Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

On Being a Shakespearian Dramatist:

An Approach to The Back of Beyond

The lack of constant speech is not contempt
But silence measures those compelled to speak.
What does not change is will to change, they say,
Though changes do outrun the will's control.
Each person has a story that rolls on
Beyond the boundaries of the play in which they're placed,
Unless they fall in love at last with limits
And try to die into an old play's shape.
Not even witches know what happens after,
But once I met an actor, wild and broken,
Who said, 'The play is dead: long live the play', with laughter,
Then wept at faces he saw in the bracken.

So speaks the witch named Wye, anti-heroine of my plays The Back of Beyond (staged 1996) and The Battle of the Crows (staged 1998). Thus she associates the deathwish of exhaustion with an impulse to subside into a predetermined dramatic form, whereas life pushes on beyond all man-made boundaries and limitations of definition. Nevertheless, the actor of whom she speaks is powerfully, compulsively self-contradictory. He discovers himself bound to acknowledge melancholy - cracked and haunted by the sensed inevitability of irrevocable loss - even as he heralds the equal inevitability of the next transformation which he will embody, in demonstration of the spirit of wild laughter. This self-consciously and deliberately riven figure might also serve as a paradigm for a Shakespearian dramatist, such as I attempt to be.

At this point, you may think, or even object, that even to harbour the temerity to consider the ambition of being a Shakespearian dramatist is arrogant, hubristic and pretentious. I would counter as follows: it is not arrogant to admit, or even to proclaim, a profound influence and inspiration; and that the identification of that influence does not propose an equality or even a similarity but points to a dialogue which invites further negotiation by others, and thus strives to transcend a potentially disastrous isolation. And any art, but particularly dramatic art, externalises inner life in a way which might justly be termed pretentious, in that it bids to manifest an unusual and unconventional (if not always enviable) sensitivity to something, attempting to identify transcendent things in the everyday, expanding the narrow vocabulary of being which is afforded by literal description of objectified facts. The question is, how well it realizes its pretentions by challenging imaginatively a dominant discourse of sterile presumption. The theatre is not a place for false modesty, nor a monument to pseudo-egalitarian functionalism: it is always being specifically artificial, and I would even suggest that this is what human beings do best.

Howard Barker has noted how Shakespeare is 'now a negligible influence on the tone of contemporary writing in Britain' and how this situation is 'itself a tragedy for the theatre of our time'; rather, the uncontested authority of Chekhov in British theatrical and cultural circles 'has made of him a more luminous icon in this part of Europe than even in his country of origin' . The effect of this, as I have noted elsewhere , is an enshrinement of "realism" expressed as conformity in objectified defeat, in order to deny the socially unmanageable individual capacity for unpredictable self-transformation. The purposefully metaphorical drama practised by Barker, David Rudkin and myself is deliberately opposed to such supposedly inevitable confinements. Barker explains how his divergent exploration of Shakespeare's tragedy, Seven Lears (1990), grew from 'a writer's feeling for the architecture of a text, and we have slowly re-learned that architecture is about emptiness as well as substance, void as well as materiality' . This intuition reverberates into Peter Holland's observation: 'Action, the physical event that Shakespeare incompletely prescribes, becomes a necessary choice at each and every moment of performance, one choice inevitably excluding many others' . The genius of Shakespeare's drama might aptly be said to reside in the incompleteness of its prescriptions: hence its challenging power and infinitely renewing fascination. I would add: that the 'necessary choice' of the dramatist, like that of the performer, also excludes, yet somehow simultaneously illuminates, others.

My play The Back of Beyond marinaded in my unconscious through my fascination for Shakespeare's play, an admiration of the "Lear plays" by Barker, Bond and Rudkin (The Saxon Shore), and also because of an instinctive drive to interrogate the material differently, and to pursue the different consequences which might be seismically triggered. Shakespeare may have been institutionalized, canonized and abstracted into a national icon for purposes of tourism and commerce, but he is also a dramatist who is enliveningly dangerous and therefore important to learn from. The best directors approach his work with respect, but not with deference to a notional stability; dramatists might well do the same. 'Fear is a pretty sceptre but a useless tool' says Echternacht, another character in The Back of Beyond, of whom I will tell more later. It is worth reminding ourselves in this context that this is how Shakespeare himself usually worked. With the exceptions of the apparently "sourceless" plays Love's Labour's Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, every Shakespeare play is a consciously surprising re-emphasising re-animation of some pre-existing story or play, and the explosive power of King Lear is amplified by its startling final departure from the happy ending of its chrysalis play, King Leir.

But the first germination of The Back of Beyond perhaps occurred in Berkeley in 1979, where, as a graduate student on a travel scholarship to the University of California, I attended the MA colloquia of Stephen Booth, who was developing some of the ideas which would feature in his book, 'King Lear', 'Macbeth', Indefinition and Tragedy (1983). These were not traditional colloquia, more philosophical-psychological workshops in the form of intellectual cliffhangers approached at escape velocity in order to split conceptual atoms, and the most exciting times in my formally directed education. The group sessions basically required those involved to take their senses of their own sanity on a series of kamikaze missions exposed by Shakespeare's tragedies: the possible 'necessity of recognizing that what makes sense may not be true' . Part of Booth's reading of King Lear might be summarized thus:

I submit that audiences are not shocked by the fact of Cordelia's death but by its situation and that audiences grieve not for Cordelia's physical vulnerability, or for the physical vulnerability of humankind, but for their own - our own - mental vulnerability, a vulnerability made absolutely inescapable when the play pushes inexorably beyond its own identity, rolling across and crushing the very framework that enables its audience to endure the otherwise terrifying explosion of all manner of ordinarily indispensable mental contrivances for isolating, limiting and comprehending. When Lear enters howling in the last moments of the play, Shakespeare has already presented an action that is serious, of undoubted magnitude, and complete; he thereupon continues that action beyond the limits of the one category that no audience can expect to see challenged: Shakespeare presents the culminating events of his story after his play is over.

Booth notes how, for all 'the characters constantly and vainly strive to establish the limits of things' , 'Not ending is a primary characteristic of King Lear' , and hence 'The intensity of patterning in King Lear compensates for the equal intensity of its demonstration that the characters', the audience's and all human perception is folly' . It was from him that I learnt that the most centrally purposeful line of King Lear might be: 'And that's true too'.

In 1982, I watched Adrian Noble's RSC production of King Lear four times, profoundly disturbed and riveted by the performances of Antony Sher as The Fool and Jonathan Hyde as Edgar in particular. Both characterizations seemed to confront and respond to the demonic aspects of the characters, more usually tamed or ignored. Sher's chilling, crippled, Grock-like mongrel discovered a brief epiphany of supernatural release in proclaiming and physicalizing the Albion speech which concludes with the psychic hand grenade of a line: 'This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time'. As Edgar, Hyde suggested an alternately cool and wracked chameleon, a deliberate tactician who could strategically render himself into the shape of a monstrosity of suffering. He seemed most disturbingly and bleakly knowing when Edgar's surprising and oddly autonomous psychic construction of Poor Tom was discarded and stigmatised as a vicious fiend, in order to support the illusion of a benign cosmology which we, as his implicated audience, know to be merely the illusion generated by an experiential experiment in invisible theatre.

Later that year, my career as a full-time lecturer began with a temporary appointment in English and Drama at the University of Dublin, Trinity College. With his permission, I quote some words from an essay by Ron Callan, one of the students in my first seminar group on Shakespeare's Tragedies:

Lear gropes his way back to the fixed centre of order, but this is not within himself (as it is in Edgar) but centred in Cordelia; and in this play external images (especially superlatives) are fated to fail to sustain life. Through Lear we experience chaos; Edgar, Kent, the Fool and Cordelia help him make the journey; Edgar (with his tendency to shy away from important sensations) alone help us to hold that experience.

Whilst the events of the play force Edgar to witness and respond to extremity, he maintains a faith that his own powers of performance can form and frame an ultimately cogent (if apparently chaotic) response. However, it remains a moot point as to which is the external image: his social persona of well-meaning but ineffectual young nobleman, or the adopted guise of Bedlam beggar; and, indeed, how far this can 'sustain life' .

Cut to Gregynog Hall, mid-Wales, in 1993, where I'm a tutor on a weekend residential Creative Writing course, and I set the students a spontaneous writing exercise: one agrees on the basis that I undertake the exercise myself. I discover in myself the voice of the compulsively performative yet ultimately inscrutable Edgar, considering his future, his options and his sexuality in a way in which he is not permitted in Shakespeare's play. I find that the library of this increasingly gothic edifice can furnish me with a folio copy of the apochryphal King Leir - disappointing apart from a couple of resonant images and an intriguing emphasis on more deliberate cruelty from Leir to Cordella. But then I turn to Holinshed and Geoffrey of Monmouth. Both chronicles extend the story of Lear's family beyond his death and burial at Leicester, and tell how Cordelia was restored to Lear only to survive him, but then to die of despair when subsequently imprisoned by Goneril and Regan's sons - both conscious exclusions from Shakespeare's story. The chronicles give various accounts of the rivalry arising between these two cousins, and of the spelling of their names (I settled on the variants Cundah and Morgan), but agree that one pursued the other to Wales and killed him, but thereafter named the area after him. This fractal spread of speculative possibilities struck me as disturbingly subversive a narrative premise in relation to Shakespeare's King Lear, as that play had been to the original King Leir. Shakespeare's subversion of a once-familiar story extends horror and uncertainty beyond the conventional generic markers of tragedy and drama. I reflected that a further extrapolation of the story into a separate play informed by the same sources might provide a startling dramatic departure from, and simultaneous hommage to, Shakespeare's creative decisions and his dramatic insistence upon consistent inconsistency.

So I had the outline of the story of the rival regents, Morgan and Cundah, and the question as to how Edgar, and the other characters left at the end of the Shakespeare play, Albany and Kent, might relate to them. Then two startling female characters appeared to me in separate dreams and insisted they were forces to be reckoned with. And a shadowy, distinctly unEnglish figure began prowling round my imaginings, watching and waiting for his cue to act decisively. I gave him the name of a district of Luxembourg as I had resonantly misheard it from the mouth of a particularly Nietzschean friend: Echternacht. The name suggested to me a German mercenary fighting with the French army, and therefore stranded in England as a prisoner at the end of Shakespeare's play; it also evoked the strange unpredictable poise of my Luxemburgish friend, Eric Schneider, who would, years later, incarnate the role onstage. I know from accounts of Kemp and Armin that there are good precedents for writing roles with the distinctive energies of unique performers in mind, if only initially. But perhaps my most Elizabethan achievement occurred when I was working on the second draft of the play: I caught the pox.
Chicken pox, to be precise, from my children. With little to do but fester and imagine, I feverishly developed for Echternacht a surreal hallucinatory odyssey parallel to that of Edgar in Shakespeare's play, a sidestep out from the main dimension of the play in order to equip him for a decisive re-entry into it. For, in a play preoccupied with the question of what might be on the other side - of every one and every thing, Edgar was my tragic hero, dislocated by his experiences on the heath from ready compliance with the postures of power, as he recounts whilst he completes Lear's abortive ritual gesture of self-disclosure:

King of England? Where rules are the rule? Thanks, but no. In this
country, the only thing created is PROCEDURE: dutiful repetition so as
to satisfy the requirements of external perception. I have better things to do
than perch on the edge of a pattern in dust (Removes his shirt). Much less try to sell it to others (Pause).
I want to go back to breaking the beaks off nightingales and plunging
into lakes. I want to dog the shade, and wind it tight around me. Reasons
are pretty, but they leak. The trick is, tasting what they leak. (Kicks off boots.
Checks soles. Then ...
Discards trousers. Stands naked. Then:) I could show 'em patterns.
Like the night, three gypsy sisters took turns to stretch their skins over mine.

I played the bucking rack and they arced their backs above me, spread themselves like starfish across a branch. They never pounced nor squeezed the same way twice: each one could always dig up a new lustre, make their mouths leave different teeth-marks, forge their bites anew to leave skeins of blood as different as each cobweb in the frost. I've seen the wind when it's sucked out bracken and spat it out so hard that how Shakespeare's King Lear presents a kaleidoscope of images of Lear and Edgar, often generating more than one perspective on a character at any one time, 'But the difference between Lear and Edgar is that Edgar plays out his set of roles, if not from choice, then at least deliberately. Lear has no such deliberation. The different Lears that we see are not consciously-assumed roles: they are the result of a personality undergoing collapse' . My play gradually closes the gap between Lear and Edgar's experiences.

Edgar begins his play bitterly ironic towards the trappings and machinations of power, seeking to irritate his self-appointed superiors with a series of ostentatiously self-cancelling irrelevancies. He is arrested by the new prince regents, Morgan and Cundah, then adopted as a regal-advisor-cum-fool. They ask him to guide them to the lair of a witch, who may assist the revival of their barely-alive aunt, Cordella (I thought it an apt estrangement to return to the ur-play's rendering of her name and of Leir's). En route, they encounter a tavern scoundrel, Scarecroak (in some ways a meanly predatory version of Falstaff) and his abused and vicious daughter, Wrayburn. After a skirmish, they locate Wye, who agrees to help out of curiosity. Edgar conceives an appalling desire for Wye, whose characteristic and compulsive provocative interrogations propel him back to the world of action, though primarily to win her favour.

I adopted what I perceive as a Shakespearian five-act structure. This was important in its determination of the broad canvas and formal rhythms of the play. It also invited the harrowing dissolution of some aspect of the psychic terrain of the play to conclude the Third Act. In this scene, Cordella is flung into prison alongside the grief-maddened Kent and the existentially brooding Echternacht. Morgan and Cundah have pressured Cordella towards abdication, as a statement of public deference to them, but she has refused; now Cundah drives her to suicidal despair by taunting her and Kent with the stuffed corpse of her father. In despair, she commands Kent to undo her recovery and terminate her life, conscious that, whilst his mistress survives and calls, he must not say no. The ensuing strangulation (directed with a deliberately Hitchcockian sense of difficulty in self-overcoming) is promptly followed by the discovery of the corpse's hideously stitched visage, and the reply to Kent's question 'What else remains?', with an 'ABRUPT MASSIVE SHATTERING EXPLOSION AND BLACKOUT'. However, the sense of shock with which this scene sent audience members into the interval was generated not only, I would venture, by the pain and horror of any component detail or action in this sequence, but also by its deliberately Lear-like desecration of even the vestigial hope and deserved relief which Shakespeare, his directors, or his audiences, may associate with the characters of Cordelia, Lear and Kent.

The second half of The Back of Beyond opens on a lighter note, as Edgar attempts to win Wye's respect by initiating a counter-revolution based on imaginative anarchy. He tries to popularize this in a marketplace, and his audience gradually and comically move from scepticism into dionysia. Meanwhile, Kent has been recaptured, tortured and incorporated into Morgan and Cundah's strategies. Echternacht's escape from the prison takes him to a wilderness, where Wye provides him with a strange epiphany: Leir's corpse, briefly reanimated as a stumbling automaton, is presented as 'the shell of hope', in contrast to her own beguiling physical immediacy; she also conjures up a spectral family, whose domestic routine provides an image of death-in-life, and with whom Echternacht lodges for a while.

When Edgar's counter-revolution degenerates into a campaign to fuel his own vanity and bid for power, Wye transports Edgar into Fooltime, a realm of hellish ritual ostensibly presided over by the insane Kent, who is now in fact manipulated by Cundah. Kent greets Edgar with a disturbing vision of his status: 'Alas, Poor Tom! I know you by your serrated horns, your many noses, those lunatic eyes. You have come to take your place in our Parliament of Fools'. Edgar protests that Tom is 'past and - buried', but Kent insists that he acknowledge 'the fathomless atrocity of [his] true countenance', and berates him for persisting in 'this heresy of endings'. In a scene consciously influenced by the unleashings of the lunatics in The Duchess of Malfi and Peer Gynt, Edgar finds himself encircled and pawed by deranged myrmidons who claim the identities of folklore spectres once invoked by Poor Tom - Marwood, Maho, Obidicut and Flibbertigibbet - claiming him as 'Hoberdidance himselve, who danced and lost his tongue'. Under this pressure, Edgar replies 'No, I'm Tom - (They laugh uproariously) - Edgar I mean I'm Edgar', inadvertantly encouraging their insistence on his reversion to what they propose as an essential disintegration. This episode is a deliberately malignant dramatization of a Shakespearian preoccupation, 'the limits of language - the extent to which words are adequate to "capture reality", and the way in which meaning' - and identity - 'continually slips away' . For Edgar, it also represents a literally nightmarish experience in which the imagination loses control over its own artefacts and creatures, which turn against their former master (an experience which is also visited upon Macbeth). At the climax of a black mass designed to raise the spirit of Leir's Fool, vengefully deified, Cundah breaks Edgar in body, mind and spirit. This is also a profoundly painful moment in its wider repercussions: the shattering of the resources of language and articulacy - and of all who would associate with, and put their faith in, them, particularly artists and wordsmiths - by the culturally nihilistic necrophilous control which Cundah consciously represents. Wye regrets her complicity in this unexpected depth of cruelty. Even Morgan challenges Cundah's tactics and assumptions, and his boast to be afraid of 'Nothing'; in reply, Cundah kills him.

In the family's deathly hovel, Echternacht's fever breaks. He emerges, wilfully transforming himself: 'Right then, Witch. Here is what is on the other side of me. It's everything. Everything from which I can step away free. And now I am unpredictable, even to myself ... I no longer want to be a man. I split my very core with change, become the change and not the core'. This is, of course, crucially divergent from Edgar, who denied the lasting effects of his own performance upon his identity, though it is similarly strategically wilful. Echternacht insists on his own difference, and his determination and ability to make further difference through asocial action. I use the term asocial in Eugenio Barba's sense: divergence from a society predicated on injustice, in order to test and perhaps realise a personal potential concerned with each individual difference .
In the final scene, Edgar is a crippled outcast, playing the self-stigmatised bitter fool with the ventriloquist dummy of Leir's corpse which he has found discarded on a hillock. He surveys the Heartbreak House which Britain has become under Cundah: a wasteland of power which would refute the possibilities of imagination. Wye reappears, as provocatively curious as ever. In an enraged response to her reprised question, 'What's on the other side of you?', he demands she conjure three trumpet blasts. The invocation and reanimation of this climactic motif from The Book of Revelations and King Lear is distinctly characterized by Edgar, as he psychically merges his last-ditch desperation with Wye's defiant insatiability in a joint effort of wills. The first trumpet summons up Cundah ('one: who thinks he is the worst'); the second 'is the call, that is never answered. For that is the call of hope. And now we are beyond it';

And now the unknown can start. And that is what I summon. For that is all
that's left: beyond the worst: beyond the hope; let's go. Beyond. (He presses
his brow against WYE's.) I demand THIRD TRUMPET! THIRD
(It sounds. The note is prolonged into [artificial] impossibility, and
pulls new sounds into being alongside it. Shadows congeal into a
figure: it is ECHTERNACHT.)
CUNDAH: And what are you?
ECHTERNACHT: I Nothing am. To you. And that is my quality. And
that is my purpose. And I shall see what's inside you, now.

Echternacht opposes Cundah with the utterance: 'Let us admit the consequences'. These may be the most centrally purposeful words for my play, if one admits Brendan Kennelly's proposition that, at best, 'poetry captures consequences' (and I would include poetic drama in that project), being 'the art of relentless questioning' which, 'by definition, is always breaking through boundaries and categories. To try to inhibit or limit that function is to do violence to the very nature of poetry, to make it the sweet, biddable, musical slave of our expectations' .
Echternacht fights until Cundah is defeated. Edgar asks Wye to release him into death, preferring the exhaustion of a romantically tragic death to more life - 'No more work that I can do', he tells her, 'So kill me and keep me yours forever'. Echternacht recognizes the volatility of his own moral state, 'answerable only to [him]self', and prepares to turn away from all society, until his next inevitable transformation. However, he finds himself poised opposite the similarly lethal Wrayburn: 'they spring into each other, as to either kill or kiss or both' . Wye reflects on the rigours of change (in the opening words of this paper), and walks away free.

The designer of The Back of Beyond, Russell Dean, identifies the play as Shakespearian in terms of its 'exploration of strategies for self-construction and annihilation' in which 'one will often masquerade as the other', and in which 'language is often a tool for release and imprisonment' . His first instinct was to provide a partial release from this world of 'beguiling savagery', 'a place beyond the snares and limitations of words'; initially through the provision of a background of ragged drapes, 'in some ways representative of the sceptical sky over the action of the play' but more so as a delineation of 'Beyond', 'an ultimate escape into the unknown and as such the domain of Wye, the witch. This semi-opaque surround also provided that most Shakespearian of devices, the disclosure or discovery space, put to supernatural use as Wye's portal between worlds and places, quite literally at the lifting of the veil'. Within this veiled world Dean designed a structure 'inspired by the flinty expanse of Salisbury plain', specifically by the 'half-digested history' of the landscape, 'scarred with past civilizations' yet reclining and undulating 'beneath the kiss and lash of the skies': a broken circle of a wall was set at a tilt so as to appear to be either sinking into or rising from the surface of the stage, resembling 'a jagged broken tooth piercing the playing space, with actors stamping upon the cracked rim as dancing upon its exposed nerve'. This semicircular structure served to delineate space once again within the veil so as to conceive 'a space within a space within a "beyond"', the hard flinty surface of the wall apparently contrasting with the veil's tendency to disintegration, though this dichotomy was problematized as Wye produced various objects from within the wall by means of concealed traps and boxes.

Within this space, the performers employed various contraptions, principally designated as a wheelbarrow-table, a wheelchair and a torture device: rough, mobile and freely but deliberately constructed practical objects capable of sudden transformation and customization. For example, the torture device was a combination of rack and seesaw on wheels, capable of careering round the stage at the hands of the performers, trapping them and acting as the vehicles of their desires, as a 'visual and practical aid to the freewheeling use of dialogue and metaphor'. Costume tended towards a twentieth-century eclecticism, often designating characters as 'recognizable types ready to be uprooted and raked by the storm', incorporating initially recognizable features to be transformed and destroyed: the cut of Echternacht's dark military costume suggesting the precision with which he dissected the world around him and suggesting his malcontent position; Morgan and Cundah first seen in matching public school uniforms, suggesting two sixth formers recalled to royal duties (Dean imagined 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern combined with Lewis Carroll'). More outlandishly, Wrayburn combined a gauntlet claw with torn fishnet stockings and a thigh length dress, eliding adolescent 'bus shelter sexuality' with blades prepared to 'speak the unspeakable with a single twitch'. Standing apart from these twentieth-century types was Wye, who appeared as in the dream in which she announced herself to the dramatist: ambiguously provocative, with bare breasts, black-painted eyes and nipples, and elbow-length gloves. A waistcoat derived from that of a Minoan snake priestess further sculpted her torso whilst dramatising both a stone/bone necklace and her exposed but redesignated breasts; 'Sex was undoubtedly part of her magic but only as a generator for other strategies; a means to an unknown end'.

The central playing hemisphere was initially sprinkled with sawdust, suggestive of the recurrent bear-baiting imagery in the play, but capable of being redrawn by Wye as an invocatory circle, then rapidly broken by her, to linger in imperfect form throughout subsequent action. During rehearsal, Russell Dean also led the company in a day of mask-making and workshop exploration, which yielded an expressive array of grotesque muslin and foam masks. These were used in the marketplace scene, in which Edgar addresses passers-by with his theories of running the country, and overcame the problem of a small cast whose faces were all strongly associated with their main characters by the second half of the play, 'creating a deindividuated crowd and isolating the maskless Edgar in one fell swoop'. This 'monstrous audience' took on a life of its own, with new, anarchic scenarios emerging from the performers' interactions in new identities, indeed suggesting performers' and characters' potential to go, in Wye's words, 'beyond the boundaries of the play in which they're placed'.
The spirit of the play, and the name of my theatre company, Lurking Truth/Gwir Sy'n Llechu, is perhaps best amplified by Jeanette Winterson's words in her novel, Gut Symmetries:

Is truth what we do not know?
What we know does not satisfy us. What we know constantly reveals itself
as partial. What we know, generation by generation, is discarded into new
knowings which in their turn slowly cease to interest us.
In the Torah, the Hebrew 'to know', often used in a sexual context, is not
about facts but connections. Knowledge, not as accumulation but as charge
and discharge. A release of energy from one site to another. Instead of a
hoard of certainties, bug-collected, to make me feel secure, I can give up
taxonomy and invite myself to the dance: the patterns, rhythms, multiplicities,
paradoxes, shifts, currents, cross-currents, irregularities, irrationalities,
geniuses, joints, pivots, worked over time, and through time, to find the lines of thought that still transmit.

And the most vital transmission is surprise. I first-drafted (in 1996) then directed (in 1998) a sequel to The Back of Beyond itself, entitled The Battle of the Crows, in which the surviving characters from the first play continue their discoveries. More of that another time; but I mention it because my curiosity and courage were licensed by the Shakespearian initiatives to develop interrogation of, and challenge affection for, characters - particularly one's own - so masterfully manifested in the History Tetralogies.

So, having said all this, what do I mean by my coinage and application, in this context, of the term 'Shakespearian dramatist'? I mean it as an identification of a dramatist who attempts a deliberately startling and consciously interrogatory re-animation of some pre-existing story or play; who leapfrogs early twentieth-century prescriptions of naturalism and concomitant notions of social determinism, in order to present a drama which manifests a fully poetic, and consciously poeticized, range of the most visceral emotions; and who considers the potential consequences of their expression, through action, as the pragmatics of power. A dramatist who works not in a spirit of documentary realism or towards so-called "contemporary immediacy" - the platitudinous jostling of familiar because commercially-defined fashionable surfaces - but who rather attempts to expose the struggle for the soul (or unlived life) of a nation state through the invocation of its dream-life and the contradictory animations of its spectres, in a theatrical arena where historical determinism can be challenged by existentially transformative action, which manifests the force of resistance behind every attempted maintenance; the incompleteness of every prescription; and indeed the incompleteness of every thing: its potential for terrible and beautiful new life; the disclosure of a further vocabulary of being. As my lady says: 'So tell me: what's on the other side of you?'.

It would be absurdly slavish to write plays which mimicked the style of this least slavish and most subversive of dramatists, seeking 'to write Shakespearian plays'. But 'being' a dramatist who operates in what I feel to be a Shakespearian seriousness and playfulness is another matter , and a properly difficult endeavour for a writer/director. As Russell Jackson characterizes British Shakespeare performance at the hinge of the millennium: 'On a good night, the audience may leave with the feeling that they have actively participated in something that engaged them directly, with a mind full of new arguments from old matter, and an appetite for more' . The more of that effect, the better. And: 'Let us admit the consequences'.

DAVID RABEY is Reader in Theatre Studies at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
His numerous publications on modern British theatre include Howard Barker: Politics and Desire (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989) and David Rudkin: Sacred Disobedience (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Press, 1997).
He is currently writing the volume English Drama 1940 to the Present for Longman's Literature in English series.
He is also Artistic Director of The Lurking Truth Theatre Company/Cwmni Gwir sy'n Llechu, for whom he directs, performs, and has written the plays The Back of Beyond (1996), Bite or Suck (1997) and The Battle of the Crows (1998), which await publication.

author:David Ian Rabey

original source: Theatre Research Intrernational 25(3) published by Cambridge University Press .
01 February 2001


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