By Jason Chinn
Ymma and Silence in History
Moira Buffini’s play imagines the meeting of two historical figures that challenged the gender norms of their times: Emma of Normandy, a Norman royal who lived from 985 to 1052, and Silence, the titular character of the 13th century verse-romance, Le roman de Silence.
Buffini’s Ymma takes inspiration from Emma of Normandy, queen consort of England, Denmark and Norway at the start of the 11th century. Emma was married to King Æthelred of England in 1002 to unite Normandy and England against the threat of viking invasions. The marriage ended fourteen years later when Æthelred died during Danish warrior Cnut the Great’s invasion of England. Emma was subsequently married to King Cnut in 1017 after he seized the English crown. Although it can be assumed the marriage was forced upon Emma by the conquering nation, English historian Matthew Firth suggests that Emma used the opportunity to her full advantage, as evidenced by the following accomplishments:
Emma became the richest woman in England;
Took an interest in ecclesiastical appointments (perhaps for a price);
Increased her land holdings;
Was given equal prominence to the king’s contemporary portraiture (a unique development);
Became queen consort of Denmark and Norway;
We even have some slight indications she may have performed as regent during Cnut’s overseas absences (Firth).
Emma paved the way for women to rule in their own right, and her political savvy has cemented her as one of the most powerful women in English history. The Ymma of Silence, much like Emma of Normandy, desires a level of agency not permitted to women of the 11th century, yet she aims to take it nonetheless.
Ymma is inspired to take control of her own destiny in part by Silence’s donning of the male identity and the power that ultimately provides. The character of Silence originates in the medieval text Le roman de Silence by Heldris de Cornuälle. Le roman de Silence tells the story of a girl whose parents raise her as a boy after a mythical king forbids women from inheriting family wealth. In true medieval fashion, personifications of Nature and Nurture argue over who has the greatest influence over the child. At first, Silence considers womanhood a demotion and resists Nature. In the end, however, she succumbs to Nature and is transformed from a warrior into a beautiful maiden.
Buffini’s use of these two historical figures, Emma of Normandy and de Cornuälle’s Silence, demonstrates her deft ability at using history to illuminate the present. Emma of Normandy’s story of a woman asserting her power within a political system dominated by men is as thematically relevant now as it was in the 11th century. Barriers that continue to hinder women in politics today are plentiful and depressing. With respect to representation, women only account for 26% of the 42nd Canadian Parliament, placing Canada 50th in the world for gender parity in government.
The character of Silence provides further opportunities to examine the political implications of gender through the lens of gender ambiguity. In Le roman de Silence, the character’s dual genders are explicitly tied to their respective societal functions; the male as the inheritor of the family dynasty and wealth, and the female as the bearer of children. As Peggy McCracken, Humanities professor at the University of Michigan, suggests, Silence’s gender ambiguity “presents a profoundly troubling spectacle to an aristocratic society founded and maintained by dynastic marriage and succession because ambiguous gender threatens the disruption of dynastic structures” (McCracken). Furthermore, “the efforts by various characters in the story to contain the mutability of Silence's body reveals the role of political and social institutions in maintaining a binary gender system and in both exploring and suppressing challenges to that system” (McCracken). Again, Buffini takes themes originating from a historical source and brings them into the modern day; demonstrating that performativity of the male gender is inexplicably tied to power and subsequently questioning how gender ambiguity continues to threaten authority.
About the Playwright
By Jason Chinn
Moira Buffini (born in Cheshire, England in 1965) is a playwright, screenwriter, director and actor. Select plays include Blavatsky’s Tower, Gabriel, Loveplay, Dinner, Dying for It, A Vampire Story, Marianne Dreams, Welcome to Thebes, and Handbagged. Silence received its premiere in London, England at the Arcola Theatre in August, 2005.
In recent years, Buffini has become a proponent for large cast plays and is a founding member of The Monsterists, a collective of playwrights in Britain devoted to producing theatre on a large scale. The Monsterists’ production wonder.land, a musical adaptation of Alice in Wonderland with a twenty-two person cast, premiered at the Palace Theatre in Manchester in 2015 (book by Buffini and music by Damon Albarn).
Buffini also advocates creating more space for women in film, television and theatre. She co-created ITV Encore series Harlots, which explores sex work in 18th century London. The series not only employs women directors and writers, but also tells the stories exclusively from womens’ perspectives. As one of only two living female playwrights to have had a full-length play produced in London’s Olivier theatre, Buffini is vocal about the underrepresentation of women playwrights on the world’s stages. Speaking to Alexis Soloski of The New York Times, she states, “I want to be in the canon…There are so few women in the canon. That’s my ambition, really. Just to write lasting work and to blaze the trail for all the younger female writers who are coming up. To say, It’s all yours. You deserve it. Take it.” (Soloski)
Jordan, Time Out Award for acting, Writers' Guild Award for Best Fringe play.
Gabriel, LWT Plays on Stage award and the Meyer-Whitworth Award.
Silence, 1998 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for best English-language play by a woman.
Dinner, Olivier Award for Best Comedy (nomination).
Firth, Matthew. “Queenship and Power: The Political Life of Emma of Normandy.” The Postgrad Chronicals, 4 April 2019,
McCracken, Peggy. "'The Boy who was a Girl': reading gender in the 'Roman de Silence.'." The Romanic Review, vol. 85, no. 4, 1994, p. 517+. Literature Resource Center. Accessed 18 Apr. 2019.
Soloski, Alexis. “A Big-Minded Playwright Pares Down.” The New York Times. 27 December, 2014.