Friday, 24 April 2015

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill - Lyttelton Theatre

The Play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill is currently playing to packed audiences at the Lyttelton Theatre in London. The play has been well received by a diverse audience.

Past reviews have been on the whole appreciative. The Financial Times said “Churchill shows us an age of unbelievable fluidity in the social order...” The play reminds us sombrely that such moment of potential pass: they either come to nothing in the first place, or the old order is soon restored. Michelle Terry and Helena Lymbery each excel in the Putney sequence”.

The play is set amidst the English Civil war so knowledge of this event is a must before seeing or reading the play. The blurb for the play by Churchill sets the scene “1649. After years of bloody civil conflict, an exhausted England is in the hands of radical extremists. Turning the country upside down, Parliament’s soldiers kill the King and take power into their own hands. Theirs is a war to establish Heaven on Earth. This is the story of the most terrifying decade in our history. Struggling to find a voice in the face of unspeakable suffering, a group of ordinary men and women cling to the belief that they will be shown a glimpse of unspeakable, transcendent glory”.

Churchill wrote the play in 1976 and the first productions of the play have a Kafkaesque sparseness to them with only a table and six chairs for props. In contrast, today’s production is a little more expensive but in places is visually stunning? Having not been performed for a good while the play marked as one writer put it “a major UK revival of Churchill’s seminal play brought to the stage by Polly Findlay and the stellar creative team behind Thyestes (Arcola) and Eigengrau (Bush)". The play also marked Churchill’s first collaboration with the Joint Stock Theatre Group.

In her programme notes Churchill correctly bemoans the fact that the English revolution and particularly its radical groups get scant attention in modern school history. Churchill’s plays concentrates on three main groups the Levellers, Diggers and Ranters. While there are programmatic distinctions between the groups there is much that unites them. While Churchill does not examine the role of Quakers in her play many leading figures of the Levellers, Ranters and Diggers would end their days paid up members of the Quakers.

One word of warning the play as far as I can see does not follow any chronological order. One critic cautioned that audiences may “find themselves disoriented by the swirl of events and even by the style of storytelling. In all productions it seems that six actresses and actors repeatedly switch roles while playing dozens of characters. Identification is often deliberately blurred.

Churchill throughout her career to date has tackled complex historical questions in a simple but thought-provoking way. Earlier plays have included “Fen" which was about farmworkers in England and "Mad Forest" on the Romanian revolution. She has also not been scared to use theatrical different techniques such as the use collage form.

The plays title taken from the Digger Pamphlet The Light Shining in Buckinghamshire [1]“JEHOVAH ELLOHIM Created Man after his own likenesse and image, which image is his Sonne Jesus, Heb. I. verse 2. who is the image of the Invisible God: now Man being made after Gods image or likenesse, and created by the word of God, which word was made Flesh and dwelt amongst us; which word was life, and that life the light of men, I Joh. 2. this light I take to be that pure spirit in man which we call Reason, which discusseth things right and reflecteth, which we call conscience; from all which there issued out that golden rule or law, which we call equitie: the sum me of which is, saith Jesus, whatsoever yee would that men should doe to you, doe to them, this is the Law and the Prophets; and James cals it the royall Law, and to live from this principle is calld a good conscience: and the creature Man was priviledged with being Lord over other inferior creatures, but not over his own kinde; for all men being a like priviledged by birth, so all men were to enjoy the creatures a like without proprietie one more than the other, all men by the grant of God are a like free, and every man individuall, that is to say, no man was to Lord or command over his own kinde: neither to enclose the creatures to his own use, to the impoverishing of his neigh- bours, see the Charter, I. Gen. from 26. vers. to the end of the Chapt. and see the renewing of the Charter to Noah and his Sons, Gen. 9. from the I. vers. to the 18.

Despite much of the language of the play being couched in religious phraseology it is clear that many people were starting to examine their place in the world and were starting to express a profound disagreement with the way they were being governed.

As David north wrote “until the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt the death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well under way.[2]

The Play

The play consists of two acts and examines the revolutionary events before and after the  Putney debates of 1647 . The first group examined by Churchill are the Levellers. They were by far the biggest and most organized of the revolutionary groups. The high tide for this group was the Putney debates and Churchill correctly places an abridged account of them at the center of the whole play.

That Levellers were not the only group to couch their writings and speeches in religious garb. According to Marx “Cromwell and the English people had borrowed from the Old Testament the speech, emotions, and illusions for their bourgeois revolution. When the real goal had been achieved and the bourgeois transformation of English society had been accomplished, Locke supplanted Habakkuk. Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not recoiling from its solution in reality; of finding once more the spirit of revolution, not making its ghost walk again”.[3]

Putney debates

While much of the play has been written by Churchill she still manages to accurately and skillfully to weave real events and words spoken at the time. By far the strongest part of the play is the partially verbatim transcript of the Putney Debates of 1647, which saw rank and file soldiers and commoners arguing for a broadening of the democratic franchise and an end to social inequality this was opposed by Cromwell, Ireton and other leaders of the revolution.

The quotes for this production come from Geoffrey Robertson’s book[4]. At the Putney Debates Cromwell was clearly taken by surprise by the arguments of the Levellers. But once Cromwell and other grandees recovered their composure they opposed every demand by the Levellers to extend the franchise. 

Ireton spoke for the Grandees when he said “no man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom... that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.” Thomas Rainsborough a Leveller countered by saying  “I really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.”[5]

The Levellers were defeated at Putney and before long were wiped out as a coherent political organization. The play does attempt to grope for an answer why the Levellers and other revolutionary groups failed to develop the revolution in a more left wing direction. In this matter Churchill fails. But in this failure she is not alone. Accomplished historians like Christopher Hill struggled to provide a significant answer to this conundrum. Hill says “The Leveller conception of free Englishmen was thus restricted, even if much wider, than the embodied in the existing franchise. Their proposals would perhaps have doubled the number of men entitled to vote. But manhood suffrage would have quadrupled it. The generals, generally horrified, pretended at Putney that the Levellers were more democratic than they were”.

It is hardly possible in this review to explore in any great detail but a sober evaluation should be made. The Levellers appeared to take on many of the characteristics of a political party in the years 1645-46. This is a contentious issue and has been disputed. They were the radical wing of the Independent coalition and were responsible for many of modern day political techniques such as mass demonstrations, collecting petitions, leafleting and the lobby of MPs. As an aside William Clarke who provided us with the report of the Putney Debates was an avid collector of books, pamphlets and leaflets found in his collection was over eighty Leveller pamphlets. The Levellers strength mainly lay in London and other towns and had not an insignificant support in the army.

The main plank of its manifesto was the call for a democratic republic in which the House of Commons would be more important than the House of Lords. A Leveller would have a wanted redistribution and extension of the franchise, legal and economic reform on behalf of men of small property, artisans, yeoman, small merchants, and the very layers which made up the composition of the Levellers themselves.

The Levellers themselves were part of a group of men that sought to understand the profound political and social changes that were taking place at the beginning of the 17th century. They were the true ‘Ideologues of the revolution’ and had a capacity for abstract thought. Levellers also wished to democratise the gilds and the City of London, a decentralization of justice and the election of local governors and stability of tenure for copyholders. While the Levellers were sympathetic to the poor, which stemmed from their religion they had no programme to bring about social change, they never advocated a violent overturning of society.

Their class outlook, that being of small producers, conditioned their ideology. At no stage did the Levellers constitute a mass movement. The contradiction between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners caused some tension. They had no opposition to private property and therefore they accepted that inequalities would always exist, they merely argued for the lot of the poor to be made more equitable. One of their members John Cooke explained “I am no advocate for the poore further then to provide bread and necessaries for them, without which, life cannot be maintained, let rich men feast, and the poore make hard meale, but let them have bread sufficient”.

Knowing that they could not come to power through the presently constituted electorate the Levellers attempted to find constitutional ways of getting round it. A draft constitution produced in 1647 called the Agreement of the People declared that the state had broken down in civil war and must be refounded on the basis of certain fundamental “native rights” safeguarded even from a sovereign went against one of the most fundamental reasons for the war in the first place. The Agreement amongst other demands, called for biennial parliaments, franchise reform, only those who contracted into the new state by accepting the agreement were to have the vote.

The one real chance the Levellers had to put their ideas into practice was to gain control of the army. The development of the new model army was central to the outcome of the English civil war, who controlled the army controlled state power. The Levellers had agitated for the arrears of wages to be paid and that indemnity for actions committed during the civil war be granted. This agitation had won them considerable support in the army.

In the end as Churchill writes in the Play the only thing the Levellers got out of Putney was the promise of Cromwell to take things to a committee.

To put it more simply the generals deliberately exaggerated the radicalism of a majority of the Levellers in order to label them extremists and to mobilise their own supporters against them. Cromwell correctly recognised that if the franchise was widened it would threaten his position in parliament. Again Hill explains “Defending the existing franchise Cromwell son in law, Henry Ireton rejected the doctrine ‘that by a man being born here, he shall have a share in that power that shall dispose of the lands here and of all things here’. The vote was rightly restricted to those who ‘had a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom’. Namely, ‘the person in whom all lands lies and that incorporation’s in whom all trading lies”.

Ireton claimed the present House of Commons represented them and went on to ask by what right the vote was demanded for all free Englishmen. If by natural right, taking up the Levellers point that they should be free. Who could freely dispose of their own labour? Then Ireton could see no reason why men had as much natural right to property as to the vote. He went on to point out that if you give them the vote, then they will be the majority in parliament and they will give equal property rights to everybody. This argument completely confused Rainborowe and undermined his argument.

Cromwell was acutely aware that the ideas of the Levellers and the smaller groups within them such as the Diggers were becoming a dangerous business. Cromwell said of what he called the ‘lunaticks’ “You must break these men or they will break you” Cromwell declared. By May 1649 the Levellers had been defeated in battle and their influence in the army and in civilian life disappeared.

In many respects, the true revolutionary of the civil war was Cromwell and his New Model Army. While not agreeing with the revisionists that the Levellers were an insignificant movement, they should not also be hyped into something they were not. They were essentially a movement of the lower middle class that sought to extend the franchise on a limited basis. The reason this failed was that the social and economic basis for their ideas had not yet developed in this sense their egalitarian ideas were a foretaste of future social movements, not communistic but more in the tradition of social democracy.


The size and variety of the audiences for the play denote that ideas discussed have a deep resonance with the people today and the play does have a contemporary feel to it. The questions of democracy and of social inequality, the treatment of women, wars and revolution and the subjugation of Ireland is in many senses still with us. The play works on many levels. People without a knowledge of the Levellers will still get a lot out of it. The more academically minded person will also have their intellect satisfied. I would recommend the play wholeheartedly.

[1] LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE, or A Discovery of the main ground, original Cause of all the Slavery in the world, but cheifly in England: presented by way of a Declaration of many of the welaffected in that County, to all their poore oppessed Country men of England, &c. First Published: 1648, anonymous Digger pamphlet;
Source: From George Sabine, ed., The Works of Gerrard Winstanley (New York: Russell and Russell, 1965) 
[2] Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism, By David North 24 October 1996
[3] The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Karl Marx 1852 
[4] The Putney Debates (Revolutions Series) Paperback – 22 Oct 2007
[5] —Putney Debates record book 1647, Worcester College, Oxford, MS 65. Spelling and capitalisation as in the original manuscript.