Sunday, May 21, 2017

The re-discovery of a lost play: of WAR IN AMERICA


Something happened on Friday night that moved me so profoundly I find it very hard to put into words.

It had something to do with it being the dress run of a play of mine that’s never been seen before: WAR IN AMERICA.

But then I’ve been there so many times. 

It had something to do with the venue being the old Royal High School, an extraordinary and powerful and shamefully neglected venue that for many years was going to be the new Scottish Parliament.

It had something to do with the Attic Collective: who are such a beautiful, such a talented, such a passionately committed young company

But more than any of that it was because this is a play I wrote 22 years ago which had been rejected then and which I had given up on for ever.

I’d conceived the play as a sequel to my LIGHT IN THE VILLAGE (Traverse 1991), after spending time in a Bengali village and visiting California and Bangladesh in 1989.

I’d seen with my own eyes the obscene division between rich and poor in this unbelievably unjust and yet inter-connected world. And understood in my heart that these inequalities are unsustainable.

I’d begun to see it as my job as an artist to chronicle the profound changes our world is undergoing, to expose the grotesque incapacities of capitalism to resolve the situation humanity is facing. And try to imagine a different world.

I couldn’t see one play as being enough for all this; and I imagined a cycle of five. 

Five independent yet inter-related plays that would be ready to be performed by the year 2000.

A five play festival that would usher in the new millennium: and dream into being a new way of ordering the world.

All very utopian. But it’s a vision I’d still stand by. My difficulty was that I couldn’t get any theatre to support it. Or even begin to understand it.

I’d almost given up when I got a commission from Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum. I didn’t tell them WAR IN AMERICA was the second play. I just wrote it.

And they turned it down. It was too offensive, they said, they’d lose their subscription audience.

Then the Traverse turned it down. Because they disliked it.

This was the start of a long bleak time. No theatre would commission anything original from me for fourteen years: until 2009, when Mark Thomson (bless him) commissioned a new play for the Lyceum. And that was my EVERY ONE.

I survived by doing translations, adaptations, libretti for operas (two for children), working for radio, and teaching in university. And that enabled me to self fund GOD’S NEW FROCK and JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN.

I’d somehow consoled myself by assuming WAR IN AMERICA  to be a bad play, and so its lack of production to be not that great a loss.

All that was shattered on Friday. I’m not going to make extravagant claims for the piece: but it’s not a bad play.

I’d say it represented an important step forward in my writing: the creation of a new, impassioned, public, polemical and fiercely political theatre.

But then the door was slammed shut in its face; and that development destroyed before it was even fully born.

It’s strange to be dealing with this frustration and grief in this week of all weeks.

This week when I am starting to learn my lines for EVE, which I perform in the Traverse this August, and which deals, among other things, with the emotional abuse that blocked me as a performer.

And this week when I am also struggling, with immense difficulty, to establish a toe hold on my new play for Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Which will be the third play in the series.

And I’ve been wondering on this sometimes bleak Sunday afternoon, just how to deal with it all.

But then it’s easy to know what needs to be done. Keep learning the lines. Keep writing the play. 

And look forward to the first public performance of WAR IN AMERICA.

This Wednesday. It’s time.


WAR IN AMERICA runs for five performances from Wednesday to Saturday, May 24-27, in the old Royal High School of Edinburgh.



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