English Drama and the English Civil War

My Sky Arts commissioned play on the English Civil War, The Battle of Heptonstall opens on February 28th. Research for the piece led me in a number of directions and recently out of interest rather than necessity, to looking at what happened to English drama in the period and why, considering the magnitude of the historical events, the English Civil War continues to be so seldom dramatised on stage and screen.

 Publike sports do not well agree with Publike Calamities, nor Publike stage-playes with   the Seasons of Humiliation…it is therefore thought fit and Ordained that stage-playes     shall cease.’

In 1642 playhouses were closed. They were to stay closed for the next eighteen years though no one foresaw that at the time. There was not one order issued by parliament but rather a series based on reports and complaints and the reasons for the closures changed with the progress of the Civil War. In 1642 it was about the need to pray rather than play. The wording of the order invites the public into common cause with parliament, to set sport and leisure to one side at a moment of unprecedented crisis shortly before the war began. The major concern at the time was invasion by an Irish army. After the rising of 1641 coastal areas were rife with rumours of invasion. London was in political turmoil inside and outside parliament, Christmas of 1641 was punctuated by rioting in Whitehall and the breakdown of links between London and the King. The order of 1642 is passed on the cusp of war on 2nd September; on the 9th Essex takes command of a parliamentary army to confront Charles I.

An order of 1647 contrastingly emphasised suppression and punishment of offenders, it gave sheriffs jurisdiction to arrest actors and ‘imprison rogues’. Eventually in 1648, with the puritan revolution in full vigour an order was issued to pull playhouses down. Just as the Civil War had its roots in the years prior so did the suppression of theatre. In 1639 a play was produced in London, The Cardinal’s Conspiracy which satirised the clergy and resulted in the arrest of the actors. If theatre had a side in the period, it was by and large royalist. Imaginative spectacle never sat well in the Puritan psyche that in the end banned Christmas and maypoles and had boys whipped for playing football on Sundays. Theatre responded to the suppression by working at the edges and by going underground. Short plays known as ‘drolls’ popped up in taverns on the outskirts of towns. There is evidence from pamphlets that street theatre takes on a new significance whilst mainstream plays that would otherwise be at the Cockpit or the Salisbury Court are performed in private houses. What remerges in 1660 is Restoration drama, defining itself as a rebellion against the interregnum.

The best-known fact about the Restoration drama is that it is immoral. The dramatists did not criticize the accepted morality about gambling, drink, love, and pleasure generally, or try, like the dramatists of our own time, to work out their own view of character and conduct. What they did was, according to their respective inclinations, to mock at all restraints. Some were gross, others delicately improper….The dramatists did not merely say anything they liked: they also intended to glory in it and to shock those who did not like it.

From George Clark’s The Later Stuarts 1660 – 1714.

The new drama is more commercial, playhouses that are built are smaller than those of renaissance theatres and women are not only on stage, they are writing plays. Charles II not only brought an entourage over France he brought cultural influences as well and one of the most successful women playwrights of the Restoration dramatist Susannah Centlivre made a career of adapting French theatre for the English stage.

What is there in the way of contemporary drama about the Civil War? By way of the theatre, there is Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill (1976). More recently Howard Brenton’s 55 Days. In film, there is a biopic of Cromwell, of Winstanley, and more recently To Kill a King. On television By the Sword Divided from the early eighties, more recently Peter Flannery’s excellent The Devil’s Whore. There are one or two others perhaps: A Field in England and Witchfinder General which use the war as a back drop but the specific dramas are not that hard to bring to mind. In comparison with the ubiquitous Tudor’s there is relatively little. And yet, more people died per head of the population than in any other war in our history, including the First World War. Ireland suffered a loss of up to 41% of its population. Putting these numbers into the context of other catastrophes helps to understand the devastation to Ireland in particular. The Great Hunger of 1845–1852 resulted in a loss of 16% of the population, while during the Second World War the population of the Soviet Union fell by 16%. Those two events are burned into the psyche of the national narratives, the Civil War is largely absent from England’s.

It is admittedly a difficult narrative to dramatise. The English Civil War is a complex if not complicated subject. It was not a class war and though the completion of the reformation, it was not protestants versus Catholics either but rather many persuasions of Protestantism against Catholic affectations. Furthermore, it is not a pretty sight, particularly if you’re English. English writers find it easier write about the Spanish Civil War, a subject best avoided in Spain. Perhaps we want to be reassured by history; that it’s composed of an inevitable continuum that leads to here, the right path. The Civil War was a detour that no one had a map for.

The fact that artistic expression during the period was so meagre hasn’t helped subsequent representation. There is Milton of course and there is Andrew Marvell but I know of no outstanding drama and the novel has not yet emerged. The theatre director Max Stafford Clark said that the closure of theatres during the interregnum created the space for the development of the novel, but Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is not published until 1678 and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is 1719. The novel begins when you can read them. There are few literary and no particular dramatic style from our period that writers can draw from.

When dramatists do tackle the subject they often go in through the door of the revolution, the latter stages of the conflict and the Levellers. Playwrights mostly shoot from the left and one of the consequences of this is that the Levellers are framed as proto socialists which in reality they were not. They were of their time and if one has to, and I don’t think we should, interpret them in terms of today they are classical liberals committed to the rights of the individual. There is no doubt though, that the demand that they raise at the Putney debates of 1647, universal male suffrage more or less, is revolutionary. It’s an extraordinary moment as Cromwell describes it in The Devil’s Whore, “a form of government unknown on this earth.”

 ‘I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.’  

Colonel Sir Thomas Rainsborough, Leveller and MP for Droitwich, The Putney Debates.

The Brutish Multitude

The Brutish Multitude

Rehersals with Sky TV filming

In Heptonstall in 1643 there are no Levellers, victory is up for grabs, the King could have easily won the day and I have gone in through the door of a man who wants to avoid the conflict. John Cockcroft is as was said at the time like most men in England, ‘neither hot nor cold’.  But he knows it will destroy his livelihood, already at risk because of his failing eyesight and his feckless son. He does what he can to prevent the war entering his family’s life but fails, which he has to because otherwise there wouldn’t be a play. I have entered the national conflict through the personal lives of characters, it lays its eggs in a love affair between the weaver’s son who does not want to follow his father and an orphan girl Rose, who lives with two other women upon the moor, independently of men. And it had to be a community play. One could with the budget from Sky make a play with half a dozen professional actors but I felt a community play is much more apposite to the context and the timing and indeed what happened here in 1643. For the battle, the skirmish here, involved people of the village, and the war, as wars do impacted on those who wanted no part of it

The Battle of Heptonstall St Thomas the Apostle Church, Heptonstall 28th Feb – March 2nd, & Saturday March 9th Halifax Minster. Tickets £10 at eventbrite.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Tommy ow’s yer soul?’ Broken Soldiers and Soldiers’ Children

I’ve been working with soldiers and their children for the last few years, as a researcher and as a writer. It has been instructive, about the world I live in as much as the one they do. For a year I worked as a researcher for a university, part of a team that evaluated a drug and alcohol recovery scheme run exclusively for ex-service personnel. It meant travelling around the north interviewing mostly former soldiers who had significant problems with alcohol abuse. Many had been through other programmes that hadn’t worked and most put it down to civilians’ lack of understanding of their experiences and culture, the absence of the camaraderie that soldiers possess, people asking them questions such as Did you ever kill anyone?

Though many had left the army years before the soldier was still present and their continued drinking was testament to that. Most said the army had taught them to drink from a young age, from their twelve weeks basic training. To not go to the bar each evening, to not even drink copiously, would leave a recruit open to ridicule, to bullying from the outset, and bullying in the army isn’t like bullying at the council. People spoke of drinking rituals, one involving a glass boot filled with three different coloured liquors.

‘There were people no one wanted to run behind the next morning because they were bound to puke.’

There was for some veterans a trigger, a particular experience, usually during combat that intensified their drinking. One man, whose drinking had cost him his family, spoke to me about his experience in Basra, Iraq.

‘Nothing could have prepared us for that. For what happened. The training we did. Running round the Brecon Beacons with a pack on your back? I was put in charge of  prisoners and I couldn’t cope.’

For others no one incident was cited but there was the obvious sustained stress of tours in Northern Ireland, or in Bosnia, Iraq etc.

‘Ireland, seen a few killed. Falklands, seen a lot killed.’

As well as combat fatigue there is also combat regret. One veteran began an interview by stating, ‘You wouldn’t like me if you knew what I’d done.’  Another,

‘In the last five years…it’s been coming back to me, what I did, and why I didn’t question it, but that was your military for you. It’s later on in life I’ve learned to question what actions I did when I was a lot younger, then the dreams started coming.  Think the spring just broke.’

A recurring theme was how little preparation there was for life after the army. The army breaks down the civilian to create the solider but not the other way round. Most expressed disappointment and antipathy with the individualism of civilian life. There’s no respect, no discipline, no camaraderie, it’s all backstabbing. The discreet programme they were part of was comparatively successful because of the values that the army had taught them. They supported one another to a degree they would not have done had they not been former soldiers. They organised their own events and each local group had their selected champions who seemed akin to corporals. Their humour was predictably tough, their outlook more stoical than most, as one veteran remarked,

‘In the dictionary the word sympathy is somewhere between shite and suicide.’

They talked a great deal about the strength of comradeship amongst soldiers about friendship, pals, having one another’s back in general and specifically on patrol; how much they missed those bonds. They disliked the boastfulness, the shallow egotism of civilian life. At the conference to launch the report’s findings, an employment worker remarked that one of the problems that former soldiers had in finding work was their reluctance, their refusal even, to sell themselves. Sadly true perhaps, but for me that was an asset that they possessed and the rest of us didn’t. Even though during that time I was the paid observer and they the problematical subject, there was some things about them I envied.

A year prior I was commissioned to write a play for Burnley Youth Theatre to commemorate the First World War. The project would also involve working with children from Preston Barracks, home of the Lancashire Regiment. My first thought was, how am I going to do this without derivation? After Oh What a Lovely War the most well-known stage play concerning WW1 is The Accrington Pals, the story of the Lancashire Regiment at the Somme. So I went to Gallipoli, to Cape Helles where six Lancashire fusiliers won VCs on the same morning and I went to an imaginary munitions factory. The young people from Burnley Youth Theatre were terrific as I already knew, the children from the barracks, who had never been in a play before, also. They had taken the greater step and soldiers and family members from the barracks attended the shows and I sensed there was more than family pride at work, both in the performances and in the audience. A little later an army welfare worker contacted me to say they wanted to make a film about the impact of soldiering upon soldiers’ children. It wasn’t something that Arts Council England was going to throw money at so it took some time to raise the money, but we’ve recently started work on the project.

The barracks have a youth club and it is there that I work with the children to devise, to write dialogue and poetry for the film. A few things have struck me at the outset. Firstly, how much their education is disrupted by families repeatedly moving home. An eleven year old I spoke to was currently on her sixth school, starting a seventh in September.  This is not unusual. Also, the number of children whose fathers had experienced combat.

‘My daddy was shot and he almost died but’s he’s better now.’

‘My dad was in Afghanistan and in a jeep behind another jeep and a boy came up to the one in front and blew himself up and my dad got out to help the people that were injured.’

‘I’ve seen some medals round the house, I don’t know what he did for them, but his knee doesn’t work properly now. He says he won’t have me joining the army because it’s dangerous and he’s thinking about getting out.’

Children are without their fathers for long periods of time during which their fathers are in harm’s way. The children talk a lot about missing friends they made at previous postings. A couple of children said they were frightened of terrorists killing their fathers in the UK. One lad said he was getting in fights at school because his father was a soldier but wouldn’t say exactly why. And there is also resilience and pride. One youngster said that moving around the UK and abroad was interesting and she was smarter and stronger for it. Being an army kid is special and early days it may be, but there is agreement that whilst the narrative of what will probably be a twenty minute film, will deal with separation and anxiety, the tone will not be one of pathos but rather validation if not celebration.

During the Blair years there was an overt attempt to promote the armed forces in the context of the unpopular war in Iraq. Soldiers seemed to be popping up at presentations at half-time, Crufts and elsewhere, a tin rattled for Help the Heroes in every shopping centre. The veterans I spoke to during the research project wanted no part of that but neither did they want the grief they got from the Stop The War crowd on Poppy Day. They desired a degree of respect and meaningful employment. The employment they had come from had been overwhelmingly physical, the terrain of work beyond it, increasingly non-physical, requiring ‘soft skills’. Like a lot of working class men in mid-life, they don’t fit in any more.

More than anything they wanted what is increasingly rare in Britain today: solidarity at work and in their community, which is why they hung out with their old comrades, drinking or struggling not to drink. Many of them were in the process of repairing relationships with their own children. Former soldiers are far more likely than other occupations to commit crime, in particular violent crime. They are more likely to become homeless and experience poor mental health. Assisting veterans adjust to civilians life isn’t just about putting them at the front of the job centre queue. It might be about recognising that they have different values, values that should not be seen as redundant or to be mocked even, but might in fact be worth learning from.

Squaddie

He meets his regiment mates every week,
not at the Legion – not no more after what he said
to a former officer there.

They make plans over pints to occupy themselves,
short hikes and long distance footpaths
days plotted from a to b.

He’s worked out how to go from Sheffield to London by bus,
the routes, times, numbers all listed,
he briefs them on the expense the excursion will incur.

Under his shirt his back wears a relief map
of burns where a petrol bomb splashed across him
one Saturday in Derry.

They sit at the back of the bus sipping cans,
talk about the coppers coming
for something that was done in Ireland,

what that Asian lad said to him on Poppy Day,
about six am on the parade ground
before he became someone else’s job
and had to rely on people who don’t show up on time.