Thursday, August 29, 2013

Re-discovering a lost play


I’ve just found a play I had completely lost.

I wrote it way back in 1988. It was commissioned by the Traverse and the Edinburgh International Festival - something which was completely new in those days - and the plan was for Giles Havergal of the Glasgow Citizens to direct it.

It was to be a huge step forward for me as a writer and I was tremendously excited by it. I was reading a remarkable history book called “August 1914” by Barbara Tuchman at the time and decided to use the absurd events that led to the assassination of the Archduke Fritz Ferdinand in 1914 as a kind of parable for the warmongering follies of the late eighties. 

And which, as we gear ourselves up to bomb Syria, still so sadly and so strongly resonate now.

Unfortunately commissioning new plays was something the Festival knew nothing about at the time and the only space they could offer us was the Church Hill theatre. 

This was not an inspiring or especially intelligent choice; and, unlike me, Giles was not afraid to say no. And said it.

So the play stayed unperformed until 1991, when a small but rather wonderful company called Great Eastern Stage toured it round East Anglia with one London date at the end.

It’s never been seen anywhere else. And I forgot all about it.

Until I was preparing a recent lecture about my association with the Traverse, which I gave at Summerhall, found I remembered it, and decided to mention it.

Afterwards a very wise theatre friend came up to me in a state of great excitement and reminded me that next year there are going to be all kinds of events around the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War and there might be an opportunity to restage it.

Something which had never for a moment occurred to me.

So I began to reproach myself, as I often do, for my utter incompetence at marketing my own work, and my apparent lack of respect for it. To make things worse, I couldn’t find a copy of the script.

But my clever agent did. And then days passed while I tried to muster up the courage to read it.

But yesterday I did. And, somewhat in spite of myself, was impressed by it.

I originally called the play “The Girl Who Fell To Earth” but Michael Fry, its one and only director, wanted something a bit more catchy, and called it “Shoot the Archduke!”.

I respected what he was about, but didn’t want to abandon the original title either, because it says something important about it. So at the moment it’s called, a bit clumsily but very truthfully, “The Girl Who Fell To Earth, or Shoot The Archduke!”.

It begins with the Norns. These were the three weird sisters of Norse mythology that I think somehow inspired the three witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. They sit at the foot of the world tree, or Yggdrassil, and the younger one spins the thread. Each thread represents a human life. The middle one measures it. The elder one cuts the thread. And the person dies.

The younger one decides she wants to understand more of human life and falls to earth to discover it.

She becomes a young woman called Anna, a waif and stray that the Archduchess Sophie rescues from the street and brings into her household. Sophie had married the Archduke Fritz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, even though she was not of royal blood herself and this led to great tensions in the pair of them.

Sophie had lost her baby son and was unable to deal with her grief. She dressed a doll up in the dead son’s clothes and employed a nursemaid to bath and feed and take it out in its pram.

This is Anna’s job; and she encounters Princip, a young revolutionary who is trying to make a connection with the royal household in order to find a way to assassinate the archduke.

The Archduke is a bit like the British Prince Charles: a possibly well intentioned but bumbling figure utterly uncertain of his place in the world.

The first act is a bit like an inside out Downton Abbey - a pretty savage exposure of the follies and the cruelty of the ruling class. And the follies of the conspirators too; I was still full of the idiocies of the far left that I had encountered when I tried to join them.

But something happens in the second half; all the characters deepen and grow and somehow achieve a tragic stature. 

The Archduke has a vision of the coming slaughter of the First World War: of Death as an Old Woman washing a massive heap of bloodstained garments. And I think of Marina Abramovic and her astonishing reflection on the Yugoslavian Civil War: scrubbing, scrubbing a huge heap of human bones. I think of the dreadful heaps of clothing preserved in Auschwitz. Images I had then never seen: but come from the same collective memory of trauma.

The Archduke decides to use what authority remains him to try to prevent war: but he and Sophie, through an absurd series of accidents, are assassinated. And the idealism of Princip is wasted on a futile act of destruction and he himself is imprisoned behind thick walls of stone. 

Anna abandons the earth. The Old Woman sharpens her knife.

The play has something. Compassion for human suffering. A sense that we really could accomplish more.

By that time I absolutely understood what could be done on the tiny Traverse stage: but here I am creating powerful images to resonate on a big one.

They were never realised; but I can’t help feeling they deserve to be. Something important is happening here:  something that respects the individual, without being exclusively focused on her. Something that tries to understand and express the collective.

As if I am groping my way to a post capitalist theatre. Dreaming into being the world that is to come.

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