‘I wish, I wish, I wish I knew who you were’ – Arnold Wesker’s community play for Basildon

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Earlier this year Arnold Wesker, one of the most celebrated of Britain’s post war playwrights, died. Amongst the various obituaries I read – such as this one in the Guardian – none mentioned the fact that in 1989 he wrote a community play. For Basildon.

Commissioned by the Colway Theatre Trust, ‘Beorhtel’s Hill’ is one of the few community plays that has been published, although it is now out of print (Wild Spring and Other Plays). It’s a fascinating piece of work; tough, knotty, provocative and one that questions the very role of the writer in such a process. And as such I think it’s worth looking at in some detail.

The play opens (having already informed us that this is not to follow the usual Colway model and that the audience ‘does not promenade’ ) as though it were a Greek tragedy with ‘fifteen figures shrouded in grey, like monks, hooded, faces unseen’. These are the CHORUS who will punctuate the action, along with a Narrator; a group of Kids who will re-appear throughout as they run across the space, marking the chronology of the piece through their costume, getting larger in number every time they appear and always searching for ‘the end of the rainbow’; Brenda, a married woman who has arrived in Basildon in 1964 and is keeping a diary; and Riley, a dishevelled old Cockney who has a recurring nightmare about Margaret Thatcher.

‘All things tire of themselves’, the Chorus declaim, ‘the demagogue of his tongue, the revolutionary of his fervour, the singer of his song, the sower of his seed’. And as they withdraw to reveal ‘a single, magnificent red rose in a beautiful art nouveau vase, and alongside it a fresh plaited loaf of bread’, so Brenda reads from her diary and Basildon is born:

Brenda:         17th August 1964. We have been offered a new house in a new town called Basildon. New house, new town, new life! We will accept but I am terrified.

The chorus begin again with their refrain that all things tire of themselves, and the Narrator, the self-proclaimed community drunk, introduces himself with the question ‘who are they?’

This is to be a key question throughout the play: who exactly are these people who inhabit this world that is being represented? Do their stories, which in this play appear to be based on interviews and transcripts of interviews, ever help us get to the bottom of what drives their actions? The Narrator is an outsider, both through being a drunk but also by being a figure that just does not quite connect with the world that he has been asked to engage with. From the very beginning he is a figure of provocation; someone who has been asked to present a commentary on something that he does not really understand, something that he does not really feel connected to, something that, at times, he appears to feel nothing but contempt for.

Narrator:       … I’m lonely here. There are no – poets here … only makers of money. If I want to feel alive, emotionally charged, inter-bloody-lectually stimulated, I have to escape to the bleedin’ metropolis.

There is much building in the play – literally. But what we see is not so much a community being built as a place, or rather two places over two different times in one location. And this sense of a contested landscape, of the creation of one place built by the state, on top of the creation of another place built by individuals, is at the heart of all of the tension and conflict within the play.

Both of these newly created places are revealed through individual families with their individual stories. The sense of any collective narrative is made up from these fragmented stories of individuals who find themselves following similar impulses to arrive in these two new places; although with different responses to what they will go on to find.

This representation, this action of building is important; because as well as being a play about the building of new places it is also at heart a play about property; about the creation of a community through the individual acquisition of land and the individual building, or the individual ownership, of homes. This issue of land, of property, will be at the heart of a battle between the role of the individual and the state; a classic Wesker preoccupation. It is not long before we are warned what to look out for. To see that the building that first takes place is something that will have implications further down the line.

Narrator:       Freehold! Remember that, dearly beloved. Freehold! Very important principle. There’s a great rumpus gathering on the horizon over that principle.

These freeholders, these first people that we see building, are the plotlanders. Those with a little bit of money who escape from the East End at the weekends to build their bungalows on the cheap plots of land that have been sold off by the railway companies here at ‘Beorhtel’s Hill as it was known in Saxon times’. And we will hear the stories of these settlers, these trail blazers, because as the Narrator tells us:

Narrator:       They’ve all got stories. And they tell them to each other endlessly …. Just little ones, about tiny deeds and small braveries by unextraordinary people.

Nell:                I’m not sure I like your tone.

Narrator:       I’m not sure what I think of your lives!

This is how the community is shown to us; as a series of individuals relaying the details of their individual achievements. You get the sense that Wesker has been sitting in front of a pile of transcripts of interviews from older members of Basildon, taking sentences from here and there:

‘Our four acre field was overgrown with blackberry and hawthorn bushes / there were twelve shipwrights in our road / You’d sit round the Beatrice stove to keep yourself warm.’

What unites all these stories is a pride in self-sufficiency, in entrepreneurialism, in fashioning new beginnings, creating new space; space which is carefully marked out:

Elsie:              We’d come down for the weekends and first thing we always did was to raise the flag and show everyone we were there.

Narrator:       Well, it was their castle, wasn’t it? They were like royalty, weren’t they?

 Jack:              Next thing we did was walk right round our boundary.

Gran:              Your father did that. Right the way round, checking the fences and posts.

This is not, it appears, a play about communal endeavour but a shared history of individualism. And it is excoriatingly honest. It is as though Wesker is working through his own response to being asked to write this play; trying to work out what the point of such a project is; whether the idea of Basildon as a community makes any sense at all; whether he is interested or not; whether it is remotely possible to define it. And if we begin to suspect that the Narrator and Wesker are one and the same, at least in the constant questioning of the identity of the people of whom this play is about and for whom this play is for, then this interrogation becomes even more interesting. The play becomes on one level an interrogation of the very idea of writing a community play

Individuals and families share their fragmented stories of food, work, travel and home improvement as this new place that the plotlanders are building begins ‘mushrooming like some Wild West town’. This is a play about quiet lives. And, the Narrator tells us, ‘People will take anything for a quiet life. Employees will take it from employers, citizens will take it from politicians, wives will take it from their husbands’.  When we do see ‘A SPECTACULAR HAPPENING’ it is the erection of one of these plotland bungalows.  ‘AN AMAZING SIGHT’ is ‘THE BALLET OF STREET GAMES’. The domestic is raised in scale to become the spectacular.

These people aren’t interested in the wider social betterment. When Riley, who has spent the first part of the play reiterating the phrase ‘the worst part of the dream is – that when I wake up, I find that Margaret Thatcher is still alive’, finally finds himself able to talk about something else, his job, in 1937, loading pitch which was sent off ‘to build Adolf’s autobahns’, the Narrator lambasts him and, through association, the rest of these plotlanders and freeholders – ‘Ask him, would he have agreed to sanctions to stop the rise of the Nazi uber alles? … I love the barrack-room lawyer mentality of the working class, don’t you? Heartfelt, deeply felt ignorance! Nothing like it!’ And as another character, Stan, now joins in to recount his experiences guarding a prisoner of war camp in Trieste, the Narrator pushes further: ‘did he protest when the British government turned back refugees fleeing from the Nazi extermination camps? Ask him!’

What is it that is provoking the Narrator so? Why does he seem so antagonistic towards these residents of Basildon? These representatives of the community that are being played by members of the current Basildon community, in front of an audience of that Basildon community. And if this continuing barrage of snide remarks and accusations aren’t enough then the diary entries of Brenda haven’t exactly been much of a cheery antidote either:

‘2nd December 1965. I walked the quiet streets again today. There seems to be no place where life can be watched, no railway sidings, no wharves, no rivers to gaze at’.

‘10th May 1967. I perform all the normal functions of living as if I were still alive, but inside I have died a death. How I wish I had someone to talk to. I am beginning to hate this new, self-contained life in this new, self-contained town. Basildon, Basildon, bloody Basildon!’

Brenda’s final entry of the first act is perhaps the bleakest yet as she recounts dealing with a choking baby, an empty doctor’s surgery, an out of order telephone and an absent neighbour. The Kids – ‘now dressed in the clothes of 1945’ – run across once more, still searching for the end of the rainbow, now an ‘enlarged battalion’. And the Narrator talks to us at a little more length, aware that the audience must be confused by his position to what is being shown:  ‘all he can be is sour … that’s what you’re thinking, aren’t you?’ But there is something here he tells us, something that makes this exploration worthwhile; after all ‘how many people do you know who make things happen?’

There appears to be a grudging admiration for these plotland people, for the fact that they have taken action to improve their lives, even if this is done purely out of self-interest. But still the Narrator is left asking, as the Chorus re-appear, ‘I wish, I wish, I wish I knew who you were’.

Act Two begins in the new post-war world. It is 1946, Churchill has been booted out of office and the Labour party are about to build their new Jerusalem, a promised land that includes, in a list declaimed by the Chorus, ‘The New Towns Act!’

It is now, after a rather impressionistic first act, that the conflict really begins. Conflict over property. Conflict over the two historical developments of the land of Beorhtel’s Hill. For the plotlanders that we have spent so much time with are now to be bought out so that the new town of Basildon can arrive. Now, finally, something resembling a community begins to take shape; these are no longer individuals sharing their settler stories but groups of protesters in the form of Residents Associations. These people ‘fought for England, now we fight for freeholds’. The money on offer for their plots, their homes, is not enough. And why should they kowtow to the state when ‘By our thrift and self-sacrifice we have placed ourselves beyond the need of the state’s assistance’?

A mini revolution takes place – and succeeds – in the form of Mr Birch who stands on the roof of his bungalow with a rifle. The corporation keep upping their financial offer, the protesters continue to chant: ‘Beorhtel’s hill sax-on / we don’t want no Basildon’. Birch stands his ground until the price is right. The Narrator – Wesker? – revels in the irony of it all:

‘So, we applaud! The hero! The individual who stood up for his rights, defended his castle, got the right price for his property. The state didn’t understand and had to be taught – think about it – with a gun! And we approve! We applaud! Think about that, dearly beloved’.

A mini violent revolution has presaged the birth of this new place, as a choir of twenty angels sing and the new town of Basildon is constructed – more building –  in front of us. Only for the first words to be uttered, once its dramatic construction is completed, by Brenda:

‘The 24th May, 1968. This town has no continuity … The sheer power of its newness and creation has overwhelmed any character that it might have built on’.

It starts to ‘Rain again, Rain, rain, rain’. An Asian family that we saw enter at the very beginning of the play do so again as fragments of individual stories once more ring out, told by people pushing prams and supermarket trolleys. ‘The first house was completed in 1951, the thousandth house in 1955’. But as the town grows Brenda, whose diary entries have largely bemoaned her loneliness, asks ‘how difficult it is to welcome the stranger into your midst, but welcome them we must or die’.

And then – just as in the first act where the outside world, in the form of Nazi Germany, intruded through the many descriptions of the specifically local – this insularity is cracked open as the Asian family tell their story of being forcefully expelled from Uganda; of the violence and torture endemic in Amin’s regime; of the need, the promise, to be resettled. Surely, the Narrator explains, this must be the place: ‘A town built for the disinherited, the slum-dwellers, the bombed out! Basildon! A phoenix from the ashes! A town of pity and dreams! And what happened?’

What happens is a pretty squalid episode and takes us back to the Narrator’s attack on Riley, Neil and Stan when he accused them of standing by in the face of appalling injustice and violence. In a battle between local political parties and within the Labour party, and spurred on by ‘the people of Basildon’, the council agrees to house five Ugandan families as requested by the national government, but only ‘after one year’s residence in the United Kingdom’. Wesker has been asked to write a play about Basildon and has chosen to confront Basildon head on with its own ignoble actions. A brave decision.

And that’s it. This is where we end – almost. For here come the Kids again, still searching for the end of the rainbow, now ‘dressed in the style of 1989’ and Riley’s dream has finally moved on for now ‘the best part of the dream is that when I wake up I can see flowers in my garden. Masses of them. I grow flowers, y’see. Always have done’.

The play opened with the reveal of a single red rose, and now we have built to:

‘… the most extraordinary image of the evening. From every part of the theatre, the people of Basildon appear with flowers from their gardens. Not a few bunches but in vases. Not a few dozen. But hundreds. Vases full of cut flowers. Pot plants. All shapes. All colours. The floor is covered, every inch.’

The cast join in for one final chorus:

‘And this was the dream / Which every citizen could boast / And all the world would marvel at / Sing Art / Sing Industry / Sing sweet contentment / And this was the dream.’

Is this the dream, or is this the reality? From the single flower at the beginning we now have a theatre full of them. What does this represent? The growth of the town, with echoes of the original plotlanders escape to the bucolic? Does it suggest that when these individuals, with their individual stories, come together that it is possible to create these moments of beauty? After all they are doing it; right now, in the construction of this play. This play that has spent a large part of its time interrogating the impulses of many of those who have been part of the development of this community.

Does this moment where the real people of Basildon, playing the people of Basildon, confront their past offer some salve? Is it a heroic image? Or is it an ironic one? Of the taming of nature for the dressing of individual homes, and the danger that this emphasis on the domestic threatens; as shown by the willingness of these residents to avoid addressing the real concerns of those outside of their doors who urgently need help?

There is still time, before the lights go down, for the Narrator to end the play still no wiser than at the beginning – ‘Who are they? If only I knew who they were.’

I have quoted the play in length but I hope that it is clear from this description, and from the many excerpts from Wesker’s script, that this community play – of which I can discover hardly any information –  is an incredibly self-reflective piece of work. As such it deserves to find its way into any future analyses of the body of work of one of Britain’s most important post war writers.

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