A Play for Today — The Story of a Pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic has, if nothing else, reminded me of the English playwright Don Taylor’s fine 1970 play, The Roses of Eyam, which is the story of the selflessness expressed by the inhabitants of the small Derbyshire village of Eyam during the ‘Great Plague’ of 1665/66.
As author and educationalist Ray Speakman writes in his introduction to the 1996 Heineman edition of Taylor’s play:
“ After eleven years of Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan government… Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. In the play Thomas Stanley [former Rector of Eyam during Cromwell’s Commonwealth] and many of the other inhabitants of Eyam had clearly been strong supporters of Cromwell and particularly the Puritanical form of church worship he promoted…”
But with the restoration of the monarchy Stanley found himself out of work and at political and religious odds with his replacement, the Royalist William Mompresson. And it is the antagonism between Mompresson and Stanley that initially ignites Taylor’s play before further ignition is caused by the deadly Bubonic virus that has lain dormant in second-hand clothing purchased in London by George Vicars, the village tailor, in the early summer of 1665.
In Taylor’s play, when the clothes arrive in Eyam, they are damp and, as a consequence, are hung to dry in front of the shop fire, awakening the larvae of the ‘Rodent Flea’ (the carrier of the yersinia pestis bacteria, a bacteria that had arisen in China in the 14th century, ending up in Europe via the Silk Route), a flea that quickly latched on to the humans they encountered (they normally fed off wild rodents),quickly transferring, by biting, the deadly bacteria (secreted in the flea’s throat)to their new sapien hosts who, in the 17th century, had little or no immunity to the bacteria.
In reality George Vicars bought a quantity of fabric, not clothes, but, as Speakman tells us, Taylor’s decision to literally turn fabric into clothing is a clever and dramatic device to gather the villagers together in the tailor’s shop where they try on the clothes, with one villager describing the garments as “… rags taken from corpses…” which, as Speakman describes, “…gives a macabre irony to the tragedy caused by their arrival.”
Only slowly did people begin to realise that those who touched the victims of the plague, or their clothes, also became ill. It was a contagion. What to do?
Following the true story closely, and after some good argument, and then agreement, between Stanley and Mompresson, it is decided the village must isolate itself to stop the contagion spreading: that they must sacrifice themselves for the greater good. It was a Christian led decision.
But how long would the isolation last? No one knew.
And it’s the truth of the story, and Don Taylor’s dramatic ability, that makes The Roses of Eyam such a compelling play, and an utterly relevant story for us today.
Five years ago Stratford’s Trinity Players staged a production of The Roses of Eyam in Holy Trinity Church. It was an extraordinary experience for all of us, with my character, Andrew Merrill, a curmudgeonly old soldier who’d fought on the Parliamentarian side during the Civil War, as too his somewhat less curmudgeonly comrade, Old Unwin (played by David Southeard). The two spent their scenes together talking about how other villagers were faring, and very little about themselves, with inevitable, and often amusing, contradictions. But beneath their banter there’s a deep sadness, not only about the plague, but also about an England the two men had fought so hard to improve under the staunch guidance of Cromwell. But they were determined to survive and, instead of staying in the village, isolated themselves in huts above the village, away from the contagion and the fear. It was an instinctive move.
They survived, as did around a third of the village, helping to stop the spread of the bacteria.
The Great Fire of London, in 1666, eventually killed the ‘Great Plague’ off, but what a courageous and determined fight it had been.
The story of Eyam, told by one of the UK’s finest playwrights, is a lesson to us all during this national and world crisis.
Don Taylor: 1936–2003