A Dramatic Evening

It was because of a play that I wrote The Monmouth Summer. Not a famous play in a West End theatre, though; this was just a play in a school hall, performed by kids. But it was a fantastic play for all that, brilliantly acted, overwhelmingly effective, and it inspired me to write a novel.

The play was so effective because there was no stage. There were a few seats and benches here and there around the edges of the school hall, but other than that, the audience had to stand or walk about.  At the start of the play we milled around, rather confused at first, like people in a market place, while people in seventeenth century costume tried to sell us things – pies, sweetmeats, mulled wine. But then, suddenly, the actors appeared amongst us.  They were part of the crowd, too, but acting out scenes. Sometimes in front of us, sometimes behind; at other times distant, across the room. As the actors moved, so did we, trying to get a good view, guess what would happen next. It sounds chaotic but it was tremendously effective: the play was all around us, we were in it, part of it, it was happening to US!

And it was a play about what had happened to ordinary people just like us, in that town, 300 years ago. The town was Colyton, in East Devon, and the play was about the Monmouth Rebellion. In 1685, the lives of people in Colyton were transformed – many of them ruined – when James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, landed from a Dutch ship, the Hereldenburg, in nearby Lyme Regis.  Who was Monmouth? He was the gallant, proud, dashing, spoilt illegitimate son of King Charles II, who had just died. But Monmouth refused to believe he was illegitimate. Despite his father’s persistent, stubborn denial, Monmouth claimed that King Charles had secretly married his mother, Lucy Walter, long before he married Catherine of Braganza. There were secret letters, Monmouth said, in a casket, which would prove this. And therefore he, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth was the rightful heir to the throne.

Why did this matter, to the ordinary, everyday folk of the town of Colyton? It mattered because the new king, James II – Charles II’s brother and Monmouth’s uncle – was openly Catholic. And that was something that most West Country folk could not abide. Colyton was a small town grown prosperous on the cloth trade, and many of its small merchants and artisans were fiercely Protestant dissenters. Their conventicles were already banned by the Church of England. A Catholic King, they thought, could only make things worse.  Whereas Monmouth, at least, was Protestant – ‘the Protestant Duke.’ He was also young, handsome, and dashing, and had been cheered by crowds everywhere when he had toured the West Country five years before.

So the first bit of news which electrified the crowd in that school hall was that the Duke of Monmouth had landed in Lyme. The gossip spread from mouth to mouth – first whispered, then shouted, then earnestly discussed. What did it mean? Was it true? Did he have soldiers, men, arms?  What should we do? Join his army, welcome him, risk our lives? Or ignore him? What if he failed? What would the punishment be then? How if we did nothing,  and were afraid to help?

It all came vividly alive, in short sketches around the hall. Not two feet in front me, a wife tugged tearfully at her husband, begging him not to go, not to leave her and their children to fight in a futile war, a rebellion which would leave them all ruined, destitute if it failed. And if they lost, how would the King punish them? What would he do? Against which her husband – just a sixth-form boy really, but totally absorbed in his role – spoke of duty, and religion, and his loyalty to the other men of the town, a few of whom had even fought for Cromwell in their youth. How could he desert his friends at this time? In that school hall it seemed so real, so shocking. Such terrible, impossible choices; and of course we all knew, how could we not, that the wife was right, it could only turn out badly in the end.

Monmouth’s men were brave, but badly led. They had their chances, even at Sedgemoor – the last battle to be fought on English soil – but they lost, as we all knew they would. Monmouth was captured and executed, and Judge Jeffreys – surely one of the cruellest, most vindictive men ever to disgrace an English courtroom, was sent by King James to punish the rebels. Jeffreys’ appearance in the school hall was utterly terrifying. He called Colyton ‘the most rebellious town in England.’ Towering above us on a dias which we had not noticed before, wincing and sipping brandy to ease the pain of the stone, he mocked the chained, bloodied prisoners who were dragged limping before him. And because these prisoners came out of the crowd – they were US – his sadistic jokes hit home even harder.

The play didn’t show them being hanged, drawn and quartered, of course – that’s too much – but it brought the horror home to us nonetheless. Staging the play like that brought home the fact that it really happened, to ordinary people like us; if we’d been born earlier, it could have been us.  Of course, not all the men died – some hid, some were transported, some escaped, and the women survived and kept life going. Three years later, King James was gone too, chased away by another, larger army brought to Devon from Holland. And a few surviving rebels crept secretly home, to put their lives together and begin again, as best as they could.

I left that school hall feeling sober, but not sad – it was exhilarating, in a way, to be purged of pity and terror like this, and to see a bunch of school kids and a talented teacher bring English history so dramatically to life. I learned a lot, too. And on the way home, I thought, ‘I should write a book about this.’

So I did.

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