I’ve just finished reading two community play scripts – The Fens Ablaze by Doc Watson (Boston, 1987) and the Dreaming Pond by Peter Spafford (Upton cum Kexby 1990). The first is a rabble rousing piece that in its introduction draws attention to the links between its subject matter – the fen riots of the 1770’s that were caused by the enclosure acts – and ‘echos (sic) in Britain today’. The second is a very atmospheric and beautifully constructed dream play that has at its heart (and told through a story within a story within a story) a plot that is connected to a time, like Watson’s, of social turmoil; here the English Civil War. There are many similarities between them; not least the battle for and the appropriation of common land.
But for now I want to focus on the outsider. In Ann Jellicoe’s book ‘Community Plays and How To Put Them On’ she says ‘Organise your villains so that if possible they come from out of town: people whom the community can comfortably unite against’. The impact of the outsider is obviously a potent force in many plays and stories, in fact as Stephen Lowe suggests (in David Edgar’s ‘How Plays Work’) ‘all plays are about people escaping or invading secure communities’.
In both of the plays that I have just read the communities are not secure; they are in flux. In each the outsider serves a different function, both of which offer interesting perspectives on the potency and function of this role within the writing of community theatre.
‘The Fens Ablaze’ by Doc Watson begins with a number of outsiders. First of all the Grand Sluice Fair, which opens the performance in typical community play fashion, is interrupted by a Visitor calling out ‘Call that a Sluice, sir! That’s nobbut a few planks o’ poor wood strung across yer river’.
The fair is then interrupted further by a Puppet Master who has a play for us ‘fresh from London’, a play that features ‘a large fat caricature of King George III’. This grotesque attack on Royalty begins but is curtailed when Eden Simpson grabs the puppet King and tells the Puppet Master that this play is not wanted here; however well it’s done in London – ‘That’s London, this is Boston’. ‘Boston, Boston, Boston’, taunts the Visitor, ‘Thou hast naught to boast on / But a grand sluice and a High Steeple / A proud conceited ignorant people’.
The first job of the outsider is set up very clearly here. If there is an outsider there must be an insider. And this antagonising work of the Visitor, by specifically attacking the connection to the place in which the performance is sited and the audience lives, creates a strong bond between the ‘them’ of the play world, and the ‘us’, the audience, of the performance world. It’s an easy trick – witness any pantomime where the villain will assail the shortcomings of the location in which it is taking place – but it is also a very effective and highly useful one.
Following the Sluice Fair we begin to meet a number of characters all of whom gravitate around what will be the main issue of the play – the enclosure of the Holland Fen which is due to take place. Mrs Wyche makes sure that we realise that ‘This is an important day for our town’, whilst the fact that such an event will lead to winners and losers is made clear as William Smith replies ‘If this bill for Enclosure gets passed – fat riches for us all, eh, Mrs Wyche?’ Richard Kitchen may ask ‘what of the poor folks on that Common Land?’ but for Smith, once the sluice that is being opened does its job and drains the land, this ‘pack of ignorant mud jumpers must move elsewhere’.
Smith, we learn, is not a man who we should feel any sympathy for, swiftly revealed as a heavy drinker, a gambler and a misogynist who has ‘creditors baying at my heels, I need this Enclosure land’. And when Smith is informed that Mr. Charles Anderson Pelham is calling in the mortgage on his house in Swineshead (Hardwick Hall), and is planning to take land (Pelhams Plot) from Smith in lieu of his unpaid mortgage bills, we understand that he is a character who will be vulnerable to temptation.
Away from the world of the fair are the slodgers, the fen people, represented by the Loynham family who on hearing about the proposed drainage do not seem overly concerned with the implications: ‘the fen folk exist above and beyond the law, there is simply no connection between the two … We’ve bin here fer more years than there’s numbers’. And when, in a later scene, Norris Loynham is told that come Spring the Common Land is to be fenced and that Norris will end up having to work for a living like everyone else, Norris simply refuses to believe this – ‘Nobbody’ll stop me catchin’ a pike or shootin a widgeon when Oi loikes’.
The play then has a series of locals, a series of people who are the insiders and yet are also distinct social groups that are in conflict with each other. We understand and expect this conflict to break out, and that the play will be an examination of this, but – adhering to Jellicoe’s proposition that the villain needs to be an outsider, presumably to assuage the representation of conflict from within a community – another outsider is now to appear; this time with much more devastating consequences.
This outsider is called The Stranger and he makes his entrance once the positions around the issue of the enclosure of the Holland Fen have crystalised. There is opposition from the genteel liberal character Mrs Wyche; there is opposition from the radical Robert Chapman; there is opposition from the toft holders who do not appear to be having any say in what is taking place; there is opposition from the slodgers; there is opposition from the butchers and graziers who have been informed by the Corporation that they will now need a permit to trade in the market. Trouble appears to be brewing.
The Stranger approaches William Smith. He has managed to get hold of Smith’s mortgages and offers him a hundred gold sovereigns if he will help him: ‘there’s goin’ to be trouble, Mr Smith – Enclosure trouble – we see it before, we’ll see it again; it draws trouble-makers like your friends’. Smith is unsure of what to do, but obviously needs the money. He then witnesses a group of men (the Bankers – not those who work in the financial sector, but on the digging of drains) take over a meat stall in the Market in protest at their high prices, much to the delight of the locals. This leads him to suggest to one of Chapman’s colleagues that it appears easy to stir the rabble; that ‘a promise of heaven and they’ll go anywhere’; and that maybe a meeting should be held when the Enclosure Commissioners gather, with Robert Chapman as the main speaker.
At the meeting Norris Loynham declares that it’s the Act of Parliament that needs to be defeated, not through parliamentary action but by actually destroying the paper on which it is written – ‘The Act. That’s the evil thing. If we destroy that, then we destroy all their claims’. The first act ends as the mob, roused into action and ready to attack Boston, goes to the house of Edward Draper, the clerk to the commissioners. As the act is handed over and torn to pieces Chapman proclaims that ‘Holland Fen shall never be enclosed or divided’ and the crowd disperse singing ‘Thus the Act has fallen, has fallen, has fallen / Thus the Act has fallen to rise no more!!’ The Stranger, it appears, has been able to act as a reagent, enticing William Smith to act as an agent provocateur and to stir rebellion – but for what end?
The second act begins with the forces of authority now staking their positions. The landowner, John Yerburgh, is adamant that the mob must be faced down; whilst Fydell, a Justice of the Peace, hopes that passions will subside before there is any need for action to be taken. But when a game of football is played on the fen, an action which has precipitated riots elsewhere, the local MP Sir John Cust suggests that examples need to be made of the ringleaders, even if men are to be hanged.
It is time for The Stranger to appear again. The Bankers who took over the meat stall are now being refused a drink in a public house because they cannot pay. They protest that this is because they can’t work the navigation because of the rioters. Urged on by The Stranger, and not withstanding arguments within their ranks, they start to smash up the inn and to burn it down; for which they are arrested. Once again the violence that is taking place has been stirred up by the outsider.
Yerburgh the landowner now offers the Bankers freedom if they will help capture the ringleaders of the mob, which they agree to do; but when they confront the slodgers, who have now armed themselves, they back down. The situation escalates. Charles Pelham has told all of his tenants that they must go to Boston to declare their support for Enclosure or they will be thrown off of the lands. The slodgers are recruiting more men and gathering more weapons. The Reverend Calthorp is adamant of the need to ‘Transport the blackguards – give every man jack of them a taste of the whip – we need the army’. Two hundred soldiers are sent to the town to confront the six hundred rioters who are extorting ‘money, meat and drink from the inhabitants of towns in the Fens’, as well as acquiring two hundred guns and other arms.
The night before the army arrives Robert Chapman, the radical, is given a letter in which it is stated that he should head to London because that is where the main work for the revolution must be done and that William Smith is to become the leader of the local action as ‘Loinham doesn’t know what to do next. Smith must take command and begin the revolution here’. Before the letter is passed on to Smith, The Stranger confronts him once again. ‘Who are you? Where do you come from?’ Smith asks, receiving no reply to his question, only the orders that as the soldiers on their way it is imperative that ‘the rioters must act now’. Smith replies that he has done enough already for the money he has been promised; but the Stranger insists that he stir the mob into action before he ‘MOVES OFF QUICKLY INTO THE SHADOWS’.
Chapman enters and gives Smith the letter that states that ‘This Act concerning the closing of Holland Fen is one of the most tyrannic and oppressive ever was made in the British Nation since the Norman Conquest’. Smith is aware that the letter, through asking him to seize arms and form an army, is a seditious act punishable by death and rushes off to show it to the magistrates and to try and save himself.
Smith hands the letter to Fydell, a Justice of the Peace, telling him that he received it from Robert Chapman. Smith is escorted off as ‘STEPPING OUT OF THE SHADOWS IS THE STRANGER’. Smith is brought before the authority figures – Fydell, Calthorp and Cust – and as he reveals the names of the ringleaders the men are pulled out of the crowd. THE STRANGER appears again:
SMITH: I need that money, and I need your word to the magistrates.
STRANGER: I don’t deal with magistrates.
SMITH: You work for them.
STRANGER: I am a stranger in these parts, friend – I merely pass through.
This is the final time that we see The Stranger as the play now moves towards its climactic ending. Yerburgh, the landowner, tells the crowd that ‘Today the Enclosure Commissioners meet for the last time’ and that with the ‘rabble’ having been arrested ‘Within a month the first fences will be put up’. The trial of the men whom Smith has given up is to take place, but ‘FROM THE SHADOWS SOME OF THE CROWD EMERGE WITH SCYTHES’ and the ‘RINGLEADERS ARE FREED OF THEIR CHAINS’. Smith appears to be a changed man, exhorting the crowd to continue the fight as Norris Loynham declares ‘We’m beaten. Oh yes, we can knock their fences down, but they’ll only build them again’. In a rousing finale the cast sing ‘But the gentry must come down / Stand up now, stand up, stand up now / And the poor shall wear the crown’ as William Smith is given the final words of the play – ‘There will be no surrender’.
So who was The Stranger, the outside force who seems able to stir the blood, to quicken the action, and to bring the combustive elements that exist within the community together so that there is both a riot and also the capture of the ringleaders of this riot (even if they are released at the end by the crowd)? Is this character an agent of the State, helping to bring simmering feelings of discontent to the surface so that the opposition can be violently crushed by the soldiers (which for most of the play he appears to be)? Or is he some kind of revolutionary, genuinely hoping to stir revolt within this community before stirring up similar action elsewhere?
Perhaps it does not matter. Perhaps what is more important is the fact that The Stranger seems to personify the outside forces that are bearing down on the community; outside forces which will reshape shape the community through convulsive acts that are inherently bound to cause conflict. The Stranger is a character that cannot be understood, someone who appears to come from nowhere, just as the forces that are confronting the community cannot be clearly understood. In this play these forces are seen as destructive, as reshaping the landscape from a common ownership (of sorts) to a more private one, with all the ramifications that are to follow. The Stranger is the destroyer of community. Even if the community has its own forces within it that are ready to tear it apart, it has taken this figure to bring them into play.
Spafford’s play ‘The Dreaming Pond’ is, as the title suggests, a kind of dream play; a ghost story that will largely tell a story from the seventeenth century but which will emerge from another historical period. In this play the role of the outsider is much more central to the action of the play, and is the main force from which all of the other action revolves.
The play begins on New Year’s Eve 1929 at Moors Pond; villagers are skating, music is playing and ‘THE BELLS OF UPTON CHURCH CHIME A BRISK TWELVE THEN A LONG PEAL’. As the villages leave they notice a figure standing and shivering by the pond. This is the young (aged eight) Jimmy Smith who is encouraged to go home but refuses, apparently because:
GERT WILSON: He’s in a dream.
JEM WILSON: Always in a dream, that Jim.
From here we move to the present day, and a couple of ‘reminiscers’ who offer yet another time frame within the play. They tell us that Jimmy died of pneumonia and then begin to talk of Tyson, ‘A HEAVY, BEARDED MAN OF ABOUT 70’, who is described variously as ‘a village-carrier / Bell-ringer / Pig-killer / Grave-digger / And see-er’.
As the bell starts to toll again we are told of how, on St. Marks Eve, Tyson could stand in the church and watch the spirits move. ‘That every year on the eve of April 25th, the spirits of all those in the villages of Upton and Kexby to quit this life that coming year would, on the clap of midnight, enter the church and walk’.
We move back to the pond and Jim who is standing there as ‘THE SOUND OF THE WIND IS THE SOUND OF BREATHING, LIKE A HUNDRED PEOPLE BREATHING IN & OUT IN UNISON, THE LUNGS OF AN ENTIRE COMMUNTY OF PEOPLE LIVING & DEAD. VOICES CALL OUT TO JIM’. And Tyson tells us: ‘this is a deep place, deep like the pond. And as in the graveyard where the bodies of our Upton & Kexby ancestors stash down thick, thick through the ground, so in the air their stories linger, thick, thick – pain & joy, laughter & pain – writ, not in books, but in the mist, in the barks of trees, in the pondweed’.
It’s a slow and fluid introduction to the main story, and an unusual one; which is why I’ve gone through it in some detail. The play’s key character, an outsider, is now to appear, at the opposite side of the pond from Jim; a girl wearing 17th century clothing.
From here on we will return at various stages to the story of Jim and of Tyson, as well as hearing from the reminiscers, but most of the audience’s time is now taken up with story of Anna Blyth; the outsider who will act as a lightning rod for various ideas, desires and conflicts that are to be found in the community. In this way her job is similar to that of The Stranger is The Fens Ablaze, but her function is ultimately a very different one, one that offers much more of a provocation to the audience.
Before we see Anna we have learnt a little more about the villages. A ‘TORRENT OF WHOOPING, SINGING, INSTRUMENT-PLAYING PEOPLE’ appear wearing ‘MASKS AND STRANGE COSTUMES … IT IS PLOUGH MONDAY, JANUARY 1643 …THE KEXBY PLOUGH JAGS HAVE JUST ARRIVED IN UPTON’. But a new vicar has arrived, Henry Dale, a man who the Constable Robert Lilly informs the revellers, is ‘not used to our country sports. He therefore wishes you to forbear from any further feasting today’.
This sets up one of the main conflicts in the play; between the pre-Christian, pagan festivities and cultural practices of the people of the village, and the authority figures who are connected to the newly emerging religious worldview and a developing economic system in which any notions of communal ownership are increasingly under threat. This is a country that is at war, a country riven by competing philosophies. As the Constable, Lilly suggests ‘There’s civil war in the land … Chaos is a garden gone to bad, where The Devil thrives like bindweed. Peace is all we want. Order. Peace’.
Anna now enters the village of Upton; a young woman with a child, a vagrant who emerges out of the dark and is offered shelter and assistance by Ellen Wilkinson; an arrival which will have a devastating impact on the life of the Wilkinson family and which will lead to tragedy for Anna herself.
The attack on the villagers’ way of life continues as Robert Lilly stops the brewing of church ale: ‘First the Plough Jags, now the ales. What next? May feast? Midsummer? Christmas?’ Ellen’s brother, Richard, complains. It appears that Lilly has risen to the position of Constable through selling land, land that may not have been his; land that somewhere in the past he has stolen from the Wilkinsons. Ellen and Richard’s mother is concerned about the arrival of Anna in their Kexby home, for if Lilly is to discover that they are looking after her ‘He’ll have us whipped like the others … Before Lilly we took in strangers like any Christians would … Lilly owns the land we live on. He owns us. Remember that’.
Anna reveals to the Wilkinsons that the father of her child is a volunteer in the Parliamentary army, and lets it be known that she is firmly on the Parliamentary side in the struggle that is taking place. Richard is much taken with Anna, much to the chagrin of Susannah Bighton who is carrying his child and who tells Lilly of Anna’s arrival. Lilly goes to the house, reminds them that no-one is allowed to welcome vagrants, and takes Anna off to be his maid.
As Lilly holds a dinner at this house we learn that the Church Warden, Jacques, is hoping to get his hands on the Wilkinson’s land. Ellen comes to collect Anna to take part in another ritual, one that has yet to be denied the villagers, where ‘the village maids spend the night in the fields gathering blooms which they carry back at dawn for their pole … they smother their faces in dew’. The sexual connotations of the tradition are clear and it is obvious that Lilly has also become smitten by Anna.
Richard is in the meadow and wants Anna to stay with him for the night. ‘You’re a fool because you want me’, she replies; ‘You’re a fool because you can’t beat Lilly. And you’re a fool because, when your bellies are hard and small as stones, all you want’s to dance round a stick’. Anna may be someone who is opposing the authority figures with whom she has been forced to live against her will, but she is also attacking the customs of those villagers who she can see are being outwitted by those with power.
The Kings Men take Gainsborough and enter Kexby. They have a list that Lilly has given them of three men to take as soldiers, one of whom is Richard Wilkinson. Why has Lilly done this? Is it because of his fascination with Anna, his plan to acquire land from the Wilkinson family for Jacques, or both? Whatever the reason, as the Kings soldiers take Richard and assault one of the locals, the villagers now turn to Anna, wondering if her support for the opposing forces and her opinions should be listened to.
Anna becomes locked up at Lilly’s, who tells her that if she leaves he will ‘take a vengeance’. But leave she does, back to the Wilkinsons. As a result Lilly throws the Wilkinsons off of their land and sells it to the Church Warden, which only stirs the villagers resentment further. As Susannah Bighton says, certain that if it wasn’t for Anna that Richard Wilkinson would be by her side, ‘So they’re all with her now, pawing her sleeve like lepers stroking the King … The whole pace is glowing like angry embers. Soon it will burst out’.
And now another stranger arrives. A man with a football who is a friend of Anna’s and who tells the villagers of the riots that are happening in the fen in response to the King and the Dutch trying to ‘drain and carve it up for the lords … Every year the great men slash another strip from the common … lining their own britches’. As the villagers become more interested in what he has to say he tells them that ‘Friends, these are great times. The world’s on fire. It’s upside down! Now is the time for miracles. For what is yours is yours’ and then leaves.
A few days later more troops enter the village, this time the Parliamentarian forces who have now taken the Kings garrison at Gainsborough and who have a prisoner with them, Richard Wilkinson. They ask for provisions and shelter and are sent to Robert Lilly’s where Robert is kept in Lilly’s cellar. As the troops begin to take a heavy toll on the village, as well as desecrating the church, a woman comes to the Wilkinsons (who still appear to have their house even if they have lost their land) to give Anna a ‘message’ from Richard; ‘One dried bloom, picked on the eve of May’. Dorothy, Richard’s mother, asks Anna to go to Lilly’s to beg for her son’s release.
We are now near the end of the play. ‘WE HEAR A HOLLOW DRUM LIKE THE START OF A RITUAL. THEN THE WHISPERS BEGIN FROM ALL ROUND: ‘ANNA BLYTH. ANNA, ANNA BLYTH’. THE AUDIENCE SHOULD FEEL ENCLOSED BY THE WHISPERING’. The villagers are protesting about the losses they have suffered at the hands of the soldiers. Lilly is jeered and cajoled, but as he is accused of sheltering these men he deflects the villagers’ accusations. It is not the soldiers who have destroyed ‘the great new fences on the land’, but others. The villagers admit to this act of sabotage, but only because ‘The fenman agged us on’; and looking to find someone to blame they turn on Anna, for ‘he was her friend’.
The floodgates now open as Anna is accused by everyone of being the devil and of having power over them all. She has taken Richard away from Susannah; she has supported the Parliamentarians who have brought such pain to the village; she has helped in some way to stir them to acts of destruction; she has caused chaos between Lilly and the Wilkinsons.
As Ellen Wilkinson turns to ask Robert Dale, the vicar, ‘Where is God?’ he turns away from her leaving Anna to reply:
‘It’s allright, Elly. I’m not Anna Blyth. In their hearts I’m the stranger again. The stranger comes, the stranger goes. I am no one, a blank. They can make of me whatever they want’.
The crowd envelop Anna and duck her in the pond, Moors Pond, until she dies.
In Spafford’s play then, the outsider is the moral centre of the community in which she finds herself in, and a device to allow that community to show its frailties. As Anna states in her final words she is a blank, an empty vessel in which all of the uncertainties and confusions that the community is feeling in this changing world can be placed. This seems at odds with Jellicoe’s vision of the villain from out of town, for in this situation the outsider’s role is to shame the community. ‘Here is an outsider’, the play seems to be saying, ‘who this community have blamed for the troubles which they face, troubles which have been caused by other forces – forces which she herself is a victim of and forces which she has no control over’. This is a figure which allows the community to excuse itself from its own behaviour; the outsider is the one who can be blamed. But where does such short sightedness lead? What happens to a community when it is unable or unwilling to look into itself? When it is unwilling to understand itself and to see the violence and conflict which exists at its very heart?
In ‘The Dreaming Pond’ the outsider is ultimately murdered by everyone in the community, as they rally round to expunge this external force. It is Anna, the outsider who stands for the truth, whilst the community becomes the villain.