The Triumph of Death

 

 

 

'Here's a world... and there's a world...' The tribal matriarch Mother Heniot shows her grand-daughter Jehan that there is another world, outside their forest universe. Freda Dowie as Mother Heniot, Veronica Roberts as Jehan: Birmingham Repertory Theatre Studio, 1981.

On the first night, Veronica Roberts wrote me a note that I particularly cherish: 'I have never been so frightened in my life, and I wouldn't for all the world be anywhere else.'

Play published by Methuen, 1981; ISBN 0 413 49110 2.

 

This black old beast of a play begins in a nightmare vision of the early 13th century, with language that obscurely sounds deranged, and bloated images, as in a delirium. A monstrous Pope, defecating on his throne, summons the children of Europe to a Crusade against the Saracens, whom he diabolizes as satanic giants befouling Jerusalem. Almost none of the children return: one small group who do, within sight of home suddenly repudiate the 'Cross-tian' culture they had left, and retreat into the uncharted forest to live as 'savages' there. (The word itself, in its original Latin form silvatici, means 'people of the forest'.) From these, descend an anarchistic tribe of pagans, to whom the forest is the universe, and who know nothing of a world outside. The Pope, in an obscene dream, has a troubling vision of this tribe's existence, and sends the Inquisition to hunt them down. But the interrogations are conducted in the language of modern normative socio-psychotherapy. The element of anachronism in the play, that seemed capricious (or downright mistaken) till now, is becoming visibly purposive. We see onstage one character become a 'Joan' tried and burnt at the stake, another a 'Gilles de Rais' terrorizing the landscape and raping children; a third becomes a 'Luther' suddenly de-constipated and in his joy proclaiming a Reformation. But this shifting mediaeval delirium we think we're seeing, and feel (with intellectual self-satisfaction) we have left so far behind, is sharpening into focus as an image of the delirium of our 'rational' age as well.

 

Written 1976 to a commission from Birmingham Repertory Theatre. First staged there, 1981. No professional production since. Not (I acknowledge) a title to pull in the crowds, but what else could this play be called? - a play that (again I acknowledge) makes an audience work very hard. In the current post-9/11 worldwide dementia of Crusade and Holy War, this 'black old beast' looks frighteningly topical.

 

11 m. 7 f. - including doublings (which are thematic).