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 . . .
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?!