Norwich playwright remembers peasant poet
- Credit: Archant
Enigmas make for good theatre and John Clare is a figure surrounded by many myths. DAVID HENSHALL spoke to Norwich playwright Tony Ramsay about his latest play based around the famous 'peasant poet'.
He's a bit of an enigma is John Clare, the peasant poet. Word has come down the years that he had a tough time of it, that everybody ripped him off and that he was finally locked away in an asylum by the evil Doctor Skrimshire. Not so, says Tony Ramsay, and he should know.
Ramsay, a Norwich-based playwright, grew up in a village next to the one where Clare spent his young life near Peterborough. He has been aware of the poet since a youngster, loves his work and, as a result, was commissioned by the John Clare Trust to write a new play about him.
The Long Life and Great Good Fortune of John Clare was premiered in the atmospheric surroundings of John Clare Cottage, the poet's former home at Helpston.
It was staged by Ivan Cutting, artistic director of Eastern Angles, and the play is now on the Angles' spring tourer, with more than 50 performances in village halls, barns and churches as well as theatres across the region, including a performance at the Granary Theatre in Wells this Friday and an already sold-out date at Norwich's Dragon Hall later this month.
Tony Ramsay is well-known to Angles' audiences. His previous plays include the North Norfolk murder mystery The Bluethroat and The Anatomist, a black comedy based on the life of the physician Andreas Vesalius.
More recently came Bentwater Roads, a site-specific historical drama performed in an aircraft hangar which drew a four-star review from The Times.
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It was no easy thing coming up with a new idea 'because there are so many plays about Clare. And so much has been written about him in biographies. People love his story. But one theatre specialising in new work has said: 'No more plays about John Clare.' I thought that was marvellous.'
And so Ramsay has gone off on a different tack to meet the John Clare Trust's requirements.
The piece focuses on a man who believes he is John Clare. His psychiatrist, Amita, is busy swotting up on the poet, trying to fathom the reasons behind her patient's delusion. Meanwhile, Amita's partner, writer and literature graduate Rafe, is fixated on his own versions of the Clare legend.
In their search for the real story, all three characters reveal some startling truths about themselves, as well as shining a light on the Clare narratives. They are played by Richard Sandells, Louise Mai Newberry and Henry Devas.
Clare is arguably our most-loved chronicler of nature (1793–1864) and, says Ramsay, 'there's a popular image of him as a victim who was treated appallingly by everybody he came into contact with, went mad and died in an asylum forgotten and neglected. That's shorthand version with just an element of truth in it. He was very well treated by his publishers, he had friends who looked after him and I have never quite bought the view that he was a tragic figure done down by everybody.'
He was clearly a depressive. 'Oh, absolutely without question. A sick man from his earliest days and everybody who has got a cause adopts John Clare. He's regarded as our first eco-warrior because he railed against the enclosures – but he was out there putting up the fences, because he needed the money.
'He was not a political radical. His poetry about the countryside where he grew up and lived is unequalled anywhere. I'm biased here because I grew up in the village next to his and from my earliest days I knew about John Clare. My bus took the route to school he used – except that he had to walk.'
Clare learnt to read at school in Glinton church but was largely self-taught and eventually amassed a good library. He and his wife Patty had six children but she never learnt to read or write. He had two years in the militia, was a limeburner, labourer, fiddle-player – and a womaniser. 'He was an old goat, really,' laughs Ramsay.
'The convention is that he was a man torn between two women, Married to Patty, in love with Mary but it neglects the dozens of other women he had along the way.' Mary was a girl he met as a young man but there is no evidence of any kind of relationship and she died quite young. Even so, Clare wrote hundreds of poems to her. 'She was a young man's fantasy.'
Once he had been discovered, with the help of his publishers, Clare earned more than enough to survive and they found him a house with a garden big enough to grow crops; but his money went on beer, women, books and trips to London, where he stayed for a month at a time. He went first into an Essex asylum, self-admitted, where he stayed three years and then, famously, walked home in three days, living on grass.
Later he was admitted to an asylum nearer Helpstone, where he was given every care by Doctor Skrimshire and from which he could come and go as he pleased. With a name like Skrimshire and the bare bones of the facts, the myth grew up that he was locked away by this 'evil' man. 'He had lots of loyal friends and was certainly not shut away and forgotten, as The Long Life and Great Good Fortune of John Clare makes clear.'
Eastern Angles' artistic director Ivan Cutting, who also directs the production, said: 'I always swore I would never do a show about John Clare, if only because he was the one person everyone assumes a rural touring company's going to do a play about at some point.
'One was always taken by these stories of how he was the example of the terrible nightmare of the enclosures, the poor downtrodden poet, this symbol of the poor countryman...it's not that I didn't agree with that, it was just there was no mileage. It's a bit like we've never done a play about the witches because I think 'well, The Crucible's already been there and done that'.'
Cutting was persuaded because Ramsay's play comes at his life from a completely different angle. The modern day psychiatrist's attempts to fathom the reasons behind the main character's delusions about Clare, and brief that he is the poet, allows the characters reveal some startling stories.
'He also thinks he's Neil Diamond at times as well, because of the Diamond song I Am Who I Am and there's a famous Clare poem called I Am,' says Ivan. 'It's that kind of confusion that operates in his brain and he has a past as well. In trying to solve that past we're also doubling the story of Clare himself. It's a very poignant story and nothing like what I imagined a Clare play would be like.'
The fact that Ramsey had always wanted to do a play about the poet; passionate about the fact everyone says he was a poor, downtrodden so and so when he was actually well looked after and lived until he was 70, also appealed.
'Everybody says this was terrible, he was in an asylum but he had the time of his life. He could walk out any time, down to the porch of the big church in Northampton... he'd sit there, people would come up and he'd write poems for them. The other asylum he was in was very advanced, liberal, for its age,' says Ivan.
'He had patrons who looked after him, was published... There's also this notion because of the enclosures he was moved from his original cottage and was thrown by all this, quite alienated by this new landscape. Actually it was about 200 yards down the road.'
Called the new Keats, the new Burns; there was a lot of pressure on Clare to be what others wanted him to be. He didn't always live up to that or even want to. Remembered as a womaniser, walker, visionary, lunatic; Tony wanted to rescue Clare from his life story.
'There's a bit of myth involved but he did have a troubled time and certainly had his erratic moments,' says Ivan as we discuss the poet's famous verbal assault of Shylock during a production of The Merchant of Venice.
'People talk about what a hard time he had, they don't talk about him as a poet. What we wanted to get back to is the fact he was a wonderful poet.'
t Eastern Angles will perform The Long Life and Great Good Fortune of John Clare at the Granary Theatre, Wells-next-the-Sea, on Friday, April 19, then at the Dragon Hall in Norwich on April 24.
t In May performances will be staged at Hindolveston Village Hall on May 4; Bressingham Village Hall on May 7; New Buckenham Village Hall on May 8; the Seagull Theatre, Pakefield, Lowestoft, on May 9; and at Ashby and Thurton Village Hall on May 16.
t For a full list of dates, times and ticket details call the Eastern Angles box office on 01473 211498 or visit: www.easternangles.co.uk
JOHN CLARE - THE MAN, THE POET
Known as 'the peasant poet' John Clare spent much of his life in and around the small Northamptonshire village of Helpston.
Born in 1793 he worked as a farm labourer and in the local tavern the Blue Bell Inn next door to his home.
His work focused on his natural surroundings, capturing the changing seasons and the nature around him but he struggled to make any impact as a poet in his early life.
Success came in 1820 after completing Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery. Visits to literary society London enhanced his reputation and increased his fame, but the tag 'peasant poet' remained throughout his life, possibly because he lacked an academic background.
Clare suffered from bouts of depression and after suffering delusions, in 1837, Clare was committed to an asylum where he spent the last 26 years of his life. He left the asylum in High Beach Asylum in Epping Forest in July of 1841 and walked 80 miles back home later described in his book Journey Out of Essex. This didn't stop his writing, however, and he continued to write poetry, becoming increasingly influenced by the work of Byron, until his death in 1864.