We need a type of theatre which not only releases the feelings, insights and impulses possible within the particular historical field of human relations in which the action takes place, but employs and encourages those thoughts and feelings which help transform the field itself.
This work in progress – and very raw progress it is at this stage – follows the narrative line of The Fairest Flower of Serving Men. The voice is that of the protagonist, Eleanor, who, after she flees the scene of the murder of her lover and her child, becomes Sweet William, the fairest flower amongst serving men, to the king.
Brecht is an influence only in respect of my attempt to achieve some kind of balance between the epic sweep of the story, in which forces are exerted that seem to be beyond the power of the character’s capacity for control, and the indomitable integrity of the character in the face of those forces. Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are, he says. All power to Eleanor in the face of her tribulations...
FAIR ELEANOR & SWEET WILLIAM
This is how it was.
So long a journey
from that place of bones
to this greenstick fire;
from the scattering
of the may blossom
to the bleeding
of this hawthorn crown.
This is how it was.
It is a spring night.
A hunter’s moon is trimming back the clouds.
A vixen cries in the coppice. My baby suckles,
eyes closed against the pulse of milk.
My lover lifts an apple bough into the fire
and turns to reach for another.
And, noiseless from the steep stair,
five men are in my chamber
like wraiths who find their form only in firelight.
One has drawn his sword; the others bear
knives. Unhindered by passion,
free of guilt, they work like men
harvesting in advance of a storm,
brisk and thorough, tight-lipped
and breathing hard.
My lover barely rises to his knees
and they cut him down, his mouth
in a gargoyle rictus, lipless and wrapped
around his jawline. Two more strokes
and his right hand goes spinning down
into the hearth like a gauntlet thrown too late.
And a silence thickens the air.
A light, green and glaucous,
like through deep water, traps us
in the moment. The men
breathing heavy still, like cattle
who have run the length of a field.
I am a dreamer, motionless, looking
beyond the moment. (I am
a child wrapped in white furs,
sleigh-bound across deep snow.
I am a lover bearing the blessed weight
of a lover on a bed of moss under pines).
But my baby moves in my arms;
he shifts his thick body
inside the plaid shawl that wraps him,
cranes his head to see our visitors
so as to smile his two small pearly teeth
at them, so as to fix his round
sea-blue eyes on them, so as
to welcome them to our hearth
with his two precious first words.
And he cuts him down.
With skill. It must be said,
with skill, for his black blade
passes my face in a whisper,
a thing half seen, half-imagined –
the swift parabola of a bird
glanced through a window,
or a leaf blown in a hard wind.
I feel its dangerous breath;
I feel its voice deep within
my cage of bones.
(I must feel it always).
And he makes no sound
as he passes from this place.
Was present, was absent
with no sense of the journey made.
(And this small grain of mercy,
dropped from the store
whose bounty it is God’s
to grant or to withhold,
is what I have hoarded
through the long years).
They turn to go, their black cloaks
gathered like rooks hunched against wind,
save for the sword-bearer, the
baby-slayer. He throws back
his cowl and bares his face,
a lattice-work of scars, as if
one has some time seized his hair
behind and pushed his face
against a blacksmith’s grate
or a burning prison’s bars.
My mother’s man, my mother’s man,
her seneschal, and this, then, her work;
yet still he does her will – this to forestall
the white dove’s prophecy that
the bastard son shall rise and rule
across my father’s land and she
to be more fief than dowager.
And he breaks the sword
across his knee. Hilt and blade
sing off the stone they fall upon.
He turns and follows his companions
down the winding stair, the scuff
of their falling feet like autumn leaves
curling down a well.
The earth at the forest’s edge
is soft with the night’s rain
and the bracken’s bones.
It yields to the broken sword,
its hilt and tongue of blade.
The winding sheet must be
the plaid shawl that wound me
through the winter by the fire
as I gave breast and crooned
the songs he took with him into
the moonlit places. The broken sword,
its hilt and stub of blade
are the cross of Christ above
my boy. The stone I tug and roll
from the white stream’s heart
is black as bile, but it sits
four square and bolts the shallow
pit against all but the worms
that must bring him back to dust.
The bell that tolls him back
through Eden’s gate is the
severed greater length of blade
struck hard against the stone
(just one peal for his single year.)
The psalm is wound into
the wordless sounds that,
like a beast, its tongue torn out
by the root, I cry to the night.
And as dawn arises - curds and whey
in a heartless sky – I hack away
my sunset locks, the copper and gold
that once my lord would comb and plait
so that I would dream, weightless,
timeless and wave-borne.
And the bone-white face, bound
in a corolla of flame, that shivers
at me from the morning water,
weeps to the core for the last time.
A man’s face, drawn and grim, with
sea-grey eyes that always must look back
towards where the hills encircle the birthing place,
the bower, the hearth, the fire that died.
‘My famous flower’, he dubbed me. ‘My
sweet William. My flower amongst serving men’.
And from the tail of an eye
I could spy them smirking like children,
all close to him who cared for rank and favour.
Sweet secret at any other time:
they saw, as he, the harvest of my hair,
the corn-gold long gone and scraped cruelly
to down each dawn; the mouth, broad
(too broad for beauty, said she who
brought me low) and wide for smiling
(like a bold boy, no maiden, said she),
but now a rictus at the bottom
of a skull. The face and form
of a man bearing sorrow beyond
his beardless years.
Clad in hauberk and helmet and with his
surcoat stained to black, I rode astride
as a man. I crossed bridges numberless,
passing over waters that roared like
oblivion or slumbered, unseen, unheard,
until the marches fell away and the long,
sad flat reaches of the fens rose to gentle hills
and valleys and the questing loops
and curls of hearthside fires. But pacing me
like woven skeins, the forest edge, now
close with elm and larch and beech and oak,
plaited against the light, now rimming
And that’s it so far. I'm aware that I'm out on a limb with this one so be firm but be gentle.