An Excursus Into The Cartograpia . . .

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I’ve been delaying writing another update on this as I have been keen to see how the launch of The Nowhere Legion progresses on Amazon. Unlike Smashwords, where sheer volume often seems to overwhelm new launches in an indiscriminate way, sales here seem much better in terms of receiving reviews and downloads. This has been a pleasing change. My initial strategy at Smashwords had been to launch each Section of The Nowhere Legion to drive interest and also move that interest over to the plays I have there. This never really happened. Sales were and are sluggish. Interest faded over time despite the launch of the subsequent Sections and no knock-on effect could be seen regarding the plays.

Amazon on the other hand has been much more interesting since I launched the novel about 6 weeks ago. I am seeing a definite split between the UK sales and the USA sales with the former far out-stripping the latter. I have no idea why this is so but another (very successful) Roman fiction author on Amazon has suggested to me that the Late Roman period is just not that familiar for readers in the States and that may be putting them off downloading and reading the novel. I hope this is not true – if it is, then I fear that market may never open up for me and that is shame. I wonder however if it is more to do with reviews? I have so far gained five 5-star reviews in the UK but only one in the States. If perhaps reviews pick up over there, I may see downloads pick up as a result. Time only will tell!

I am also opening up publicity moves today: the first is the publication of The Navigatio – a 10,000 word short-story, again set in the Late Roman period. It will be enroled in the kindle lending program so potential readers can download it for free on certain days. I hope this will allow them to get a feel for both my writing and the themes I am developing here. That may help readers in the States look into The Nowhere Legion. The other move is to now include at the end of that novel the opening Prologue and part of the first Chapter of the work I am currently writing: Hadrianople: The Fall of the Eagles. This is a more ambitious work than The Nowhere Legion and covers the events which led up to the fatal battle of Adrianople in 378 AD in which  the emperor Valens fell along with two thirds of the eastern Roman field army. It is a much bigger work and covers a larger geographical area than The Nowhere Legion. I am about 10% into it at the moment and plan to finish it late in 2013. By now including it at the back of The Nowhere Legion, readers will become aware of my next work and will hopefully look forward to it! This will allow them to invest in my writings and help build an audience for when it is published on Amazon. The difference between my writings and much of the other Roman fiction here on Amazon is that the latter are often serialised novels revolving around the same central character. I lack that hook and drive and need to show readers what work is coming up to keep them interested in me, I think!

I have been very happy so far with the response to The Nowhere Legion – and a little taken aback, it must be said! Over the last 2 weeks or so, I have seen about 150 downloads and might expect in about 2 weeks’ time (once the novel is finished) reviews begining to appear – however, one online forum suggested that you should expect 1 review for every 150 downloads so maybe I am being a little optimistic here . . .

Research for Hadrianople proceeds apace. I am deep into Blemmye and Aksum history and culture at the moment and fleshing out the details of Book One of the novel. These events are mired in religous and military conflict and pick up on many of the themes openend up in The Nowhere Legion.

However a particular dillemma is raising its head here: the events in The Nowhere Legion take place in 365 AD whereas Hadrianople covers 378 AD – and part of me as a writer is keen to place some of the characters in the first novel as supporting characters in the second. A sort of weaving together a consistent historical fabric. But I wonder if it will come across as too contrived however? Time will tell!

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In What Flesh Do Skins Inhabit?

The Nowhere Legion

It has been a long time since I have updated this blog and my only feeble excuse is a job in which the shift patterns were brutal and the embarkation on a long writing project which left me little time to devote to this. I know – it is not much of an excuse. In the year in which this blog has been silent, I have finished ‘The Day After Yesterday’, written ‘Ithaka’ and now finished ‘The Nowhere Legion‘. The good news is that ‘The Day After Yesterday’ is now in early rehearsals with Theatre Found and may see production in late November or early December. ‘Ithaka’ also was staged as part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Five Minute Theatre Festival last year – which means I am now an officially produced playwright!

While I had been labouring with ‘The Day After Yesterday’. I had been starting up and chipping away at a Late Roman novel entitled ‘The Nowhere Legion’. This was launched as a weekly or so serialised story over on the Rome Total War mod site, TWC, under that rubric of an AAR. Just to explain, a traditional AAR is where the player of a RTW campaign game writes up short narrative excerpts which detail the style of play or the events inside the campaign world. The writing usually focuses on things like which army moved where, or what spy killed which general, or what enemy force invaded such and such territory, and so on. The AAR is a sort of diary of how the player runs the game on a fictional level. Now I have been writing these AARs for a couple of years now and exploring the medium as a writing genre in its own right. I soon moved out of the constraints of the format and used the gaming convention instead to illstrate my story. In other words, I reversed the dynamic. In my AARs you would read about a story and the ‘ingame’ shots were done in Custom Mode which allowed me effectively to use the RTW game as an illustrating tool. I soon found an audience for this style of writing and so with the launch of The Nowhere Legion, I was building up a weekly readership within the AAR community while at the same time encouraging that readership to give me feedback on the story itself.

A video of part of the climactic battle can be seen here!

It is rare in any writing medium for a writer to receive feedback and support in the writing process itself – and so I was especially grateful to those AAR readers who critiqued the work and also encouraged me in my attmpts to self-publish the work.

In a curious move from the playwriting, I have now dipped deep into the self-publishing world both at Amazon where the novel is now launched for the kindle and over at Smashwords where I have also serialised the first 4 parts of The Nowhere Legion and also published both my plays and a sort of manifesto to them!

What I will be doing over the following weeks is seeing how viable the whole self-publishing move is with the novel as that will allow me to see where I develop my next work – ‘Hadrianople’: a novel climaxing in the brutal battle in Thrace which saw the eastern Roman army and its emperor annihilated.

At the moment, the novel has been out on Amazon for a week and garnered 2 five-star reviews. I am giving myself a 3 month window here to see how it develops along with what kind of marketing strategies I need to drive it. This is a new world for me so it will be interesting to see what I can learn here!

I have emerged after a long silence and will blog in more detail later – but for now I really only wanted to kick-start this again as a way of framing the launch of the novel!

The Dissident Landing

It is fairly obvious I have spent too much time in an Eastern European theatre world – there are no surprises for guessing that! Throughout a key period, I was either reading and studying Polish and Romanian theatre or spending time there immersing myself in the theatres of Kantor and Grotowski; Serban and Purcarete; the plays of Witkacy, Sorescu, Grombowicz, Mrozek, and others, or just wandering around old theatre spaces and seeing old posters on the dressing room or barroom walls. That world, that legacy, of a martyred theatre, a wracked body, cast out by the State, is indelibly printed in me now. So it is no surprise also that the plays I am drawn to here back in Britain and the dramas I find stumbling off my pen are also in some ways echoes and reflections of a theatre aesthetic rooted in a broader European view – a view which is never anchored in the domestic, the familiar, the naive. These theatre worlds are half way between the surreal imaginations of a child hiding under a bed in the dark and the light of a prison cell in all its chromatic  nakedness. It is a theatre world not afraid of a deep intellectual examination, a rigour, if you will, of a world which perhaps only ever occupies the space of a single mind – the author’s mind. There is a fierceness in these writings and stagings which demands an equal commitment from an audience who are there to witness almost as a privilege these odd gambols. Drama is perhaps elevated to the level of philosophy – and indeed all early philosophy was dramatised dialogue – and is not afraid to wear those clothes as a challenge and even a disdain.

These thoughts drift around in me now. I am roughing out a new play on the page – the ideas are tumbling out and again I seem to be writing a stage world unconnected to any expected diegesis. There is a lost shore cluttered with the detritus of a forgotten civilization. Characters wander knowingly through this obscene wreckage – an old woman in a shawl attempts to remember her past, the lover whose passion matched hers, marking the spot where they consummated an heroic love, forgetting the details, swearing like a trooper, finally realising how he was butchered and burnt on the same spot even as an old telephone rings and rings; a beggar pushes a pram through the wreckage as crowds hurry past, uncaring, while he exhorts them all to stop and pause, to gaze upon the innocent face of his child in the pram, and when finally a gentleman does step out from the endless crowds to gaze upon that unmarked face in the pram, this beggar exacts a brutal price for such a pleasure; a woman drifts apart from another and then haunts her even as the other moves on into the arms of a lost lover, drifting into her bed in the night when she is absent; a writer unravels his words in the vain hope of erasing his stories and the characters in them who have now tumbled out into the world; and so on . . . This play, The Day After Yesterday, is still in a rough form but I have the smell of it – the shape and taste as it were of it. I can see this shore, that wreckage which populates it, and half-see the odd characters who stumble and push their way in it. I know the beggar with the pram and that innocent child in it will recur again and again in the scenes – colliding with the other characters but do not yet know why – or indeed the horrible significance of that child and its face. I know that each character has lived before in the pens of other writers now long since dead – Homer, Seneca, Sophocles, for example, but that now they live in a world which has long since forgotten them and their fates so now they are refugees of sorts, searching, struggling, killing, to make a new existence, a new fate now all their own. I know that underneath the little scenes which collide against eachother, that sea in the distance mourns with an elegiac tone and that brittle light falls on them all alone on that lost shore. And finally I know that only in the theatre can this world, these characters, find a truthful place. The rest is still to be found.

I read recently a short description for a new play. It went something like this: Bob has been away from his family for some time. They have forgotten him.  A tragic event has made him finally return. One long night sees Bob and his family uncover a dark truth which has explosive consequences for all concerned. I am lying of course. There is no such new play arriving at a stage soon – or to be more accurate perhaps that description in some way sums up most new plays in some form or another. It is a generic drama – it promises a gripping story, a familiar environment, a twist, possible violence, and of course some swearing. Incest will no doubt rear its head – or at least the hint of it – and no doubt also the young innocent in the family herd will inevitably end up either being maimed or indeed do the maiming. Whether it is a comedy or a tragedy remains to be seen. OK, I am being flippant. Of course I am. That story or description is indeed a powerful one and one which does – in one form or another – occupy so much theatre in Britain today. It is the domestic reared up to the level of ‘tragedy’. It is Ibsen in the end in a t-shirt and jeans.

No matter how tough or rigorous the writing of that story, though, or the inventiveness of the staging, the power of the actors, and so on, it remains at the end of the day a story rooted in the familiar. We – the audience – identify with the setting either on a personal level or at the least on a generic level. It touches us as a place we can anchor ourselves in and therefore allows us to empathise with the characters. The world itself springs no surprises – only the actions of the characters in it.

I wish I could write in that genre. I really do. My flippancy above is only really barely disguised jealousy. However, all those years spent abroad in Poland and Romania deep in those theatre cultures have left me an orphan from that theatre. I imagine a strange poetic space adrift with lost characters and can only imagine the stage as the ideal and only locale for their expression – I imagine a domestic ‘tragedy’ and need only knock on the nearest door to find it. Perhaps that makes me an orphan from theatre here. A vagabond even. Perhaps I find kinship with these lost characters because on a deep symbolic level they are acting out my own exile. I am being glib though. What I really believe is that somewhere in theatre is a place where a strange poetic space can collide with a rigorous almost fierce debate (a place where a beggar pleas for someone – anyone – to look into his old pram and gaze upon the unspoilt face of his child) and open up a new horizon. A horizon both beautiful and unknown.

If anything, the most powerful experience for me in theatre is always that moment when the curtain rises or the first lights open to reveal . . . In that moment of hanging suspension when anything can happen, I find myself always holding my breath – almost willing a new universe into being. I am almost always disappointed but no matter what comes next on the stage it is almost always worth it just for the first moment when my breath pauses and I almost see that lost shore and that wreckage of a play that has not yet had the courage to come into being . . .

Did I mention I had read too many Eastern European plays??

Reflections and Whispers

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It is the old envelopment of skin and word which  haunts the theatre – that moment in which both coalesce into a seemingly irreducible whole but which is also and always a void; a break; a schism. The veil we raise up and reach out to is nothing but a treacherous surface which glimmers even as we  touch it  – and even pull away some of that silver onto our own skin. We know deep in our hearts it is false and yet in such falsity perhaps only the most important truths may stand. It is a veil in which and through which the body stands whole deep in the words which are spun about it. Out there stands a completeness we will always lack and yearn for.

I write long speeches and creates dialogues in which characters debate unrealistically – lost in a world which perhaps only ever reflects back upon itself – and yet it is the skin which stands as a testament to those words. The body emerges like the surface of a subterranean creature from a sea, its flank glistening with words, sloughing off language. We all know – those of us who work in theatre – that the body itself is a treacherous surface however. It is a thing to be broken apart, probed, delved into so that the mind underneath can be exposed; it is a reflection upon which we pour our own desires regardless of what or who owns that body; it is an empty space, finally, also, mapped out, written on, erased – all in the same moment of watching – listening – which is the prime moment of the theatrical act. We watch and listen and out of that duality, that oscillating desire, stands the body as a site which is fought over.

It is this tension and this primeval moment which – truth be told – underpins much of the characters I write. Their echoed thoughts and self-serving actions perhaps are enmeshed in this net – almost as if each character is already aware of her or his falsity in that distant historical world I always place them in. They argue with a fierce modernity while stumbling around cracked columns or decaying frescoes filled with mythic heroes. They murder and mutilate other bodies aware that to do so is not an act of violence but rather an artistic gesture – an aesthetic act – divorced from real pain or consequences. I remember writing a line for a character which went as follows: ‘Horror is an aesthetic and through repetition becomes banal.’ This character is already preparing himself and those about him for an act of violation which involves the unseaming of his own skin to reveal the words written on the underside.

It was the Greeks who first realised the fascination of horror – not in the act itself but rather in its retelling and its consequences, its impact on those bodies around them. Bodies which were both personal and political – and in fact to be honest perhaps blurred that boundary or distinction. Tragedy is the first and the last redoubt of the body. It is broken or mutilated by the solitary act and therefore stands before those other bodies as a testament to our own fragility and provisionality.  It is in our mirrored eyes, our trembling bodies, that tragedy roots. Not in the act itself. We shiver before the blind Oedipus both as individuals and as parts of a corporeal polity – and are rendered fascinated and appalled by a single act which shrives us all apart.

Tragedy shreds the body. It renders each skin broken apart. It elevates a single moment onto a cosmic stage and therefore allows us a greater vision and existence than that mundane world we inhabit this side of the stage. And as always tragedy is rooted in the family – Lear and his daughters, Phaedra and her adopted son, Orestes and his mother, and so on – these are all bodies wired into, sown up in, a broader political world which shatters from the impact of that solitary decision. Tragedy can only ever be the echoing or reflecting impact of an action which breaks the skin – never that breaking itself. It is in that moment when the personal soma (that Greek word which means ‘prison’) cracks asunder into the wider somatic screen of the chorus and the audience. It ripples out there. Or it is nothing more than domestic violence wrapped up in a newspaper headline.

But the body politic no longer exists, some would say. That cohesion which the Greeks understood is now a thing of the past. Taboos, moral strictures, are all broken now and we live in a fractured world. Each audience finds unity no longer in itself as a reflection of a wider polity but instead as a temporary whole in that moment of the event itself – it coheres provisionally around the staging it has come to see. Tragedy therefore no longer exists in the manner in which the Greeks understood it. Violence whether onstage or off echoes around and into the auditorium but no longer as a collective ripple. Each of us reacts differently now and there is no longer the guarantee of a collective response. That does not however invalidate tragedy as an aesthetic. Or at least I hope it does not. Tragedy exists among us as a commonplace now in the tabloid culture but it is not the tragedy of old. It is merely accident or violence dressed up in borrowed clothes. Tragedy today is a beggar who jigs and jibbers but does not truly understand what words trail him.

Tragedy is an act which breaks the skin and liberates bodies – I cannot stress the plural enough here. When we read of a car accident and are told it is tragic I hear the beggar mouthing words, when I see a wave crash into a shore full of people and hear a commentator describe it as tragic, I see the gambols of a fool, when a friend tells me that so and so has lost his partner and how tragic that is, I wonder not on his pain but on how common and everyday that is. These tragedies break no skin because they were and never will be rooted in a deeper metaphysical core. Tragedy is an aesthetic not a real thing. It does not exist out there. It is purely and inevitably a fundamental theatrical act – a body breaking apart as the first act in a ripple of bodies shivering asunder. It is that first split in the mirror onstage which allows us to glimpse another skin in ourselves. It is pain and blood but only ever painted blood and simulated pain – which is perhaps why the Greeks in their wisdom never bothered to show the actual act itself – almost as if to do so would be so very tiresome and distracting.

Recently I saw two interesting pieces of theatre at the Arches – both were thematically linked around the issue of domestic abuse. It struck me that perhaps so much of the modern stage now is dominated with this sort of investigation and that in some way this is our Greek moira; that our family pain and tragedy is now rooted in the broken and dysfunctional home, the domestic space which always harbours dark and forbidden fruit.  Perhaps in my own writing, I have avoided that mirror and moved in quite the opposite direction – to a more abstracted realm where myth and history collide around willed bodies. If so, I wonder that I follow tragedy through the shards of our modern world into a purer realm. For to be honest, it only takes a single moment in watching a domestic ‘tragedy’ onstage to realise that it never happened to me and therefore has no value. Whereas in that space outside the specific, what we see happen to those characters may happen to all of us as a potential. The plays at the Arches were inert plays simply because they acted within themselves. Nothing more.

Tragedy is never so inward looking – unless of course it is another Oedipus achieving a moment of insight . . .

Shards and Fragments

I am always amused by the phrase which can emerge sometimes in readers’ reviews of plays – ‘judicious editing’ or some variant along those lines. It raises the issue of what cuts and where? How is that impression arrived at? And so on. I think what lies behind these comments is the larger concept that drama as a written medium exists primarily in the spoken domain – and that domain has rules and structures which outweigh and overrule the written. The key one for example being that character, action and narrative exist within a certain tension which must be finely balanced or judged – that too many words which do not serve a dramatic purpose are thus seen as superfluous. This is often vindicated in rehearsals where some lines simply do not work and hold up the action or the story – and so on. These are the lines which will be then ‘judiciously cut’. This is an aesthetic in which language – words – remain as a tool to illustrate character and story – that in some ways, words themselves are supportive to larger aesthetics.

There is an odd irony in all of this, though. The theatre is the last public domain in which an audience assembles to hear the word clothed in flesh; in skin. That the body is incarnated through words – be they poetic, political, subjective or abstract. It is the pleasure on an almost primeval level to that most profound act – of listening to the body speak out there. We assemble to imagine and experience the world of another and it is through language that we peer into that realm.

It is – for me anyway – a pleasure above or beyond those issues bound up with story or character – and that particular bugbear of contemporary theatre – action.

Words, language, a spinning of ideas vocalised into a new subjectivity, that sublime experience of seeing words manifest – these are the pleasures of theatre. In my world anyway. I remember writing a short scene in which a Senator finds himself in a room full of silent, cloaked, figures – he is there to hire them as assassins but is unsure of their skill. He talks too much. They remain silent. He pours out his plan. They demonstrate their skill on him with a mock kill. Always remaining silent. Eventually, this Senator is suitably impressed and hires them. However, he of course is their unknowing victim and is killed a second time but for real. Virtually the entire scene is just this Senator’s monologue to the assembled cloaked figures (who are also masked) as he struggles both with his own conviction to hire them to kill another Senator and his need to convince himself that they are as good as he has been told. In one moment, he says -

My enemy will feel such fear and see it also as did I – and yet, perhaps, such a death is too much? Can revenge have limits, I wonder? Perhaps his transgression, now so long ago it has lost its imprimatur, was not so abominable after all? There is the matter of decorum it must be said. This death is a cosmic death and perhaps exceeds the style permitted to those who feud?

What struck me when I re-read the scene with a view to editing was the word ‘imprimatur’ – as a writer it flowed from the pen both as exactly what this self-obsessed character would say and also as a wonderful word in its own sound – that the shape, the taste, of it in the mouth was right. Then I wondered whether it was a word suited to the theatre – a live medium unlike the written word where the audience does not have the liberty to re-read something unusual and pleasurable for the sake of it. This word was perhaps a word best left to the page and not the stage. I kept it in, of course, more out of the perverse pleasure of using a word that perhaps has rarely been used on the stage – after all, perhaps that is the real power of theatre – of making us hear words and language we do not normally hear anymore in unusual and unsettling circumstances? What really struck me though was that I was even thinking in those terms at all. In pushing characters into unusual fables and tortures, it should follow that their words, their language also, should twist equally out of the normal.

As readers of plays, I expect we all have that moment of hesitation when we turn a page of a new work over and see that block of text filling the next page – of a monologue which sits heavy, glacial-like, dominating the page without let or relief. Reading that block is like reading a piece of prose with no paragraphs in it – there is a certain unrelieved monotony wherein our ability to visualise stage action freezes – caught in that torrent of words. The reader in us shivers then and is already unconsciously expecting spaces in it that should be cut or edited. And as always in the theatre, if we look to find something, we invariably will.

Yet that monologue, that falling wall of words, is not alone on the page. It has a skin. That skin shimmers with these words as a mirror trembles with reflections. Language is speculative in the purest sense of that word. It is not something which echoes a literary or dramatic style – naturalism for example – or an aesthetic – a stage where character and action order words. Language has its own pleasure and release. Poetic language; words shorn of some naive subservience to a reality which follows conventions; a language which is regarded as perhaps the reason for the very existence of theatre itself.

Words are not necessarily indexes to thought in any psychological sense – which is its own narrative after all – and therefore should not automatically inscribe action as a corollary. That eternal triangle which sits so easily on the stage (character>action>narrative) tips around and around and within it swirls always those tumbling words. But perhaps another form of drama allows those words out and into a space which bends the character into a new emotional and subjective world – a stage in which language leads rather than supports. If one cuts judiciously one is also censoring. That censorship is never just the words, it is always also the body which clothes them. Editing a speech is cutting the body back.

A Tidal Poetics

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I examine reasons why I write and play with notions of the skin, the mirror, the grotesque and so on – but underlying all of this is a deeper concern. A concern which is perhaps selfish beyond raising some sort of justification for it all – not the reasons of how I write; those drives and aesthetics which propel the pen – but that other dynamic, the failure to find out there a play or a drama which satisfies my own need for theatre. I write nothing but what I have failed to find on the stage. I write what I have always wanted to see onstage and never have – that play I hope to encounter every time I go to the theatre and always miss. So in a sense I am doing nothing more than writing for myself in the end.

Selfish, isn’t it? To write like that and expect anyone to want to see it let alone actually stage it . . .

And yet . . . and yet . . . what other way is there of writing? I suppose in the back of all of this is the idea that I never actually think of the audience except as some displaced echo of myself sitting chorus-like in the auditorium. So I write these odd plays – I mean, a drama set in medieval Spain with King Ferdinand as a giant marquee-like tent effigy? – and perhaps all I am really doing is creating a phantasm stage in my head. I remember one critic years ago writing that my work will never be staged but that was not an issue. He wrote that many plays had been written in the past with no intention of any of them finding the stage (the Romantics, for one) and that I was writing only a story in which drama was the ideal writing medium for that story. Perhaps he was right – who knows?

There is an irony in all of this, though, isn’t there? That the more I fail to find on the stage that play I seem to quest for, the more I retreat into a private solipsistic world of writing using that most public of all forms – the Drama. Ironic – or perverse, perhaps. Then again to write for an audience or even to write with an audience in your head is perhaps self-defeating. It breaks that mirror-skin which holds the drama ever so slightly apart from this world. We write in the world we create – turning into it like antennae gliding towards some nebulous sound. We write as though falling towards something – a world, a character, a sense of something deserving of being told. But do we hesitate in that act and pause as if to weigh up what an audience would think as we pen that line or develop that theme or stage that travesty?

A woman stands stubbornly over the corpse of her sister ready to defend it from thieves who would defile it for nothing more than the clothes it is wrapped up in – and yet she hesitates, uncertain to draw that knife she owns, allowing that the corpse at her feet might still be smiling one last smile of contempt for her alone. And so this sister deliberates before these thieves on her dilemma even as they close in. The scene moves through an inexorable logic – it hangs on her dilemma to both defend that corpse and also reveal it, to expose its mockery for her – in this scene the thieves become an audience but also provoke the action. This woman suffers an awareness forced on her by others.

That perhaps is the closest I get to allowing an audience to intrude into the writing – that in fact in much of what I write one might say that in some ways an audience is already inculcated into the work. Characters struggle almost always in front of others who watch or judge. A woman is imprisoned by her sisters and spends her time tearing herself out of all the books she can find – no matter how obscure or old the reference, it is torn out – all the while being attended upon by mute slaves – until one steps forward to comment upon her actions. An architect elaborates upon the perfect Wall before a jury of Senators, all of whom disparage him despite the ineluctable beauty of his logic. And so on.

This is my bind perhaps – that the more I write for myself and spin these grotesque scenes, the more I internalise an audience into the work itself so that these characters can never hide from being exposed or judged or forced to demonstrate their actions.

Perhaps that is the real irony here. In not thinking about an audience, I have inadvertently taken them with me into the diegesis. I have twisted the mirror about and reflected it back upon themselves as a fiction.

The Murmuring Shore

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I remember a few years ago going to the RSAMD to watch a student production of Howard Barker’s The Bite of the Night – it was staged in the Chandler Studio and ran for over 3 hours. There were at least 2 intervals possibly even a 3rd (but I might just be making that last one up to add to the epicness of it all!). The audience stayed for the whole performance and seemed to settle in for the length with a certain degree of enthusiasm. I mention this now because it flies in the face of conventional theatre wisdom – audiences will become restless if made to sit for more than 2 hours without an interval; they should be released around 10.30 at the latest to get the return buses and underground home; a play which starts at 07.30 and finishes after 11.00 will not draw an audience, and so on – and to an extent this is true. It also a self-defeating prophecy, of course. Audiences become habituated to what theatre provides for them.

This audience – myself included – reveled in something else, however. Not the 2nd or even 3rd interval (what a novelty!), not the very late finishing time (after 11.00!), nor even the sense that as an audience we had somehow grown together in the habitual ease of seeing our faces across the playing area (it was staged in the round) like disembodied masks – it was in that strange joy of being allowed to journey with these characters and their torments for longer than we normally were allowed to. I remember walking out of the RSAMD and having to ground myself back in this reality because not only had I been out of it for longer than I was used to in the theatre, I had also spent time with these characters on an almost novelistic level (if only impressionistically).

This was all a few years before I began again to write plays.

That experience has stayed with me in the way Witkacy’s quote has stayed with me (among many other influences). The play itself is a remarkable piece of writing but in a sense it became more than the writing because of the time we journeyed alongside those characters – and that throws up for me a crucial element in my writing now. I am talking about that structural dynamic which underpins playwrighting and which on an almost subconscious level allows us to craft a world and a story already bound in some degree by the conventions of the theatrical apparatus – you all know what I mean: if I write a play with 2 or 3 characters and set it in a small space (a bedroom, a flat, a cell, and so on) it will stand more of a chance of being picked up and staged. The delimitations of this apparatus is not a criticism in itself – indeed it has a self-discipline I am in awe of  to be honest – but there is in this something of a temporal limit also. That the length of the play, the time allowed to these characters, is also part of that apparatus.

A play with only 2 characters and one with only 8 is still woven into that aesthetic in that it generally will have a playing time of less than 2 hours.

Plays which occupy a stage for longer are perhaps deemed old fashioned – even anachronistic, perhaps, as if that length of time allotted to characters is no longer relevant. And yet that night in the RSAMD not only did dozens of characters exist for over 3 hours, we, the audience, accommodated them. I mean, that 3rd interval was almost like having breakfast in a seaside resort at the end of a week.

I think it was that experience which helped me think deeper about character, about delving past conventional psychology, unraveling the surface mannerisms of emotion and action, unpeeling the skin, as it were. It was that depth of time (I know I am mixing synchronic and diachronic here) which unlocked a need in me to write outwith the pale. That meant that these characters of mine were already past that 2 hour or so playing time and still journeying as if only at the begining of their tale. These characters were already played out as it were and only now begining to act.

Hence these strange and grotesque crowds which populate my plays: the torturer who secrets a map inside his face only for a revenger to unpick his stitches while he still lives; a woman who fades into a wardrobe to drown herself in the past; a librarian who defends a burnt-out ruin for no other reason than to resist the advance of history; an architect who walks up an Impossible Staircase only to erase himself out of reality; an archeologist on an alien planet who murders himself  and is condemned to live out the rest of his life on that planet known as Unearth; a Spanish noblewoman who plucks out her own eyes and swallows them even as simulacras of herself  flood about her and replace her; and so on . . .

My mum says I don’t get out much. My friends say I should stay in more.

If that audience is to accommodate a different skin in itself and out there on the stage then I think it can only do that if these characters have already unseamed themselves and are now in the process of stitching on a new map. That is the journey, I think. It is certainly one I seem drawn to as a writer hovering over these blank spaces, these whites skins which have yet to be mapped . . .

The Mirror-Maker

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“The I is first and foremost a bodily I; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself a projection of a surface (ie: the I is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly those springing from the surface of the body.  It may thus be regarded as a mental projection of the surface of the body . . .).

-Freud, The Ego and Id.

 “ . . . we are beings who are looked at, in the spectacle of the world.  That which makes us consciousness, institutes us by the same token as speculum mundi . . .”

 Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis.

I remember reading a manifesto – in the old traditional sense of what a manifesto should be – by Witkacy years ago. Witkacy, that eccentric genius of the Polish arts between the wars – a painter, a playwright, a photographer, a dabbler in drugs; a man who was an imperial officer in the Tzar’s guard regiment and, come the Revolution, was so popular with his soldiers that he was elected their political commissar – a man who eventually committed suicide in a forest while fleeing the Germans only to learn that the Soviets had also invaded Poland -  his fractured photo is the one I use for my gravatar (what ever the hell that word means) here in WordPress – Witkacy, the madman. In this manifesto – On A New Type Of Play – he rails against conventional psychology and action and argues strongly for a theatre of ‘pure form’. A theatre bound only by the internal logic of the play’s structure. It can be read now as one of a series of struggles that theatre was going through in the early twentieth century to break out of the straightjacket of  middle-class bourgeois dramas set within a living room.

What struck me most in the manifesto or essay though and which has stayed with me through all my writing is a little sentence tucked away near the begining:

‘In the theatre we want to be in an entirely new world in which the fantastic psychology of the characters who are completely implausible in real life, not only in their positive actions but also in their errors, and who are perhaps completely unlike people in real life, produces events . . . not limited by any logic accept the logic of the form itself . . . ‘

It is not a deeply profound quote – and to be honest can sum up much absurdist and surrealist drama in general – however, it struck me for the simple fact that Witkacy had highlighted the errors of these characters (his highlight, not mine in the above text). Now I think he is simply expounding that these characters are not necessarily role-models of behaviour; that, as in Greek tragedy, their failings are as important as their good if nonsensical qualities – but as a writer it sparked something deeper; that in creating characters I had the right and duty to push them into the unknown even if I failed in that push – that indeed they stumbled grotesquely and fell as long as that failing was still outside the pale. The error was both in my own writing and also in these characters’ truncated evolution . . .

Well, it was a spark at least which allowed me to imagine failed characters. What do I mean by that?

Theatre is the last medium in which the imagined written word is rendered flesh. It differs from religion and politics in that dreams are allowed to breathe a little; stories are made manifest; language is given new forms all clothed in a little skin – and this is not a private medium, a soft chair which the reader relaxes back into, no, this is a public domain, a crucible, a demotic space where the limen hovers always uncertainly between affirmation and blasphemy. As such, this medium is privileged – for it allows a single writer’s imagination flight into the public spectacle. Again and again – and even, if you are lucky as a playwright, in different productions and different stages. No other writing medium is close to the uniqueness which theatre has.

As such it gives me the right to imagine outside the pale and struggle with stories which are irregular, bound up in fable, nonsensical, absurd, even. Stories which exist to be told in the public domain. Stories which deserve an audience.

If the above quotes mean anything (they preface The Wracked) they illustrate that eternal dilemma between our sense of discreet self and the public gaze which to some extent determines that self. The body, the flesh, our skin, exists as a battleground, a limen, over which and through which we struggle as a private individual and a public body. We are the actor to our own audience in many ways. It is the skin which marks, is scored by, that internal/external struggle.It is not accidental that the Greek word for the body – soma – derives from their word for the prison . . .

Which leads me back to that question about why should I expect an audience for the plays which I write? These solipsistic dreams I conjure up?  Theatre allows a single nightmare to breathe in front of a crowd, yes, but what does that accomplish? Why not write what I call ‘broom-cupboard’ plays? Plays with one or two characters that might as well be set in a closet for all the scope that allows? Because I passionately believe that watching characters stumble and fail outside that pale – characters who inhabit a fable-like world that bruises them in an act of love – is to invite an audience into a world where their skin is endangered. To watch an actor inhabit an unknowable world is to live beyond the pale failingly among others who also are perhaps stumbling along with you. Of course it is a idle fancy – a whim which that damned Witkacy stoked up in me – but I can’t get it out of my head. That the stage alone deserves the most obscure and opaque stories for no other reason than it exists before that most ancient assembly – the crowd, the public, the spectacle – that mirror we all fear and yearn for.

Tomás   (Alone with Sphincter. He shivers in the dark.) - Still crawling?  Can’t help but admire the desire – huh, rhyming now.  Pathetic, this little scene.  Me here, you here.  Always crawling back.  To what?  (Gabriella’s laughter breezes past.)  Hate that.  Her.  Her endless capacity to provoke an indulgence.  In me.  Us . . . But won’t give in – or yield an inch of this Realm, its endless shift, its gently gliding gardens that enfold you like petals, like blossom . . . Will deny this ‘middle man’ situation, Sphincter.  No choice but . . . The compulsion of denial is more erotic than desire, you see?  Desire is the flight into oblivion, the ecstacy of surrender to another’s divinity . . . Which is rather banal, really.  Results in the prostitution of humanity, the exchange of flesh for spirit . . . But denial is the revenge of flesh, its callow laugh in the face of poetry.  Flesh spits back.  And how joyous it is.  Denying the sublime can only exhalt the salt of my body.  My salt.  My flesh – will not yield it up.  Prefer saliva to wine, see?  Keep the edge of my body, its dirt and hair, intact.  To myself, my self . . . So, no more middle men unravelling into the future.  Or the past . . . Tomás de Torquemada, Dominican Prior of the convent of Segovia, at the Court of Ferdinand of Aragon.  Credo.

(Laughter echoes his words in irony.  Tomás, irritated, scoops Sphincter up and turns to face upstage.  Shapes move drunkenly through the Back Cloth – phantoms which mingle with the folds and rents.  Distant banging can be heard, like a staff pounding upon an iron portal.  It is slow and tedious.  The figures drift downstage, dragging bits of the Back Cloth with them as though caught in a net.  Tomás takes a step backwards and raises the taper over his tonsured head.)

The Makar

When I began this writing just over 3 years ago, I dragged out an old piece written over a decade ago and decided to re-write it completely – a sort of re-apprenticeship, if you will. It was a wonderful opportunity to re-learn the craft of writing and also explore who I was now as a writer. Were the same concerns still itching under my skin, I wondered? What did I think now of character, action, narrative, and so on.

The Wracked emerged from that questing as a serious and committed piece of writing which was also a statement about theatre itself. Total theatre. A stage where events were shaped by the pen which allowed no element to escape from its aesthetic. This was a play in which the set design, the puppets (I know!), the story, the costume, the actions were all bound together as part of the plot. It was a pen which attempted to order and own everything on the stage. It was in the last analysis a piece of monumental theatre in the Polish model. The Wracked was a playwright attempting to claim the high ground of theatre – as if nothing else mattered. Without a playwright, it seemed to say, all theatre is nothing but ghosts and echoes.

In a way, I am still playing out the consequences of that re-write.

The play is set in the moment of the death of Tomas De Torquemada and unravels forwards and backwards through his life and through Spain – so this is not a reality, a history, so much as a phantasm; a landscape of the mind. In The Wracked characters are lost in the sands of time – endless wardrobes are filled with predatory shadows; architects are commissioned to build out the Realm; androgynous babies are eaten and re-born into listless characters; Hidalgos run around in black goggles; a story is told of a man adrift in the desert of a map – and finds his own self mapped as a shawl around a faceless stranger; a pale Youth after murdering his distant ancestor flees back into the future; effigies arise out of the blood-red sand and devour naive Courtiers by pulling out scarlet ribbons for entrails; and so on, and on . . .

It has a cast of hundreds. And did I mention the puppets? Giant puppets on stilts?

What the hell was I thinking? Really?

The makar is an old Scots word – a maker, a poet, an artist of sorts. A creator in the first and last analysis. I think the playwright is a peculiar sort of makar – for we work with the skin as well as the word. We pen for actors and an audience – the body public and the body private, both of whom meet in that tremulous divide we call the stage. We are skin makars (I am labouring the conceit, I know!) and that means that in each play are we not also breaking the skin of drama itself? Of theatre? Are we not really unseaming the flesh of what has been staged to reknit anew in a new place?

Perhaps not. But it turns out I am – for better or worse.

I have written several novels in the past – all set in a Late Roman period and all following the attempts of various doomed individuals to save what little of Rome remains. In this prose world, I write with no great surprises – the narrative is conventional, the battles bloody, the speeches lyrical and mostly fatalistic:

I know now that they are tracking me in the shadows as I ride along the frontier of the Danube towards Augusta Vindelicorum. It is three days’ away but it might as well be Rome itself for all the good it does me. The devastation is all around me and without let. The vengeance of the Alemanni for what we did to their villages has come to visit us, Magister. I fear for Raetia Secunda. I fear for Posthumus Dardanus and the legionaries who remain. I fear for all the simple people who live here in this little province so far from the great cities of our empire. I fear also that you will return too late and see only what I have seen since crossing the Danube.

It is night now and my campfire burns low. I know they will rush me in the night like dogs and I will wait for them to come my sword naked across my lap. Do not mourn for me, Allobich. This is how it was always meant to be. I will stand and throw aside my old military cloak and show them what a Roman is. How a Roman dies. Before that however I will end this epistle and place it into the saddlebags of my horse. I will whisper a few words into her ears and then send her on into the night with a shout of triumph. Perhaps she will survive the night and reach the town and who knows you may yet read these words. The last words of Felix, Tribune of men I know now are all dead across the Barbaricum. This night is cold but peaceful. The stars glitter so. I am in awe of their beauty . . .

Or perhaps:

So these men stand upon the walls of an ancient city itself rooted in myth and epic and wonder on the weave of it all; the long strands of fortune and encounter which brought them all from the wide circle of the empire to this last spot only to taste a bitter dry wind and see the emptiness of all their achievements like mere breath upon a glass. For it is only with broken eyes do men finally see the mockery of it all, and the ancient ages which lie beneath the feet so that no matter what we build it rests merely upon dust and shattered bones.

It is the morning of the day after what will forever be known as the Battle of Hadrianople and upon the walls of that city those who survived the massacre now wait and watch as the rising sun out of the east throws into relief nothing more than their advancing doom while from the south and the unseen shores of the Propontis wafts the delicate scents of Constantinople to mock them with a world they will never see again.

The only issue here is one of the quality of the writing – is it capable of doing justice to the emotional demands of the narrative? The characters themselves and their actions are all bound up within a conventional diegesis – albeit a distant Roman one.

But something happens in my head when I write a play and stare abjectly down at the blank page – that whiteness, that skin, draws out another pen; a making of ink into a world where character is unfettered by psychology or conventional action; where that space becomes not a window into a historical perspective but instead a world that has no conventional boundaries. It is almost as if the smaller the space I am writing for, the greater my imagination can fly. I open up a world into Late Roman history and am constrained by its size. I imagine an empty stage and characters emerge from my pen like nightmares from the dark.

That explains my addiction to writing plays – I manifest an imagination I cannot experience in writing prose.

But to put that in front of an audience? To expect an audience to indulge my imagination for its own sake? What am I thinking?!

The Notes and Thoughts Of A Skinmaker.

Here are few thoughts, some ramblings, and perhaps a manifesto or two.

I mean manifesto in perhaps its strictest sense – that of manifesting, to render present, nothing more. I am not interested in owning some ground or staking out an arena within which I will claim some sort of dramatic ownership. Oh no. It seems to me far too many people are already doing that under the pretense of defining what drama should be. I really don’t want to play that game. In fact, quite the opposite. These ramblings are nothing more than notes to myself as I write and why I write at that particular time. There is no continuity here!

But why write this at all?

The other day I received both an acceptance and a rejection of two different pieces of work all within five minutes of eachother and both from the same theatre. One arrived in an email and the other as a parcel through the post. The acceptance was for a small five minute piece of theatre and the rejection was that of a major work of drama which I had sent away over six months ago. Within those few moments I moved from elation that a piece of mine had (finally) been accepted to utter despair and no little anger that the more important work had been rejected. Now rejection is a writer’s lot. And believe me in the last three years, I have received nothing but rejections – all positive and encouraging but rejections none the less – so why should I be so rattled by that last letter?

Enough to begin this anyway.

The rejection was for a play entitled A Little Winter Love – a dark and chaotic descent into a ruined House the night after it has been cracked open in Civil War. Within this House, theatre, madness and war collide in uneasy and grotesque ways. It is a complex work, drawing on and treading that uneasy divide between our sanity and our need to dream – and asks questions about the cost for both. The characters in it bleed constantly in a metaphorical sense and somehow also strive for love and truth even as the remains of the House collapse about them into a new dark reality.

The rejection letter praised my ‘gusto and care’ in tackling such a complex theme, the use of ‘metaphor and allegory’, the ‘poetic’ use of language and so on – its only criticism was that perhaps some judicial editing might sharpen the drama. Now I don’t want to harp on about the letter as a rejection – quite the opposite – but only that it made me sit down and think (quite literally) about what the hell I am doing writing such stuff and why I should expect an audience to sit through this kind of stuff! To give you another example – in the last three years, I have written seven plays all of which are not what might be labelled easy plays – they are populated by grotesques, by monsters, by characters who are always in some way aware of their own provisionality.

For example, Constantinople, Its Dreams -

The play is a series of scenes from a degenerate and ennui-filled City which was once the greatest city in the known world.  In this play, History is both a meditation and an escape – a dream in which the past imagines the present.

Here, in this City, a skinmaker hides an imperial map inside the folds of his own flesh, marionette-makers carve divine  models based upon the newly dead, a senator is lured into a trap by assassin-mimes, a woman spends her days tearing herself out of all the books she can find, a map-maker draws maps only to entomb the living against their own falling sense of loneliness, an architect mocks the weight of the City and yearns to design it again as a mirror to the barbarians who always besiege it, a fading actress is condemned to act out her dying biography, and even in the endless Fall of the City, a willful woman coerces the Turks who have finally broken in to heave the books away to a faint West and herald the Renaissance . . .

Constantinople, Its Dreams is a melancholic landscape in which grotesques survive to render our own world free from depredation.

But why would anyone want to actually sit through this stuff?

That is what I will be using these writings to explore, I think. An affirmation? Perhaps not – but a certain clarity, yes.

The skinmaker is one who unravels the skin of another – to get inside, to understand – and a playwright is perhaps the greatest skinmaker for not only does the playwright unseam characters, they must be sown up again so that actors may inhabit them; so that an audience may slide into them vicariously . . . So perhaps these notes are after all my own dissection into that worn skin I call my imagination.

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