Victims of Jack the Ripper take the main stage in "Whitechapel Arias"

It’s 1888 and in Whitechapel, England, five women gather at the Ten Bells Pub to sing songs and forget their woes. However, these five women will eventually all meet the same tragic end at the hand of history’s most infamous serial killers.

“Whitechapel Arias,” a play which dives into the lives of five women murdered by Jack the Ripper, will make its world debut this Saturday.

“We know a lot about who (the victims) were, but the focus has never been on them. The focus has always been on Jack the Ripper and whoever the hell he is,” said Nancy Schoenberger, director of the creative writing department at the College of William and Mary and author of "Whitechapel Arias.”

“So I thought, why not write about the women who had very specific and tragic lives.”

Elizabeth Wiley, professor of theater at the college and the play’s director, said the play explores their stories through the women sharing their hardships with each other at the pub.

“It gives us a personal look at these women and really tugs at our heartstrings,” Wiley said.

Schoenberger said she was inspired to write the play after a trip to England, where she took a Jack the Ripper tour that ended in the Ten Bells Pub where the victims had hung out together.

Originally, Schoenberger wrote persona poems -- poems written with the voices of other people -- of the victims. Deciding they should become a dramatic work, Schoenberger shared them with Wiley.

“I remember the word (Wiley) used — she went “Mm, these are tasty,’” Schoenberger said, laughing at the end of her sentence. “And then she said ‘let’s add music,’ and that’s where it took off.”

To do that Schoenberger approached Ryan Fletcher, with the department of music’s opera workshop. One of the main settings of the play is the pub where the women went to sing and drink.

“So we’ve got these stories juxtaposed with drinking songs and rounds or catches of the day,” Wiley said.

Fletcher said many of the songs sung in the show were actually popular during the time of the women’s murders.

“One of the victims, Mary Kelly — one of the last things anyone heard from her, was she was singing a song ‘A Violet Plucked from Mother’s Grave,’” Wiley said.

Even though the play goes over the murders and the killer, Schoenberger said it mainly focuses on the victims and their lives.

“We always see what happens, they were victims so they died, but here we see them alive,” Wiley said. “We not only see them alive but even though they were in dire circumstances they are full of life … these women even though they were victims they found joy in life and they had very, very full lives.”

Want to go?

“Whitechapel Arias” will show at 7 p.m. April 12-13, William and Mary’s Ewell Recital Hall, 221 Jamestown Road. Free.

Heymann can be reached by phone at 757-298-5828 or on Twitter at @HeymannAmelia.

Copyright © 2019, The Virginia Gazette