Telling Lives is a hybrid kind of play, with bits of music and song and poetry, as well as more conventional dialogues and monologues. It's based on historical records, but I've labelled it as a 'Brechitan fiction', so that people are not expecting a historically accurate portrayal of life in Prestwich Asylum at the turn of the last century.
In Telling Lives, I've used a mixture of completely fictional names and real names for my characters. The real names - Dr Perceval, Ann Warburton, Lily Handley etc, were all people I came across in the Prestwich Asylum archives held at the Greater Manchester County Record Office, and I'm very grateful to the archivists for introducing me to these amazing documents. I thought long and hard about using real people's names and about using the blown-up archive photographs of those who had been patients there over a hundred years ago. I felt, on balance, it was worth it.
There is a deep sadness that comes from researching historical archives, like those for Prestwich. You quickly realise that there are thousands and thousands of people, all over Britain, who have just gone down into oblivion, simply because they were mentally ill. There's over 5,000 Asylum patients buried in an anonymous mass grave in St Mary's Church in Prestwich. They lie, ten deep, with just a thin coating of soil and quicklime separating them. Their resting place was unmarked until 2006.
Why does it matter? Is it just class? We remember kings and Prime Ministers with statues, but not the poor. They can go into the dirt or into flames without acknowledgment. Does our very unequal society simply carry on being unequal after death? It can't worry the dead - rich or poor - but it does make some of us, who are still living, feel uncomfortable. Some religious traditions, say the Bhuddists, long for anonymous oblivion and will meditate on corpses just to remind themselves, quite deeply, of where we are all heading. Others, like the Christians, feel a need for a memorial of some kind here on earth, even though they are assured of an after-life elsewhere. Writing a play isn't likely to memorialise anyone for very long, but it felt like something, some honouring, some acknowledgement, of the value of patients, was going on when I was writing Telling Lives.
Cul-de-sac theatre hopes to read out the names of those unacknowledged pauper lunatics on World Mental Health Week, probably October 13th , at St Mary's church in Prestwich. We plan a concert at mid-day with music by composers who suffered from mental health problems; Schumann and Hugo Wolf, Smetana and Donizetti, Berlioz and the sublime English composer and poet Ivor Gurney. Of course they were all successful and, eventually, celebrated composers. But the pauper lunatics from Prestwich? There might have been in Gray's words, some 'mute inglorious Milton' buried there, another John Clare; but probably not. Nevertheless, we intend to acknowledge their lives, then perform a rather longer version of Telling Lives in the evening. When I saw the photographs of many thousands of people, I felt their lives seemed to be worth 'telling' in the narrative sense, and also 'telling' in the sense of important - whatever general, historical and social value was placed on their lives, either then or now.
In film & tv criticism, there used to be a debate about docu-drama vs drama-documentary. It represented two traditons in tv drama, one which came from news room sources and the other from the drama departments. The news room stories implied that journalists couldn't fully report a story because say, it was behind the Iron Curtain. Leslie Woodhead was the master of that tradition and Grigorenko is sadly a now forgotten masterpiece of the genre. It was based on real events, diaries, and individuals caught up in very difficult circumstances. At home, it developed in to wonderful plays on the Miners' Strike or the Hillsborough disaster. With some courage, the broadcasters of the 70s and 80s took on the vested interests of the police and politicians to tell the lives of real people, caught up in those terrible events. The second purely dramatic tradition is more Ken Loach territory, which dramatised issues like homelessness through plays like Cathy Come Home, where all the characters and situations were fictionalised. Alan Bleasdale's The Boys from the Blackstuff was a superb example of that tradition, which brought the nation's attention to the injustices of regional unemployment and its devastating consequences. And of course there's yet another dramatic tradition - like Shakespeare's history plays or Brecht's Galileo,- which tries to put the broad sweep of political and social events into some form of drama, using real named historical people. Macbeth was a real king, but the porter isn't in any sense real - though he's crucial to the play and begins to unwrap its complex meanings.
I think in Telling Lives, I try to combine bits of all three traditions. I want to honour the real dead because all our lives are valuable, whatever our social class. I want to bring attention to some issues in attitudes towards mental health and the policies and practices we use in the care of the mentally ill. And I want to invent totally fictional characters, who we can believe in, and who will vivify and open up debates about the issues we all face, as a society, in looking after members of our communities who are different.
Prestwich, of course, was a real institution and some of the characters were real people of 100 years ago. They were photographed and their lives logged on admission, and then they were sequestered away or released as luck or pharmacology dictated. Some details of their lives, their speech and the comments made about them, are genuinely from the records. Other bits invented purely for dramctic purposes. Some characters are completely fictional - Dr Whewell came off the top of my head - and he is there more to represent an attitude; in this case a humane one. Dr Perceval was a real person, but I don't know how committed he was to measurement, though he was a scientist in an era where measurement seemed to offer such hopes. (Hence the references to Charcot and Bertillon and Maudsley - and others in the longer version of the play.) Sadly, there's some evidential justification for almost every view put forward in the play, - " much gibberish from famous men" it says in my research notes. And the most powerful scene in the play is taken pretty-well word for word, from Krafft-Ebbing's famous book Pyschopathia Sexualis. So, Telling Lives is a hybrid of forms, and I think that's why I've kept the riders - fictional and Brechtian - in describing the play.
And overall I suppose, I want the play to point oliquely to what happens today; women still have their babies taken from them - for the best of reasons; discharged soldiers still come home with terrible wounds of the mind as well as the body; religious fervour still gets people to behave in odd ways, sometimes blowing up themselves and other people; men and women still, occasionally, kill their children when under stress; our prisons are full of the mentally ill; and we still measure madly - and, having just had a brain scan, maybe rightly. There's very little separates us from the late nineteenth century, except for pharmacology. We're very much better at reducing really distressing symptoms by using drugs intelligently. And long may it remain so.
But is that enough? Shouldn't we, through art and culture, be trying to build a more tolerant, calmer, saner society? Wouldn't that, in the long-run, reduce the incidence of mental unhealth? Perhaps that's what we should really be trying to foster in all our social and cultural practices - a less aggressive, more understanding, kind of society. And in the end, maybe the attendant William Stubbins, who was a real person, is right, that we just need to be 'good enough' to produce such a humane community. All our striving seems to produce just more neurosis. I thought I could probably do all this better by looking at real people from 100 years ago, rather than trying to set it in the present day, where it might get interpreted as a critique of the mental health services in the NHS, which would be a distraction.
It is a tricky issue and you hope to tell a larger truth by focussing on fictionalised individual lives. And again, like Brecht, you want people to come out of the theatre thinking and discontented, rather than feeling that they've just had a good night out. The Royal Exchange can do that, and it does it very well. But it's not what community theatre is about. That's about making small changes in oridinary people's lives - and I wish someone had been able to do it for those Prestwich residents of 100 years ago.