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.
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. 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 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 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, “When beggars die there are no comets seen” is the first part of Calpurnia’s warning to Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play, that the comet recently seen in Rome may prefigure the “death of princes”. In The Welkin 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 in art or society.
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.
Tennessee Williams breakthrough playThe Glass Menagerie is a very personal portrait of Williams’ own flawed family. It first opened on Broadway in March 1945 to rave reviews, it’s box office success catapulting its 34-year old author to fame and fortune. The play is now a standard on educational curricula and theatrical programs, loved for its heart-wrenching portrayal of the hopes and disappointments of its characters, and admired for its theatrical technique and poetic dramatic language.
The play was brilliantly staged in 2013 on Broadway in a production directed by John Tiffany, which was revived in 2017 in London’s West End, and I am absolutely delighted to be joined in this episode by the director himself, John Tiffany, to share his insights into this enduring classic.
It is 2:00 am, and George and Martha have invited a young couple for after-party drinks to their home on a New England university campus. What follows is arguably the most extended and vitriolic marital argument ever staged. Over four hours of drunken skirmishing George and Martha tear strips off each other and their young guests, in a terrifying mix of games playing and truth telling, fuelled by anger, shame, disappointment, hatred and possibly even love. As the hostilities intensify both couples are forced to face unvarnished and difficult truths about themselves and their relationships. This is American playwright Edward Albee’s classic play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which opened on Broadway in 1962, and was greeted by both moral outrage and critical acclaim. Both types of review contributed to its run-away box-office success, and led to the 1966 Oscar-winning film version with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
Joining me to survey the damage of this blistering marital battle are John Mitchinson and Andy MIller, the co-hosts of the award-winning podcast Backlisted, which as its strap line declares “gives new life to old books”.
It is 1759 in East Anglia. A child has been murdered and a young woman has been convicted to hang for the crime. She ‘pleads her belly’ and a jury of matrons must determine if she is truly with child and thus may escape the gallows. Lucy Kirkwood’s powerful play The Welkin, is an historical thriller and a tense courtroom drama, as well as a vivid representation of the real burdens that women carry in a patriarchal world of any age.
The Welkin premiered at the National Theatre in January 2020 before its run was cruelly cut short by the first Covid lockdown. I’m delighted to be joined by the author herself to talk about her rich new play.
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …