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

But when his story is over, the Mariner is temporarily released. He has told his tale and now can enjoy the company of the wedding guests. He is no longer broken and alone, although the process will restart again soon enough. As modern readers, we might map this curse onto the experience of carrying trauma, or of feeling unable to move on from the way you thought your life would turn out. The only way through is to look without shame at your own pain and begin to see it clearly. Like the Mariner, Carlo is on a journey to get unstuck and find her way home; out of shame and desperation, depression, addiction and self-hatred, and back to finding a new way to live. She will never forget the Albatross; but perhaps she can still find a way to rejoin the party. 


Sources cited: 

Boulger, J. D. Twentieth century interpretations of the rime of the ancient mariner: A collection of critical essays. Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Dover Publications, 1992.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor.  Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (E. H. Coleridge , Ed.). William Heinemann, 1895.

Gardner, Martin. The Annotated Ancient Mariner. Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1965.

Turner, Bryna. At the Wedding. Concord Theatricals, 2022.