The Welkin – Footnotes

The Welkin – Footnotes

The Welkin – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on The Welkin include more on symbols in the sky, the life of the wife of a poet, and the apt sound of the butter churn.

The Welkin
We talked in the episode about the meaning of the title of the play, and Lucy explained that the welkin is a term for the highest part of the sky or of heaven. It is from the Old English word ‘wolcen” meaning cloud or sky. We talked about the metaphoric meanings associated with the sky, including of course as the location of heaven, and of the stars or comets to which mankind has long attributed some form of influence over its fate or fortunes. One of the matrons on the jury believing that Sally’s chance of avoiding hanging is all but hopeless suggests that she “must look to the welkin, there’s no earthly help for her now.”

Why do we look to the sky as a source of supernatural power? Perhaps in a practical sense, simply because it is the source of the weather on which our material existence depends. Kitty neatly expresses this more utilitarian vision of the sky: “I never look up at the sky. Not unless I have washing on the line.”

But others are convinced that the mysterious appearance of a comet is a portent of change in their earthly destinies. Mary relays how her grandmother saw an angel the last time that the comet visited and then gave birth to a boy with two thumbs. For Sally, when she looked to the sky and prayed for escape from the tyranny of her husband and her limited domestic life, the comet heralded the arrival of Thomas McKay and her precipitous passion.

The epigraph that prefaces the published text of the play is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:  “When beggars die there are no comets seen” . It is the first part of Calpurnia’s warning to Caesar that the comet recently seen in Rome may prefigure the “death of princes”. In The Welkin I think that the epigraph stands less for the significance of the astronomical symbol than for the point that ordinary people’s deaths, or lives, are arbitrarily less often noted society, or featured in art, as they are in fact in this play.

 

Mrs Sara Coleridge, born Sarah Fricker

The wife of a poet
One of the great strengths of Lucy’s play is the array of distinctive individual characters who make up the jury of matrons. One of these is Ann, without an ‘e’, who introduces herself as follows:

My name is Ann Lavender, without an E. I was christened with one but my husband felt me more elegant without it. We moved here more recently to raise our four daughters in peasant honesty. William is a poet and had a desire to share the housework equally and take many long solitary walks. He has been very successful at the latter. 

I was fascinated to learn from Lucy that Ann is based in part on Sara Coleridge, whose life with the romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was one of long-suffering, middle-class poverty. She was born, Sarah Fricker, but like Ann, dropped the ‘H’ from her name to please her husband. Through the forty years of their marriage, she carried the burden of child care and domestic survival, Coleridge spending most of his time absent from the family home, absorbed by his literary contemplation, drug addiction and various infatuations with other women.

Ann is a character with a sharp and enquiring intelligence. She raises incisive questions throughout the judicial process, is curious about the experiences of her fellow jurors, and is particularly stirred when she tries to elicit from Sally her reasons for participating in killing the little girl. In another age she, like Sarah Fricker, may have had the chance of a more independent life.

The butter churn
When we are first introduced to the midwife, Lizzie Luke, we are also introduced to her daughter, Katy, who she instructs to carry on churning the butter. Churning butter was a laborious physical task. The thumping sound of the plunger in the churn continues as the background sound track to the empanelling scene that follows, where the jury matrons are introduced. The churn is a reminder of the continuous labour of these working women, and perhaps also a metaphor for the specific labour of birth, which is the central thesis of the play.

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
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029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it appeared at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1958 because of its frank portrayal of a working-class, single mother and daughter, as well as its bold representations of a mixed-race relationship and a young homosexual as a central character. Delaney sent her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood who helped develop it into an historic production which went on to the West End and Broadway. Professor Nadine Holdsworth helps us to explore the enduring power and relevance of the play.

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.

027 – Present Laughter by Noël Coward

027 – Present Laughter by Noël Coward

Garry Essendine is a star of the London stage with an ego and celebrity lifestyle to match. But as he passes forty his excesses threaten to bring down the entire structure of his professional and personal life. Essendine is the thinly disguised alter-ego of playwright and performer Noel Coward, whose tussle with his own fame is the subject of his classic 3-act, 4-door farce Present Laughter. First performed in 1942 with Coward himself as the lead, the play has since attracted a glittering list of stars who could not resist the flamboyant turn, including most recently Andrew Scott in an Olivier award-winning performance at the Old Vic in 2019. Joining me to reexamine Coward’s ‘light comedy’ in the 21st century is theatrical agent and Coward aficionado, Alan Brodie.

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The Welkin – Footnotes

Copenhagen – Footnotes

Copenhagen – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on Copenhagen include more on the atomic metaphors that resonate through the play, the real-life drama that played out at Farm Hall country house in 1945, and the darkness of Elsinore.

Not listened to the episode yet? You’ll find it here

Atomic metaphors
One of the joys of Michael Frayn’s play is the way that metaphors of the scientific theories referenced in the play resonate with its personal and political themes. For example, Heisenberg describes the interaction of the three of them with a beautifully simple analogy with the structure of an atom: Margrethe is the nucleus, Bohr an electron in random motion around her, and Heisenberg the photon, a quantum of light that seeks out and collides with Bohr. In an extension of the metaphor, Bohr refers to the complementary nature of particles and waves, describing the impact of their meeting on one another in these terms: “If people can see what’s happened to you …then they can work out what’s happened to me! The trouble is knowing what’s happened to you! Because to understand how people see you we have to treat you not just as a particle, but as a wave….Particles are things, complete in themselves. Waves are disturbances in something else.”  

Metaphoric meanings of the Theory of Complementarity or The Uncertainty Principle ripple throughout the play in the many ways that what occurred in their meeting eludes singular definition or recollection. By definition we cannot see ourselves clearly, because only those other than ourselves can witness our actions: “If Heisenberg is at the centre of the universe, then the one bit of the universe that he can’t see is Heisenberg.” And when he tries to observe himself and the reason he came to Copenhagen, he thinks “for a moment … I caught a glimpse”, but when he “turned to look…away it went…If you’re doing something you have to concentrate on, you can’t also be thinking about doing it”.

In the same vein, the impossibility of our pinning down our own thoughts or reasoning is likened to the paradox that particles behave differently when observed: “Until this instant his thoughts have been everywhere and nowhere, like unobserved particles…Now they have to be observed and specified…And at once the clear purposes inside my head lose all definite shape”. Similarly Margrethe suggests that what the two scientists actually said to each other when they walked in the garden, out of range of any surveillance, cannot be predicted because of “how differently particles behave when they’re unobserved”.

We also referred in our conversation in the episode to the ‘complementary’ forces of Heisenberg’s myriad allegiances: to his country, to his family and friends, or to a moral responsibility for the dangerous applications of his scientific research. Finally with reference to his meeting with Bohr, these include the starkly complementary facts that “I’m your enemy; I’m also your friend.”

Farm Hall
There is a moment in the play when the germ of an idea for a whole other play is suggested. In July 1945 Heisenberg was captured by the Allies and brought to England, where he and nine other German scientists were held for six months at Farm Hall country house in Cambridgeshire. Heisenberg gives a wonderfully evocative description of the scene of their imprisonment, which conjures a classic English country-house drama, but with the dark undertones of the war. The German scientists and their English captors enjoy fine dinners, Heisenberg plays the piano, and one of the English hosts reads Dickens aloud. All the while their conversations and interviews are being recorded and transcribed to glean information about the German nuclear programs.

As if on cue for a playwright, the perfect inciting incident is dropped into this scenario, when on 6 August 1945, the scientists at Farm Hall learned from media reports that the USA had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  At first there was disbelief that a bomb had been built and used, and in the weeks that followed the German scientists discussed how the Allies could have built the bomb, as well as the morality of doing so, either by the Allies or for the Nazis.  The Farm Hall transcripts reveal that Heisenberg, along with some of the other interned physicists, was glad the Allies had won the war. Apparently Heisenberg told other scientists that he had never contemplated building a bomb, only an atomic reactor to produce energy. On the failure of the German nuclear weapons program to build a bomb, Heisenberg is quoted as saying “We wouldn’t have had the moral courage to recommend to the Government in the spring of 1942 that they should employ 120,000 men just for building the thing up.” This is one of the arguments that he presents in the play, stating specifically that he had personally advised Albert Speer, Germany’s Minister of Armaments, that it would cost too much money and manpower to build a nuclear weapon within a practical time frame. He and his team were focused thereafter only on the development of nuclear power to support the war effort. As Michael suggests in our conversation, such accounts of the past may have been edited with the benefit of hindsight, given the changed perspective on history.

Farm Hall is a play that I’d like to see sometime!

Elsinore
The moral darkness underlying the scientists’ debate about the potential evil applications of nuclear fission is alluded to in the references they make in their conversation to the castle of Elsinore. Elsinore is their destination when they set out on a walking tour together back in the early days of their friendship and collaboration in the 1920s. The castle is of course famous as the setting for Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, and Heisenberg acknowledges this reference when he describes Elsinore as a shorthand for “the darkness inside the human soul”. It is a shorthand that he and Margrethe use again when she asks him what was going on inside his head when he decided to collaborate with the Nazis, to which he confesses: “Elsinore”. 

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it appeared at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1958 because of its frank portrayal of a working-class, single mother and daughter, as well as its bold representations of a mixed-race relationship and a young homosexual as a central character. Delaney sent her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood who helped develop it into an historic production which went on to the West End and Broadway. Professor Nadine Holdsworth helps us to explore the enduring power and relevance of the play.

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.

027 – Present Laughter by Noël Coward

027 – Present Laughter by Noël Coward

Garry Essendine is a star of the London stage with an ego and celebrity lifestyle to match. But as he passes forty his excesses threaten to bring down the entire structure of his professional and personal life. Essendine is the thinly disguised alter-ego of playwright and performer Noel Coward, whose tussle with his own fame is the subject of his classic 3-act, 4-door farce Present Laughter. First performed in 1942 with Coward himself as the lead, the play has since attracted a glittering list of stars who could not resist the flamboyant turn, including most recently Andrew Scott in an Olivier award-winning performance at the Old Vic in 2019. Joining me to reexamine Coward’s ‘light comedy’ in the 21st century is theatrical agent and Coward aficionado, Alan Brodie.

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The Welkin – Footnotes

The Duchess of Malfi – Footnotes

The Duchess of Malfi – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on The Duchess of Malfi include John Webster and the business of funerals, visions of the afterlife in the play, and our favourite metaphors in Webster’s metaphysical verse.

John Webster Coach Maker
The playwright’s father, also John Webster, was by trade a coach maker based near Smithfield market in London. He built a large and prosperous business which his son Edward carried on. The company also hired out their coaches as hearses and the transport of criminals. One can imagine that this occupation may have informed in some small way the young playwright’s understanding of villainy and death.

Hieronymous Bosch Visions of the Hereafter 1505-1515

The Afterlife
In a play soaked in sin and death the characters are persistently haunted by their prospects in the afterlife. For these people heaven and especially hell are very real places, although of course they cannot know what is to come and fear the unknown. The Duchess asks her waiting lady, Cariola, if she thinks ” we shall know one another in th’other world?”  And laments that we cannot see into this after world to know: “O that it were possible we might/But hold some two days’ conference with the dead,/From them I should learn somewhat, I am sure/I never shall know here.

She and Antonio also believe that “heaven hath a hand” in whatever their destiny is to be in this life or the next, were they hope that in the “eternal Church” they will not be parted. The Duchess remains hopeful of this prospect when Bosola asks her if she is not frightened by death: “Who would be afraid on’t?/Knowing to meet such excellent company /In th’other world.”

When Bosola further questions her lack of concern about the specific manner of her death, she conjures a wonderfully vivid image of the ways of passing into the next world: “I know death hath ten thousand several doors/For men to take their exits: and ’tis found/They go on strange geometrical hinges,/You may open both ways.”  Does the swinging door suggest that one may either be called to death or choose to push through to it oneself, or perhaps that ghosts may pass between the worlds?

The Duchess is certain that one must approach heaven with humility; that arrogant princes will not be admitted: “Heaven gates are so highly arch’d/As prince’s palaces: they that enter there/Must go on their knees.”  It seems clear that the princes in the play, the Cardinal and Ferdinand, do not believe they are heading for heaven. “There’s a sin in us Heaven doth revenge” admits Ferdinand, and the Cardinal is unable to pray, much like Claudius fails to do so in Hamlet: “O, my conscience!/ I would pray now: but the devil takes away my heart/For having any confidence in prayer.”  The Cardinal certainly has intimations of hell – he consults the Bible, but his conscience is not consoled: “I am puzzl’d in a question about hell:/He says, in hell there’s one material fire,/ And yet it shall not burn all men alike. Lay him by. How tedious is a guilty conscience!/ When I look into the fishponds in my garden,/ Methinks I see a thing, arm’d with a rake/ That seems to strike at me.”  Finally as he dies he recognises that he gets what he deserves : “Sorrow is held the eldest child of sin”.

 

 

Metaphysical poetry
In our discussion about the language of The Duchess of Malfi, Emma described Webster’s verse as being characteristic of the style of the ‘metaphysical’ poets of the seventeenth century, such as John Donne (1572-1631). The term metaphysical was coined by Samuel Johnson, and refers to the use of extended metaphors and word play, as well as an interest in the interplay between the physical and spiritual worlds. There are countless examples of vivid, extended metaphor in Webster’s play, that make reading the text such a rich pleasure. Here are just a few favourites:

In Act 1 scene 1 Bosola describes the sycophancy and corruption of the Amalfi court of the Cardinal and Ferdinand, likening the two brothers to:
“two plum trees, that grow crooked over standing pools, they are rich and o’erladen with fruit, but none but crows, pies and caterpillars feed on them. Could I be one of their flatt’ring panders, I would hang on their ears like a horse-leech, till I were full, and then drop off.”

He conjures another telling image of the unhealthy hierarchy of the court:
” places in the court are but like beds in the hospital, where this man’s head lies at that man’s foot, and so lower and lower”.

Delio suggests a striking simile for Ferdinand’s malevolent intent:
“the law to him/ Is like a foul black cobweb to a spider,/ He makes it his dwelling, and a prison/ To entangle those shall feed him.

Ferdinand in his madness conjures an imaginative conceit which is memorable for its sharpness and strangeness:
” I am studying the art of patience…To drive six snails from this town to Moscow; neither use goad nor whip to them, but let them take their own time: (the patient’st man i’th’ world match me for an experiment!) and I’ll crawl after like a sheep-biter.”

Finally, the most extended conceit of all must be the Duchess’s famous tale of the Salmon and the Dog-fish at the close of Act III, in which she expounds a fable to illustrate the ultimate fates of men of both high and mean birth, concluding: “So, to great men, the moral may be stretched./ Men oft are valued high, when th’are most wretch’d.”

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it appeared at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1958 because of its frank portrayal of a working-class, single mother and daughter, as well as its bold representations of a mixed-race relationship and a young homosexual as a central character. Delaney sent her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood who helped develop it into an historic production which went on to the West End and Broadway. Professor Nadine Holdsworth helps us to explore the enduring power and relevance of the play.

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.

027 – Present Laughter by Noël Coward

027 – Present Laughter by Noël Coward

Garry Essendine is a star of the London stage with an ego and celebrity lifestyle to match. But as he passes forty his excesses threaten to bring down the entire structure of his professional and personal life. Essendine is the thinly disguised alter-ego of playwright and performer Noel Coward, whose tussle with his own fame is the subject of his classic 3-act, 4-door farce Present Laughter. First performed in 1942 with Coward himself as the lead, the play has since attracted a glittering list of stars who could not resist the flamboyant turn, including most recently Andrew Scott in an Olivier award-winning performance at the Old Vic in 2019. Joining me to reexamine Coward’s ‘light comedy’ in the 21st century is theatrical agent and Coward aficionado, Alan Brodie.

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The Welkin – Footnotes

Oleanna – Footnotes

Oleanna – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on Oleanna include a clue to the arcane title of the play, a reminder of one of the real-life sources of the play’s gender politics, and how the theatre may reflect our national sub-conscious.

The play’s title
It’s a strange name. What does the title of the play refer to?  Oleana or New Norway was the name given to a settlement founded in 1852 in the Allegheny mountains in Pennsylvania by Norwegian violinist Ole Bull. Despite his idealistic intentions and much publicity in Norway, the settlement failed within a year because the land was not arable. The high-profile failure of the project inspired a Norwegian folk song satirising its utopian dream. The song was translated into English as Oleanna, and popularised by Pete Seager.

So what does this reference signify in the play? Perhaps the naivete of the professor and the university elite who have complacently assumed that they have created a utopia of learning and privilege in their campus world, which proves to be vulnerable to intrusion and challenge from the real world.

Norwegian violinist and composer Ole Bull

Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill testify before the Senate Committee in 1991

Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, among others
In 1991 in Washington the Senate Committee hearings into the appointment of Justice Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court were shocked by the testimony of respected university professor Anita Hill that she had been sexually harassed by Thomas when working for him at the Department of Education some years previously. Hill’s account provoked intense and divisive reactions. Supporters of Hill accused the Chairman of the Committee of a cover-up when he ruled that supporting witnesses could not be called. The Chairman was none other than one Joe Biden. Thomas’s appointment was narrowly approved, and Hill was subsequently hounded from her position at the University of Oklahoma Law School.

David Mamet said that he wrote the first draft of Oleanna eight months before the hearings, but was inspired to take it out of his drawer again by the Hill-Thomas scandal. Mamet has consistently avoided being drawn on his specific views of the Hill-Thomas hearings or of the play’s interpretation of the issues raised, insisting that the play does not deliberately take sides. What is certain is that the ugly events aired at the Hill-Thomas hearing cannot be dismissed as ancient history. Witness the dismayingly similar scenario and result that played out in the Senate Committee hearings of 2018 for the appointment of another Supreme Court judge, Brett Kavanaugh, who was approved by the same narrow margin as Thomas despite the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford that she had been sexually assaulted by him, as well as reports from two further women who accused Kavanaugh. It is difficult not to conclude that little has changed in the balance of institutional patriarchal power.

National Dream Life
David Mamet has suggested that the theatre can act as a reflection of what he called America’s “national dream life”.  That is that it can play out in some way unconscious collective issues, bringing them out into the light for conscious debate. In the case of Oleanna, perhaps there are deeply rooted attitudes to gender relationships that are present in our individual and collective sub-conscious that need to be aired and addressed. Do we recognise any of the attitudes or the anger that is on display in Oleanna in the sub text of our society? Or perhaps these things are not so deeply hidden. It is simply as Shakespeare would have it, that the theatre is holding a mirror up to the world. Either way, there is little doubt that Oleanna disturbs some deeply felt truths.

David Mamet (courtesy of MasterClass)

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it appeared at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1958 because of its frank portrayal of a working-class, single mother and daughter, as well as its bold representations of a mixed-race relationship and a young homosexual as a central character. Delaney sent her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood who helped develop it into an historic production which went on to the West End and Broadway. Professor Nadine Holdsworth helps us to explore the enduring power and relevance of the play.

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.

027 – Present Laughter by Noël Coward

027 – Present Laughter by Noël Coward

Garry Essendine is a star of the London stage with an ego and celebrity lifestyle to match. But as he passes forty his excesses threaten to bring down the entire structure of his professional and personal life. Essendine is the thinly disguised alter-ego of playwright and performer Noel Coward, whose tussle with his own fame is the subject of his classic 3-act, 4-door farce Present Laughter. First performed in 1942 with Coward himself as the lead, the play has since attracted a glittering list of stars who could not resist the flamboyant turn, including most recently Andrew Scott in an Olivier award-winning performance at the Old Vic in 2019. Joining me to reexamine Coward’s ‘light comedy’ in the 21st century is theatrical agent and Coward aficionado, Alan Brodie.

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The Welkin – Footnotes

The Father – Footnotes

The Father – Footnotes

Brief Footnotes to our episode on The Father expand on the subjects of the changing set in the play, and the significance of Andre’s watch.

The changing set
We talked during the episode about the deliberate confusion that the playwright creates as to the specific identity of the setting that the action takes place in. The stage direction that precedes the first scene in the published text of the play reads simply “Andre’s flat“. It seems clear from the dialogue that unfolds that Andre’s daughter Anne is indeed visiting Andre in his flat during this opening scene. So far so good. The printed stage direction at the top of the second scene says “Same room”. However, during the course of the scene the man playing Anne’s husband Pierre tells Andre that this is their flat not his, as he believes. So where are we? As simultaneously a further diversion, and perhaps a clue to what is happening onstage, the direction for scene three advises: “Simultaneously the same room and a different room. Some furniture has disappeared; as the scenes proceed, the set sheds certain elements, until it becomes and empty, neutral space.”  The clue is also a challenge to the set designer to create a room that could at a glance be both the original room and a different one. The set that retains a continuity while at the same time also changes defies specific identification, and results in our vicariously experiencing the same confusion about the surroundings as Andre does. He is not certain about where he is, and nor are we.

 

Kenneth Cranham and Claire Skinner at The Tricycle Theatre
Photo: Tristram Kennett

Andre’s Watch
Andre is repeatedly preoccupied during the play by the whereabouts of his wrist watch. As Christopher pointed out during our conversation, it is not uncommon for people suffering from dementia to lose things, including by putting them away in a specific place and then forgetting their having done so. We all do this of course, but it becomes more of a problem with the advanced loss of short term memory. For Andre the special place for his watch is a particular kitchen cupboard, and when Anne finds it there for him, he is offended that she knows about his hiding place. Her knowing something so personal feels like an invasion of his privacy, and his anger in response is partly an expression of his frustration and fear at his own frailties. As James Joyce said, “all anger is anger with yourself.”

His suspicion that the carer Isabelle, and then his son-in-law Pierre, have stolen his watch, also reflects his general unease. It would certainly be natural to be wary of people that you did not recognise who appear in your flat and behave in such a strangely familiar way.

Andre’s disproportionate preoccupation with his watch is not only an indication of the narrowing of the focus of his mind, but also an emotional symbol of his search for order. He may realise that he needs the watch to identify what time in the day it is, something he is not able to do with confidence now without it. His wearing it may also represent a simple need to reclaim his own identity. As I suggested in the podcast, he may not feel properly dressed without it. A potent symbol.

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
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029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it appeared at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1958 because of its frank portrayal of a working-class, single mother and daughter, as well as its bold representations of a mixed-race relationship and a young homosexual as a central character. Delaney sent her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood who helped develop it into an historic production which went on to the West End and Broadway. Professor Nadine Holdsworth helps us to explore the enduring power and relevance of the play.

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.

027 – Present Laughter by Noël Coward

027 – Present Laughter by Noël Coward

Garry Essendine is a star of the London stage with an ego and celebrity lifestyle to match. But as he passes forty his excesses threaten to bring down the entire structure of his professional and personal life. Essendine is the thinly disguised alter-ego of playwright and performer Noel Coward, whose tussle with his own fame is the subject of his classic 3-act, 4-door farce Present Laughter. First performed in 1942 with Coward himself as the lead, the play has since attracted a glittering list of stars who could not resist the flamboyant turn, including most recently Andrew Scott in an Olivier award-winning performance at the Old Vic in 2019. Joining me to reexamine Coward’s ‘light comedy’ in the 21st century is theatrical agent and Coward aficionado, Alan Brodie.

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The Welkin – Footnotes

Rockets and Blue Lights – Footnotes

Rockets and Blue Lights – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our Rockets and Blue Lights episode explore the Turner paintings that partly inspired the play, the Zong massacre that inspired Turner, the ghosts that haunt the play, and the litany of victims that Thomas pays tribute to in his closing speech.

Turner’s Paintings and the Zong Massacre
JMW Turner’s The Slave Ship, or as it was first titled, Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and the Dying – Typhoon coming on was first exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1840. As Winsome mentioned it is now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Although by this time slavery had been outlawed in the British Empire, illegal trade was still going on and abolitionists also continued to campaign for it to be outlawed in the rest of the world. No doubt Turner intended to help raise awareness of this cause, as he created his painting to coincide with a conference of the British Anti-Slavery Society at which Prince Albert was scheduled to speak.

As Winsome noted in her preface to Rockets and Blue Lights, and we discussed during our conversation, the painting may have been based on the events of the Zong Massacre which were well known as a result of the prominent court case of 1783 which highlighted the iniquity of the insurance laws that classified enslaved people as no more than “cargo” on a ship. The facts and testimony of the case are shocking to read. The law of the time held that if enslaved people died a “natural death” at sea or onshore, then no compensation could be claimed. However a ship’s captain would be within the law to jettison part of his “cargo” in order to save the rest, and could claim insurance for its value. The “value” of an enslaved person was set at £30 per person! On this basis in the first trial the jury “had no doubt …that the Case of Slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard…The question was whether there was not an Absolute Necessity for throwing them over board to save the rest?”  The crew had claimed that it had been necessary because there had not been enough fresh water to keep all of the people alive for the remainder of the voyage, but on appeal in the second trial new evidence was revealed that heavy rain had fallen on the second day of the killings and more people were thrown overboard even thereafter. Technically therefore Absolute Necessity could not be proved and the insurers were not required to pay up. The verdict never addressed the fact that innocent people were murdered.

The painting that gives Winsome’s play its title was also painted in 1840. Its full title is Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal, and it is now in the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It depicts a storm in an English harbour town, with flares exploding in the sky to alert ships to the location of shallow water. On the shore spectators look out to sea, perhaps waiting to know if their loved ones will return safely home, much as Lucy and Jess wait for news of Thomas in the play. In the play rockets and blue lights refer to the Navy sending warnings to a slave ship as they approach, acting as a police force to enforce the anti-slavery laws on the sea. Winsome refers to the contrast in colours between the two paintings: the blood red of the sunset in The Slave Ship and the bright blue in Rockets and Blue Lights. Is the blue the colour of hope, as it might have signalled saviour to those illegally enslaved on a ship caught by the Navy?

 

Hauntings
Winsome referenced the theory of ‘hauntology’ in an article she wrote about the challenges of representing traumatic historical events, which suggests that “the legacy of the past resonates within or haunts present day realities.” The structure of Rockets and Blue Lights which merges time periods and doubles characters serves to convey this sense of continuity and connectivity through time. As Lou says referring to the events of the past  “They think this is just history, but it isn’t” – for her it is very much present. The play is also full of literal hauntings: Turner sees the ghost of his dead mother in his studio and onboard ship;  Lou imagines a drowning woman coming to life in Turner’s painting; a hole opens in the floor of Turner’s studio to the hold of the ship, from which the ghost of the young slave Billie emerges; Meg appears from 1840 to speak with Lou in 2007, and when Thomas and the cast intone the names of black victims from history at the end of the play, their voices overlap each other “to create a brief echoing effect as though conjuring ghosts.” Perhaps to underline the play’s supernatural quality, Winsome has the actor Roy quote extensively from The Tempest, another story of shipwreck, where art creates a magical moral tale to put injustices in the world to right.

 

In Memoriam
In Thomas’s final speech in the play he challenges the white guard who points his gun at him, to “Pull your trigger. I am not afraid of death. I have lived and died ten million times. And I will live and live again.” As he does so he calls up the ghosts of those who have suffered the same oppression over history:

Yaa Asantewaa – a Queen mother of the Ashanti empire in what is now Ghana, who led a war against the colonial British in 1900.

Yvonne Ruddock – who died along with twelve other young black people in a fire at her home at her birthday party in New Cross in 1981. Arson was suspected.

David Oluwale – a homeless man who drowned in a river in Leeds in 1969 after being chased by police officers. It resulted in the first successful prosecution of British police officers for involvement in the death of a black person.

Sam Sharpe – who led a slave rebellion in Jamaica in 1832 and was executed.

Kelso Cochrane – an Antiguan who was murdered by white youths in Notting Hill in 1959.

Stephen Lawrence – the black British teenager who was murdered while waiting for a bus in southeast London in April 1993.

The litany of names reminded me of the ending of Tom Stoppard’s last play, Leopoldstrasse, which concludes with the recitation of names of his Jewish ancestors who perished in the Nazi death camps. This is similarly immensely moving and powerful. It is both a tribute and a statement of determination to survive and arrive at a new, free future.

 

Yaa Asantewaa

Yvonne Ruddock and the other victims of the New Cross fire

David Oluwale

Sam Sharpe

Kelso Cochrane

Stephen Lawrence

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it appeared at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1958 because of its frank portrayal of a working-class, single mother and daughter, as well as its bold representations of a mixed-race relationship and a young homosexual as a central character. Delaney sent her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood who helped develop it into an historic production which went on to the West End and Broadway. Professor Nadine Holdsworth helps us to explore the enduring power and relevance of the play.

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.

027 – Present Laughter by Noël Coward

027 – Present Laughter by Noël Coward

Garry Essendine is a star of the London stage with an ego and celebrity lifestyle to match. But as he passes forty his excesses threaten to bring down the entire structure of his professional and personal life. Essendine is the thinly disguised alter-ego of playwright and performer Noel Coward, whose tussle with his own fame is the subject of his classic 3-act, 4-door farce Present Laughter. First performed in 1942 with Coward himself as the lead, the play has since attracted a glittering list of stars who could not resist the flamboyant turn, including most recently Andrew Scott in an Olivier award-winning performance at the Old Vic in 2019. Joining me to reexamine Coward’s ‘light comedy’ in the 21st century is theatrical agent and Coward aficionado, Alan Brodie.

Recent Posts

No Results Found

The page you requested could not be found. Try refining your search, or use the navigation above to locate the post.