Re-ensconced in their beloved meeting place, the Pitshanger Poets have come home. The Committee Room is looking as poky as ever, but it is the right sort of pokyness. Of course, being romantics at heart, the members are more accustomed to refer to the room as the Library, on account of the darkwood cabinets of plays that line the walls. Through the glass-fronted doors can be seen a different sort of slim volume, collecting scripts by Coward, Stoppard, Chekhov, Shaw and the like, as well as rumoured glimpses of Cardenio, Niobe and A Brilliant Career through the cobwebs and fug of less tobacco-conscious times, but it seems that the keys to the locks are as elusive as a capital letter in a Neil LaBute script.
With these silacious soliloquies and deitic dialogues looking down upon proceedings, this week’s workshop felt like an amphitheatre, but our poets showed no sign of stagefright. Doig Simmonds gave the prologue as he pondered the size of an angel, and Daphne Gloag conducted the orchestra in a tune which slows down in perfect time with the expansion of the universe. Next entered John Hurley wise elder, recalling the metaphorical wakes of the old country which accompanied very real departures, and the chorus then recited Alan Chambers’ change of season lamentation.
Then entered the gravedigger, Owen Gallagher, undertaking the herculean task of scrubbing the headstone, followed by the punning wordplay of Michael Harris’ fool, and a short lyrical turn by Peter Francis tempting rain. Leading lady Pat Francis gave us a classic tragedy, with Guinevere’s betrayal leading to Arthur’s own, and Martin Choules ended with a farce involving a giant antenna and global warming.
So, will the plays in the Library ever again be plays of the stage ? Will rust or woodworm once again open these scholarly sarcophagi and let the puckish banter tumble out onto the boards ? A glance through the Archives reveals that drama is not such a stranger to these workshops, as in the time in 1820 when Percy Shelley brought in his monster four-acter Prometheus Unbound. Intended as a closet drama, it was far too long and wordy to ever be staged, and was intended to be performed only in the theatre of the imagination. He doled out the parts to those present (giving himself the lead, naturally, with Leigh Hunt as Mercury, Sir John as Ione, his wife Mary as everyone else, and Byron as Jupiter in a classic piece of type-casting) and they got down to wading through the thousands of couplets.
As the evening wore on with Act 1 still a long way from becoming Act 2, and the readers aware that this was eating into their time to present their own verses, so the silly voices started, with Panthea becoming inexplicably Welsh and Second Fury an attempted cockney that could honestly have passed for French without comment. This clearly annoyed the playwright, whose own delivery became more clenched as the speeches droned on. Finally, Mrs Conduitt entered with some shaved ice refreshment and an immediate intermission was called. A somewhat put-out author joined the queue for the chamber pot, and then retook his seat in the for the second half, only to find that not one of his audience had bothered to return after the interval. He soon tracked them down to the bar of the Red Lion, complaining to each other how turgid the writing had been, how hammy the leading man, and how lacking legroom the armchairs.
Of course, such conversations are unheard of in the Grapevine at Questors, but it just goes to show why many a playsmith may be more than happy for their labours to remain safely behind glass.