Continuing our conversation with older women writers Margaret Crompton, contributor to Arachne anthologies, No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book, and Tymes goe by Turnes, writes about her work as a playwright in her 80’s
My first play was not a success. In Usurper Usurp’d, written for Junior Dramatic Society, the heroine conquers the heart of the conqueror’s son. The entire plot is in the title for, then as now, I had no idea how to develop action. After that, play-writing was confined to my brief JDS portrayal of William Shakespeare composing Macbeth’s Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow speech.
Many of my own tomorrows produced thousands of written words: articles, lectures, poems, reviews, short stories, flash fiction, books and blogs. But no more plays.
A university boyfriend who planned to be a novelist took me to Nottingham in homage to D H Lawrence. But I chose the Drama option, two years with Greeks, Jacobeans and Ibsen. Voices. More voices in my postgraduate courses; training for social work, I could remember and record an entire hour-long interview, word for word. Deep listening behind the words. Really hearing. Paying attention.
Now most of my tomorrows have become yesterdays. Every tomorrow counts. Every word. Every voice in my head. At 70 or thereabouts, I began a new adventure – I wrote a play. That’s a story for another blog. It’s important today, because it has led to me writing this, when I should be preparing for tomorrow. A (much) older woman writer, on the eve of performance of Anne Askew, my fourth play for the small ensemble for which I write and direct (Script in Hand).The first performance was in the Assembly Rooms (2019), then Cathedral Chapter House (2021). Tomorrow will be our first production in a beautiful Medieval city-centre church, our first Saturday afternoon, our first collaboration with musicians from an Early Music ensemble (1685).
My scripts, and the fine Script in Hand actors, give voices to women with local connections. Through them, I have a voice. For example, Anne Askew read the Bible illegally in Lincoln Cathedral and was harassed by priests. In 1546, caught up in political conspiracy she was burnt for heresy, in London. Her courage, peaceful protest, and fidelity to her co-religionists, enable me to ask questions about freedom, loyalty, justice. Her father asks Eve, a woman of the present day, For what would you go to the stake, like my Anne?
Later, Anne asks Eve: Do you believe you’re free to not believe whatever you choose? Eve answers: I haven’t thought about it. Anne: “Not thinking” is the greatest freedom of all. But foolish. Eve: Why? Anne Because if you are not aware of your freedom it may easily be stolen without you even being aware that it is lost.
It takes a year to write a play. I revel in the research, ideas, finding ways to bring people to life through words. Whenever possible I use their own words (journals, letters). Dr John Bale selects points from the copious editorial comments in which he embedded Anne Askew’s written record of her interrogations, (which had been smuggled out of England after her death). Bishop John Longland reads from his sermon. But my plays are works of imagination, not lectures. As I write, I listen to the voices, attend to the people. I can even write for the actors, knowing their strengths and abilities. Then as we rehearse, I revise.
We have no problems about age. We’re all over 60, five of us over 80. In my first play, three actors began as schoolgirls. Writing for long-dead people disposes of any need to attempt physical resemblances. Anne Askew died at 25. In my play, she is played by two women: one reads from Anne’s own writings. The other meets Eve in the Cathedral in the present day. Performances are staged readings (we were all raised on BBC Home Service radio plays), in simple uniform.
I set Katherine Swynford and the Countess Joan in the Cathedral when visitors have left and remaining residents come out for a tomb-break, where they’re visited by friends and relations. Although only the viscera of Queen Eleanor repose in her huge sarcophagus under the East window, (progress of the rest, taken to London, marked by the Eleanor Crosses), I wrote a robust part for the actor to express – loudly and often – her majesty’s displeasure at her treatment.
No role is ever bland or simple. As I write, and even more as they act, I learn. Within the Queen’s bluster is distress. At first I hated Bishop Longland as Anne Askew’s enemy. But I realised that he, like Anne, had been committed to his beliefs, and his position had been perilous at a perilous time. When the actor plays his scene tomorrow, Bishop Longland will be real.
Every script is new, difficult, designed to challenge me, the cast, and eventually the audience. Where is the point otherwise? This is our time to take risk – to grow, learn, experiment, play. Adventures of the mind and spirit. Drama. Time out of time. Free of space.
I understand flow, rise and fall, change of mood and speed, and surprise. But I still can’t write a plot or develop action.
Tomorrow at this time it will be nearly over. Another challenge accepted. Another risk taken.
31st March 2023
The performance is at St Mary le Wigford Church, Lincoln (beside railway station)
Saturday 1st April 2 pm
admission free, donations invited for Historic Charities of Wigford Trust: JAQT – Relief of Need.
‘Script in Hand’ with musician from ‘Sixteen Eighty Five’ early music ensemble
bookstall with Prize for the fire by Rilla Askew – who will be present