Stephen Lowe presented his early ideas for the play to the community. It was is the result of a dialogue Stephen and I had recently. Before you read it I wanted to acknowledge Stephen’s openness in the process. Some writer’s, most in fact won’t say a word to anyone about work in progress. Stephen has opened himself up to open discussion and criticism to a community. Writing a play for a community is a tough call and you will never please all of the people all of the time. This is part of a process and it’s asking for your input. Right now we especially need local research to find real characters, true stories and actual events around the ideas in this generalised treatment so as to make the play specific to the streets you all live in. This is a generous offering and you can be sure Stephen wants to meet your expectations - another reason this is a tough commission is that the feeling of responsibility can be overwhelming.
Thank you Stephen. This in the spirit of creativity - everything may change.
A Community Play
For the East side of the City of London
Itai Shonin- Japanese saying translated as-
MANY IN BODY, ONE IN MIND (the perfect community)
BACKGROUND 1840- 1890
It appears there are three, possibly four communities living shoulder to shoulder, not living with but bumping up against
The height of the British Empire. The greatest empire ever known.
London-the manifestation of its success.
Community Two - The Financial City and the Industrialists
The city of London the financial heart of the world.
The home of the windowless Bank, the great cathedral of the St Paul’s.
The power of steam above ground-the giant Liverpool Street railway station-and, miraculously, underground with the creation of the new Tube network. One monumental building after another sprouting everywhere.
Community Three- The Workers, residents, traders of the East Side of the City of London and the East End
In order to continue with this seemingly endless hymn to finance, there was a constant need for new workers of diverse skills, drawing in not only the local East End natives but also immigrants from throughout the world, migrant traders from across Britain, and the dispossessed Irish working largely as navvies. The largest influx of eastern European Jewry caused by the diaspor, the Chinese with food, washing, and the world of opium, skilled crafts workers from India, artists from all over the world, anarchists plotting explosions of their own, women forced into prostitution or as cheap labour in the clothes factories, freed slaves from the West Indies and -
The teeming swirl of hawkers, pickpockets and pimps, hurdy-gurdy players, flower girls, match sellers, so brilliantly drawn by Henry Mayhew and there are some in top hats and silver watch chains who risk muddying their shoes as they survey their estate or their wives in fine bonnets dispensing food and a few coppers to the needy on every street corner.
We the audience enter a promenade space and will stand among the community cast throughout. And we are with them on the street .
For some, the elite, this was a time of heaven. For the vast majority it was a hell.
It was, to parody Dickens- the best of times and the worst of times- it was Blake’s dark, satanic world, reaping great rewards for a few and mere survival for the rest.
And some worked hard to save the lost souls-the Salvation Army offered soup and salvation. And the music halls offered gin and some kind of escapism with Champagne Charlie and Vesta Tilley masquerading as a man.
We can and must find genuine real entertainers who lived in the streets of Portsoken, Aldgate, Middlesex Street.
The biggest missing factor in this treatment is the lack of specific LOCAL stories, domestic events, geographically located experiences and real life actual characters. We (and by that I don’t mean you Stephen) need to find those local stories, events, and experiences and named characters that relate to the groups and circumstance that you are offering here. I think the greatest ‘objection’ is going to be around the lack of domestic personalised observation of this actual unique community. Local audience shiver in delight simply by hearing the name of a street they know, simple refrences that bind them to their community and will connect them to the play and encourage them to pay attention.
And politicians like Gladstone trying to solve the Irish question, Disraeli unable to unite what he called the two nations and families losing brothers, fathers, sons to wars in Afghanistan. And Darwinians preached the strongest of the fittest, the Marxists that revolution was coming, and the anarchists armed themselves with what weapons they could acquire.
There was no real community in any meaningful sense. Collectively one could say it was fragmented but each group felt deeply a real sense of community; and meaningful to them. As with the two Jewish communities below each group were communities and their enmity with the other group bonded them ever closer to their own community. Knowing who the enemy is can be very bonding
The starving Jew from the East found little support from the successful resident Jews- indeed, they did not even share a common language. And on the streets they were often the recipients of racist remarks and assaults- The first clubs they formed were boxing clubs.
The Irish bitterly resented the treatment they received from people they felt had practically starved them out of their homeland.
The native residents saw the immigrants –be they Chinese or freed slaves, Indian or Irish- as a threat to their employment.
And everyone was involved in the daily battle to find work, to bring home food, to escape the pernicious workhouse for another day. And everywhere a variety of languages could be heard.
It was hell. It was Babel.
And we, the audience join-
The Soup Queue.
And all the characters that Henry Mayhew* (see note below) depicts in his sketches of the London poor, including the monkey grinder, the French onion seller, and the Italian singing snatches of opera, the ballad seller, and a few of the top hat and middle-class women giving charity. All is here; the pickpocket, the overwhelmed sailor, the Chinese washerwoman, the flower girl. Little match girl, and inside the select 'opium den- the rich man on his prowl. There is tension in the air and it will turn into violence. Including domestic violence.
You have to pay for your supper and the singing is led by the Sally Anne lasses- they rehearse the poor in their favourite hymn- throw out a lifeline *1. Elsewhere through the crowd other singers - men's voices taking up the hymn but changing words into obscenity. Sally girls sing louder it is clear they are threatened. The men appear through the crowd, sticks to hand-
They sing-we are the skeleton army….
as they suddenly attack the young women, seizing on their banner. The poor run and hide wherever they can. They are defended by the small, desperately poor Russian immigrants who speak only Yiddish, - largely unread, country folk; but members of a boxing club- for their own protection.
And that of the girls…
The Irish were ready to join in-any excuse to fight the English
(cf. appendix a- song)
Most of the time the work was simply hard, unsatisfying, dangerous. It gave the worker no joy. And after work was spent as drunk as one could afford, their fist clenched ready for fighting, and the women struggled to survive as mother or whore-or both.
(Cf. appendix B-the Families)
UNTIL once upon a time…
For once and perhaps the only time - there was the offer of real work. Work one could be proud of.
JON NOTE: REAL WORK: you need information about more trades - independent trades that come together to make a collective thing. (More below)
One of the leading bankers of the City Corporation is planning the headquarters of an international bank and this time there will be Windows. He has employed the legendary Pre-Raphaelite Burne-Jones to design the secular equivalent of the great cathedral ‘s stained glass windows. The technique on how to do this had been lost for centuries. However, with the impact of the Gothic Medieval revival-largely inspired by William Morris-the old skills are being rediscovered from the casting of the wrought iron to the process of staining the glass and the intricate assembly process of the final image. Instead of portraying the key images of the Christian faith, the Saints are replaced by the serious Victorian partners of the bank, including he banker himself and Jesus is replaced by the mother of money Queen Victoria. The bottom level of representation is images of the lowly workers.
Gradually and initially without much enthusiasm the team is slowly drawn together by a common discovery of the freedom and joy to be found in the good work and the creation of real beauty-even though some are aware of the workers exploitation that lies at the heart of the image.
They have tasted that something different- something that gives them back their own self-respect- their PRIDE- and for a moment they see it with the light streaming through the glass; they are silenced by their own beauty.
But only for a moment before they are ushered away for the official opening.
But it’s long enough to give them the dream- to create their own vision of paradise amongst the dark satanic mills. Even as-
The Bombing of the Window
There is a coming together, a potlatch, a party, and a common pride.
But of course communities are not utopia- they are constantly challenged.
And the anarchist cell blow up the window.
It's coloured shards flying everywhere. The cell is hunted down ruthlessly.
And the new community, wounded, bruised, struggles to hold together.
The men and the women walk through the shattered glass, sometimes holding a fragment against the sunlight. It is a picture of desolation. Many have conflicting emotions- the first, that it is their work that has been stolen, twice once by the masters the second time by the fanatics. A sense of loss, and of betrayal.
Someone could be wounded, if not dead,
The aftermath is painful but finally brings all the families to come together in the struggle against the mammon o f money that seems to rule supreme and their common inspiration is fired by the creation of the new-
The Children's Window
They need hope and turn to the young of the future for the vision. And here the reality of the play fuses with the audience as we gradually see the new stained window come to life- and it is the vision of the future created by the children of the local schools ( a different school each performance and therefor a different image of paradise).
And the children join the actors.
past fuses with present as-
from the church next door we hear the choir singing in the language we have not heard before-German-
The final song-ode to joy.
and all slowly join in as Schiller’s lyrics are translated into the language of Babel - in English/ Hebrew/Yiddish/ Irish etcetera- a cacophony which finally harmonises into its climax as the stained glass is finally complete.
JON'S NOTE -THE IDEA OF THE WIDOW AS ALLEGORY
I love the idea behind the glass window it’s an allegorical tale that resonates with this this community past and present and I think it would be good to discuss how it resonates for people. Let’s ask them to accept the premises that it says a something pertinent about life here in 1880, and about life here now. I think it would strengthen the argument for it. But I get it… absolutely and I think it is very strong. Where I have a problem is that it is not a real local story. Let’s hang onto the idea of a stained glass window as a metaphor and maybe discuss ways of presenting it so it’s not confusing it with factual events but enlightening the facts. The widow shows us the spirit of the people and their oppression and all those things that really happened and we can find true examples of that happened here. Is there the possibility of the widow being a parallel story that weaves in and out of real related stories of 1880. May the window is set in another time /place/world/ maybe its clearly a fantasy/ Dickensian paper that comes out weekly/ when our real stories explode maybe they explode together so the fragments of glass then become part of the real world of 1880 helping to explain and comment on their predicament. So I’m finishing where I started and saying the biggest hole I think we have to fill is presenting historical events and people unique to here.
The Post Play Party
The transformation of the performance area into a modern-day coffee-house. The audience are offered an invitation to stay for the post-show party-for the past has questions for the future. Improvising in an informal fashion, the performers will ask how and if the world has improved- for example the Sally Army might ask if people no longer sleep on the streets, the Irish if they are now united, the urchins wondering if kids still have to sleep 6 to the bed, etc.
Gradually this will clear away into the straightforward chat and the singing and dancing and the multicultural performers’ and the remaining members of the audience. Party
JON'S NOTE ON POST PLAY PARTY The impro factor and having a social event as part of the evening is great. One of the great joys of promenade is how it can switch in an instance from theatre to carnival, to social event; how it can implicate the audience in the drama and put them into various roles so that in a sense 'perform. Promenade can involve the audience in work, protest, taking sides, making decisions, answering profound questions, and face to face interaction. But at the end? They will have been on their feet a while and the evening would fade away rather than be climatic. This would be great for the interval a twenty minute social event in the 1880's - it would help develop the audiences skills and give them permissions which we could exploit in act two
Song is a central part of the play revealing the cultural diversity of the community from Christian hymns, musical hits, ethnic songs, English folk-songs as well as a sound score inspired by them.
B:- THE “FAMILIES”.
1; The Irish. The builders, and the explosive experts, with all their families, forced out of Ireland through poverty, some sympathise with the Fenians and the act of blowing up the English mainland, others are more cautious backing Gladstone’s home rule. They are held together by the powerful matriarch,
2. The RUSSIAN (diaspora) JEW. the latest major wave of immigration from Poland and Russia. They have nothing except their lives, and expect the support from the Jews already long established in he city. They find no great welcome from their own who are worried they will be painted with the same brush as these simple country folk and indeed the eldest synagogue becomes a centre of heated debate. For the arrivals they are shocked that so many Jews have converted, including the Prime Minister, Disraeli.
3. The established AMSTERDAM JEWS - the two sides can hardly speak to each other as the Russians only speak Yiddish. Banking is their raison d’etre (the Rothschild history)
4. the English working class male and female, desperately trying to find work and increasingly anti-the immigrants taking their jobs (a loose and often drunk alliance with Scots and Welsh) This in turn has key sub-divisions including-
5. SOLDIERS from the Afghan wars.
6. THE UNDERWORLD. STREET GANGS. PROSTITUTION
7; THE SELF-TAUGHT RADICALS. Attending the new Mechanics education schemes, benefit from Mundella’s compulsive education act 1871- and connection with –
8. THE UTOPIANS -early socialism, Marx and the left wing (Morris, Carpenter) art movement; Darwinism. God is dead.
9: The Indian community? The Afro-Caribbean freed slaves? The Chinese?
10. THE EMERGING WOMEN’S MOVEMENT. The prototype SUFFRAGETTES, ANNIE BESANT’S campaign for the match-girls. The successful campaign to raise the age of consent to 12 led by-
11. THE SALVATION ARMY (and other fundamental post-Darwinian sects etc..) also` includes the rapid rise of spiritualism and magic (Madame blavatsky etc..)
None of these main groups get on well with each other. Each has their own particular area of expertise and crossing the line can be extremely dangerous.
Each group has both an internal conflict and an exterior conflict. After that comes the drama we will be exploring.
APPENDIX C THE CONFLICTS
Conflict within: –
The family falling apart, divided by the decisions on how to bring about a united Ireland for them all to go home to. The Fenian member willing to take dangerous and bloody action and the mother desperately believing in GLADSTONE AND PARNELL until the news of his INFIDELITY-creates a Catholic back lash.
the difficulty living in the country of their oppressor and the way they are prejudiced against by the rest of the English.
An additional factor is that they resent the new arrivals seeing like the English the threat to their jobs and their lifestyle.
the conflict between the established and often converted to Christianity successful Jewish middle-class and the large numbers of East European Jews not even speaking a common language and with no resources expecting the synagogue to immediately embraced them. Which became not the case-
the endemic prejudice. They set up boxing clubs learn to defend themselves-some turn to Marx and anarchism. Some have already attempted to kill the Tsar.
In short, the divide between those who want to take action against oppressive societies and those concerned to maintain the status quo, which they have created with such difficulty.
Half believe the immigrants stealing the jobs cause their poverty. Some believe things should be done about it even though others try to explain the necessity of having them , others are beginning to understand the socialist dream and even William Morris's idea of an aesthetic utopianism. And there are the revolutionaries.
The anarchist and the Fenian have a considerable amount in, common-that this the overthrow monarchies and capitalism and the same belief that a useful tool is the bomb.