Arts Week 2015: Scribblers

This post was contributed by Steve Waters, playwright for stage, radio and screen, and also senior lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.

A script-in-hand performance of his new radio play, Scribblers, will be performed during Birkbeck Arts Week 2015 at 43 Gordon Square on Monday, May 18 at 7.30pm. The play charts the stormy relationship between two real life characters: young playwright Henry Fielding and the First Minister Robert Walpole.

Ahead of the sneak-preview performance on May 18, Steve offers some insights into the creative spark behind his latest theatrical work.

ScribblersScribblers’ developed out of a mystery.  I was looking into the notorious Theatre Licensing Act of 1737 with which in effect Robert Walpole used to extinguish an increasingly virulent culture of theatrical satire and noticed in Hansard, published a century later, there was mention of a particular play which provoked Walpole to use the power of the law against playwrights.

This play, ‘The Vision of the Golden Rump’, was apparently brought to Walpole by theatre manager Henry Giffard; yet despite Horace Walpole’s assertion that he saw it amongst his father’s papers, no trace of it has ever been found, nor has it authorship been established.

Yet the target of the law was clear – Henry Fielding, who we now know as a great novelist, but who then was famous for his amazingly bold and inventive satirical plays which were staged outside of the safe circuit of the licensed stage, in the semi-legal world of theatres such as the Little Theatre in the Haymarket.

But on closer inspection Fielding’s reputation as arch critic of Walpole’s tired Whig government was also more complicated. Wasn’t this the playwright who’d written a sycophantic preface to his innovative drama ‘The Modern Husband’, lavishing praise on Walpole who elsewhere he sent up as a dodgy butler (in ‘The Grub Street Opera’) or as the source of all political corruption in ‘The Historical Register of 1736’?

In pondering these mysteries, and looking closer at the fascinating interplay between stage and state in the 1730s, the play emerged as a tale of patronage and revenge. It begins with Fielding thrown on the mercy of Walpole as the Great Man fears he is about to lose his position under the new king; and we see Fielding attempt to bend his wild talents to please power – but in his failure, we see the birth of a radical stage where the truth is voiced whatever the consequences.

Yet whilst my heart is with Fielding I was also compelled by the figure of Walpole, Britain’s first ‘Prime Minister’, who lived and died a political animal and presided over the gradual throttling of the bold ideas of 1688. Walpole shaped a world of politics which resembles our own in its fast-track between money and influence, its paranoia and defensiveness.

So out of these mysteries emerged SCRIBBLERS, a vivid and all too familiar world of writers, theatres and politicians….it’s a comedy that gets darker as it proceeds; and a fable about art and power that I hope illuminates our times as well as revealing this fascinating moment in our past.

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