The Ancient Mariner: Why Do The Characters from AT THE WEDDING Keep Talking About An Albatross?

ELI: and so there was a moment when I almost shot the albatross out of the sky 

CARLO: ?? 

Oh, Eli. The lovable, romantic, and slightly misguided English teacher who appears at the titular wedding in Bryna Turner’s play. Eli cannot seem to stop referencing a big bird from an eighteenth-century text that nobody else seems to understand. Though it may not be well-known in the present day, The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, a 1798 epic poem by English writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had a significant impact on the English language and has shaped At the Wedding. Here's what we need to know about the poem to keep up with Eli's references: 

The Rime of The Ancient Mariner begins on the outskirts of a wedding, where a guest is on his way to join the festivities. He is seized by the Mariner, a wizened sailor who starts a fascinating—but unsolicited—tale of the voyage he took long ago.  

Years before, a storm sent the Mariner’s ship off-course into Antarctic waters. All seemed lost when suddenly an albatross appeared, guidingthe ship out of peril. While the crew celebrated their newfound good fortune, the Mariner shot the bird out of the sky. The sailors were, of course, angry. This anger sharpened once the wind stopped, leaving them motionless on still waters, surrounded by "slimy things" and with thirst setting in. "Water, water, every where," the poem goes, "nor any drop to drink." (Sound familiar? These lines are often paraphrased into, "water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.")  

Believing that the albatross brought them good fortune and that the bird's death caused their hardship, the crew forced the Mariner to wear the dead albatross around his neck, perhaps as a punishment or as a reminder of his misdeed that could not be undone. ("An albatross around one's neck" is an idiom that has since been used to indicate a heavy burden, especially of guilt, that must be carried.) 

The sailors continued to struggle until they encountered a skeleton, a manifestation of Death, and a deathly pale woman, a manifestation of Night-mare Life-In-Death. These two creatures played dice to determine the fates of the sailors' souls. Death won the souls of the crew members and Night-mare Life-In-Death won the Mariner's soul.  

True to the outcome of the game, the crew members died one by one; only the Mariner remained alive, tormented by the other sailors' corpses and still wearing the bird. The "slimy things" from earlier in the poem reemerged, but this time, the Mariner saw that they were beautiful. As he made this revelation, the dead albatross fell from his neck.  

Good fortune found the Mariner once more. The sailors' corpses reanimated to guide the ship home. Finally within sight of his homeland, a whirlpool seized the ship and its dead occupants, leaving only the Mariner behind. From another boat, a hermit, the pilot, and his son spotted the man in the water and pulled him into their vessel, surprised to see that he was alive. They arrived on land and the Mariner was compelled to tell the hermit his story.  

Driven mad by guilt, the Mariner must now roam the earth, telling his story to listeners who must learn its lesson. The wedding guest never makes it to the wedding; at the story's end, he returns home, and wakes the next morning "a sadder and wiser man."  

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the poem in his late twenties as part of Lyrical Ballads, a joint work with William Wordsworth. "At its heart," as even Eli notes in the play, "it's a Christian redemption story," though readers may interpret it differently. The publication marked the beginning of the Romantic movement in England, a movement characterized by intense emotion and value for the individual and the irrational. All of this is arguably found in The Rime of The Ancient Mariner

Though the publication with Wordsworth had a long and lauded legacy, the poem received mixed reviews for being esoteric; even Wordsworth, who often praised the poem, once described it as "an injury to the volume." It could be argued that The Rime of The Ancient Mariner was in fact the albatross around Coleridge's neck; he was unable to let it go. There are eighteen known versions of the poem. He returned to it and published his revisions frequently, including in 1834, the year of his death. 

In At the Wedding, Bryna Turner resurrects the poem not only in Eli's fascination with it, but also in the very form of the play. Despite its title, the play is decidedly not at the wedding; we are, like the Mariner and the guest, on the outskirts, destined to listen as a tale unwinds before us. Eli himself, ever the English teacher, finds themes from the poem that are relevant to the play's characters. And Turner quotes The Rime of The Ancient Mariner as the epigraph that begins the script, invoking a lesson from the poem that resonates throughout the play: 

"And a thousand thousand slimy things and a thousand thousand slimy things Lived on; and so did I" - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Malaika Fernandes