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On Mary Poppins: Nannies, Governesses and Teachers in Musical Theatre

By Adam Corrigan Holowitz, Nov. 29, 2019

What is it about musical theatre and nannies?

Photo: Dahlia Katz
When you think about the archetypical characters in musicals, what comes to mind; we have showgirls, divas, directors, gangsters, gadabouts and a whole slew of personas associated with big city life. But then there are the less obvious characters: the cowboys, librarians, evangelists and of course nannies.

Three of the most famous and popular musicals of all time have women who are nannies as the central characters. Their jobs could also be described as governess or teacher. There is Maria in “The Sound of Music,” Anna in “The King and I” and then there is “Mary Poppins,” which plays at the Grand Theatre until December 29.

The nanny or governess is a complicated position to define. All three of these musicals idealize the position to an extent, while still depicting the tensions and complications of the job.

Compared to many other women in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, the governess had more independence. Usually, these were women from middle-class to lower middle-class families who had an education. However, the job did not pay well. Added to that the governess was positioned in a grey area in the home, not exactly family and not exactly staff.

In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, families who were moving up the social ladder would hire a governess to demonstrate their new position in society. A governess on staff signalled that the wife was far too good to lower herself to perform the education of her children. Adding to this social awkwardness was that at times, governesses were women whose families were in a declining station, so they ended up working for people who used to be below them in class status.

Photo: Dahlia Katz
So why are there so many musicals about governesses (there are more I have not mentioned here), and what do musicals say about these women? Well, it is a dramatically effective position for a character. We have a woman in a domestic setting who independent from the family unit; she is intelligent and witty. This sets up dramatic conflict.

In all three musicals, the governess has friction with the father of the family. Mr. Banks, Captain von Trapp and The King of Siam are all pretty much the same character, incredibly conservative, strict and formal (interestingly Ben Carlson plays Mr. Banks in the Grand’s production, he also played Captain von Trapp at Stratford in 2015).

Photo: Dahlia Katz
All three of these fathers soften and have their world views changed when they meet the governesses of their children. Mary Poppins, Anna and Maria all bring love into the homes. They demonstrate a modern parenting style, compared to what is standard for the time period.

So in the world of musical theatre at least, the nanny represents progressive ideals, love and the incoming modern world. In fact, the chief reason Anna is hired by the King of Siam is to be part of his plan to modernize his country. Maria is a maverick who does not fit in the convent and inadvertently shakes of the von Trapp household. Mary Poppins comes from a magical realm, she is a Deus ex Machina, literally flying in from the heavens to save the rudderless Banks family.

Yet we cannot forget the historically complicated status of the governess.
It seems that it requires a nanny to appear on the scene in these musicals, to give contrast in order to reveal the troubled position of all the women, wives and workers, in the worlds and periods of these musicals.

“Mary Poppins” features another female character who has a complicated status, the mother of the family, Winifred Banks. Winifred Banks has gone through many different incarnations in the various versions of the story of Mary Poppins. She is a difficult character to contextualize, her role continually shifts, depending on the time each adaption was created.

Photo: Dahlia Katz
In PL Travers’ original book she is never given a first name. Simply referred to as Mrs. Banks, she is incompetent at managing the affairs of the house, in contrast to the highly effective Mary Poppins, who has child-rearing down to a science. In the 1964 film, she gets a first name, Winifred, and is a suffragette. In the 2004 musical, yet again Winifred goes through a reimaging, this time as a former actor who is trying to fit into the high society she has married into. I think this change makes a great deal of sense from a modern perspective. While being interesting and historically accurate, Winifred as a suffragette is a device to explain why she is an ineffective mother and why the family needs Mary. It is flawed messaging to suggest that a liberated woman cannot also care for her children.

In all three of these musicals, the role of the governess is positioned in contrast to the wife or romantic interest of the plot. These contrasts highlight the complicated definitions placed on both wives and working women in the period.

Looking at “The Sound of Music” one sees an example of the would-be-wife, The Baroness, framed in competition with Maria. She is elegant and removed, whereas Maria is rougher and empathetic. Anna in “The King in I” is framed as an individual independent woman in contrast to many wives of the King.

Mary Poppins is a woman with life seemingly in hand; it is Winifred and the various incarnations of Winifred that really give a sense of the struggle that women faced. The women who carved out space for themselves outside of the role of the wife struggled to be recognized. They were punished with anonymity (no first name for Mrs. Banks).

When women became political, they were (are) treated as objects fit for satire (see suffragette version of Winifred). The various creators of the different versions of “Mary Poppins” have struggled to give definition to women like Winifred. That is a strength of this story’s history, it reveals the flaws in our social narrative.

Perhaps this is why the story of “Mary Poppins,” along the other nanny musicals, endures and is is reimagined in many different films, in books and on stage; we are still trying to understand who these characters, wives and workers, really are by scrapping away the prejudices of time.


Adam Corrigan Holowitz
Adam works as a dramaturg, director and playwright. He is the founding artistic director of AlvegoRoot Theatre. He holds a BA Hons from York University where he studied dramaturgy.



Details, Details:
Mary Poppins
The Grand Theatre
Nov. 29 – Dec. 29
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On Mary Poppins: Nannies, Governesses and Teachers in Musical Theatre

Keith Tomasek
29 November 2019
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