The Dark Tower by Louis MacNeice

I have just discovered that Louis MacNeice’s verse drama for the BBC is available on the BBC’s website – here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03kpwv9  The play is inspired by a few lines in Robert Browning’s poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.

Listening to it brings back happy memories of my teenage years and the Arts Centre I belonged to. It reminds me of Garibaldi biscuits and tea drunk out of chipped mugs. It reminds me of  sitting on sagging armchairs in the EOS room arguing about poetry and life. But we didn’t just talk and argue, we also performed. And we performed this play – not as a theatrical production but as a play for voices. It is hard to see how the subject matter could be performed for anything else but the radio. The play is play of the imagination and where better for Roland to journey to the Dark Tower than through the dark shadows of our minds? The actors’ accents may sound a bit dated, but this is an extraordinary poetic play.There certainly was a golden age in postwar British radio, when the BBC embraced experiment and welcomed poets, using composers like Benjamin Britten to provide the music and world-class actors, such as Richard Burton, to do the poets justice. What has become of that patronage? Maybe the internet will come to the rescue. Maybe the future of ebooks will include performance. Let us hope so.

As I have said in a previous post we also performed at the Young Arts Centre verse plays by Dylan Thomas (Under Milk Wood), Lorca (Blood Wedding) and Christopher Fry (Boy with a Cart and The Firstborn), to say nothing of verse plays by Euripides and Shakespeare. What a grounding! Is it any wonder that I have written two verse plays or poems for voices?

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Poems for multiple voices

When Carolyn Howard Johnson reviewed my poetry book Fool’s Paradise as “Very experimental. Wholly original” I was surprised. Of course I don’t think of what I write as particularly original, what I write feels normal.  So Caroline’s review made me think, after all Caroline is a multi award-winning poet.

As I have said in previous post I was blessed with being taught by an inspiring creative English teacher – Elizabeth Webster – who introduced me to the work of some wonderful and great poets. In particular she introduced me to the work of the British poets of the early to mid twentieth century – T S Eliot, Dylan Thomas and Louis MacNeice. And surprise, surprise the works she first introduced me to were all verse plays: Murder in the Cathedral by T S Eliot, Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas and The Dark Tower by Louis MacNeice. 

Those early readings were etched into my memory and, I suspect, my poetic DNA. Every year at this time on the cusp of winter I find myself repeating the lines from the opening chorus of Murder in the Cathedral:
Since golden October declined into sombre November
And the apples were gathered and stored, and the land became brown sharp points of death in a waste of water and mud

What is more under her direction I acted in a number of verse plays – including Under Milk Wood and plays by another British verse play writer Christopher Fry. Plays like Under Milk Wood and Louis MacNeice’s Dark Tower were written to be performed on radio, the BBC was a major sponsor of verse drama. But the roots of poetic dramas are deep in the beginnings of theatre. When I was twelve or thirteen I performed in a production of Alcestis by Euripides, first performed in the 5th century BC. I can still remember some of the lines:Daughter of Pelias fare thee well. May joy be thine in the sunless houses.

Just listen to the cadences in that one line. And of course there was Shakespeare. I was playing Caliban in The Tempest at the age of twelve, loving the poetry in the play (Caliban has the isle is full of voices speech) and realizing how verse can by woven into drama. Later I was to play Viola in Twelfth Night – another character with some great poetry. 

The poetry group at the Arts Centre, which Elizabeth ran and of which I was a member, gave regular readings and in one of these we performed MacNeice’s The Dark Tower and in another extracts of Blood Wedding by Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. The poetry group with its emphasis on reading aloud taught me the importance of poetry as performance. Some of the best poems, even when not written to be read by different voices, are dramatic. And some, such as Eliot’s Four Quartets, although not written as plays nevertheless have different voices woven into them. My long poem called Poem for Voices, is the same.

You can see why writing poetry for different voices is so natural to me.  I don’t always write for voices, many of my poems are to be spoken by one voice. But writing for voices allows me to explore textures, emotions and forms in a unique way. This approach, which was once so prevalent, is now so unusual that Carolyn comments on it. Have I developed it further? I don’t know. It’s just how I write sometimes. But then it does seem to me that if people claim their work is original and experimental it almost certainly isn’t. 

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