Inside the quarantine house in ‘One Flea Spare’

Dramaturg Luan Schooler researched the plague year in which Naomi Wallace's play is set

Dave Bodin and Kayla Lian in Shake The Tree's "One Flea Spare"/David Van Der Merwe

Dave Bodin and Kayla Lian in Shake The Tree’s “One Flea Spare”/David Van Der Merwe

By LUAN SCHOOLER

Editor’s note: Luan Schooler was the dramaturg for Shaking The Tree Theatre’s new production of Naomi Wallace’s “One Flea Spare” (through March 22).  ArtsWatch asked her to write about the experience and what she found out about the historical plague-year setting of the play and Wallace’s work in general.

As a dramaturg, it’s important for me to understand what ignites a director’s interest in a project so I can focus my work on supporting their vision. So the first time I discussed One Flea Spare with Samantha Van Der Merwe (Artistic Director of Shaking The Tree Theatre and director of this production) I asked her why she wanted to do this play now.

“Zombies!” was her immediate reply—which, frankly, was not a connection that had ever crossed my mind. She went on to say that she was intrigued by the current fascination with zombies—the unwilling undead who have no choice but to shamble on—and what that might say about our contemporary culture. In some oblique way, One Flea Spare seemed to explore a similar world in tension.

The play is set in London in the plague-ridden late summer of 1665. A wealthy couple, William and Darcy Snelgrave, have nearly completed the 28-day quarantine period that is required after their servants died of plague. Their home is invaded by two strangers: Bunce, a sailor avoiding impressment, and a young girl Morse whose claim to be daughter of another wealthy couple is questionable. The intrusion restarts the quarantine period, and these four mismatched souls are condemned to spend four weeks trapped together in two small rooms.

Not exactly zombies, but as Morse says in the play, “Who was alive and who was dead?” Perhaps the membrane between the living (those who have control over their days) and the dead (those who don’t) is more porous than we like to think. One can easily be trapped by circumstances beyond one’s control: disease, economics, and injustice, to name a few. Our cultural fascination with zombies—an interest that last erupted in the late 1970s when the Oil Embargo knocked the US off our comfortable economic pedestal—suggests that we are culturally uncertain and apocalyptic.

All great food for thought, dramaturgically speaking.

A dramaturg’s job varies from project to project, but for something like One Flea Spare—a well-honed, contemporary play set in a specific historical period—my primary task is to provide context for artists and audiences.

In rehearsals, actors need to understand the historical moment and cultural assumptions their characters inhabit, as well the playwright’s perspective and fascinations. The questions range from the mundane (Was there plumbing? Yes! Rudimentary plumbing was established in London in 1609 although the water was not potable and the ‘night soils’—excrement—still had to be shoveled away) to the esoteric (Who were the Levellers? A political movement in the English Civil War that sought popular sovereignty.) And knowing, for example, that playwright Naomi Wallace cares deeply about class and power helps them sharpen the dynamics of the play, focusing and enriching their performances.

For audiences, it isn’t important to memorize the dry bits of names and dates to enjoy One Flea Spare, but the experience can be juicier and more engaging if one has a grasp of the world in which it is set. The following is a synopsis of the material provided to the artists, in hopes of expanding your experience of the play.

Historical context

The 17th century was a period of tremendous upheaval in England. Discordant strains of rule and religion clashed again and again throughout the century, leading to multiple civil wars between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, and repeated wars with the Dutch, Spanish, French, even the Turks. The religious conflicts that began when Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church continued to roil the kingdom; fierce, bloody conflicts erupted again and again as Catholics, Anglicans, and Puritans grasped for power and position.

This century saw the end of the House of Tudor, the rise of the House of Stuart, the beheading of King Charles I at the hands of Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers, and near economic collapse under the weight of so much conflict. Things settled down a bit when the monarchy was restored and Charles II ascended the throne in 1660, though battles with the Dutch and Spanish continued to erupt for years to come. And James II’s reign ended abruptly in 1689 when the last Stuart king was deposed in favor of William III.

Matthew Kerrigan in "One Flea Spare" at Shaking The Tree/Photo by Gary Norman

Matthew Kerrigan in “One Flea Spare” at Shaking The Tree/Photo by Gary Norman

London

London in the late 17th century was a bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis, a global trading powerhouse and the largest and wealthiest city in Europe by century’s end. For those with connections and position, life was an elegant swirl of finery and sophistication. For everyone else, it was loud, fetid, and overcrowded.

The population grew from 80,000 in the mid 16th century to more than 460,000 by 1665, the growth driven largely by immigration of the poor who were displaced from the countryside by famine, war, and the practice of enclosure. The city grew in chaotic fashion, with slums sprouting next to wealthy homes and elegant haberdasheries. The narrow twisting streets were filthy with mud and waste, and crowded with carriages, flocks of sheep, and the hot press of humanity. Rats and vermin were everywhere. About a third of children didn’t survive to their sixth year, and nearly half never saw their 15th birthday.

The Great Plague

In the winter of 1664, a comet slowly crossed the London sky, which was interpreted as foretelling a slow, grinding misery to come. The Great Plague was on its way.

Plague epidemics had ravaged London repeatedly, with outbreaks in 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625, 1636, and 1665. Each time the population was reduced by 10-30%. During the Great Plague of 1665 (which struck in April and subsided only seven months later) the official count of plague deaths was 68,596 although it was probably closer to 100,000.*

Though the actual source of the plague (fleas that lived on rats) was unknown, it was deemed to be God’s punishment for the breakdown of England’s social values**. At the same time, it was widely understood to have come to England from Holland—its mysterious nature somehow transported in the belly of a trade vessel. This created havoc in the trading economy as ships from the continent were burned by fearful Londoners, and English ships were likewise turned away from European ports.

English physician, Nathaniel Hodges (1629-1688) described the symptoms of the plague vividly:

THE [manifest Signs of Infection] are Horror, Vomiting, Delirium, Dizziness, Head-ach, and Stupefaction.
OF the [Appearances after Infection], a Fever, Watching, Palpitation of the Heart, Bleeding at Nose, and a great Heat about the [chest].
THE Signs more peculiar to a Pestilence, are those Pustules which the common People call Blains, Buboes, Carbuncles, Spots, and those Marks called God’s Tokens.[i]

These “tokens”—swellings in the armpits, groin, and neck—frequently turned black and hard, and were exquisitely painful. The swift onset of symptoms was followed by fierce bouts of shuddering and quaking, nausea, retching, unquenchable thirst, fever, and grievous vomiting. One might vomit up one’s soul and expire.

Quarantine

Fear took hold of the city, and those with the means to do so fled to the country. Certificates of Health were required to pass out of the city, and securing one was frequently expensive, thus trapping the poor while the wealthy escaped. Not knowing who might be carrying the disease, people avoided all unnecessary contact, and London’s usually bustling streets were empty. The government did its best to organize against this invisible enemy: quarantine of any household that had been visited by plague was established as the primary means of limiting the spread. Homes (like the Snelgraves in One Flea Spare) were closed up, confining all the inhabitants therein.

IN Order whereunto, it is to be observ’d, that a Law was made for marking the Houses of infected Persons with a Red Cross, having with it this Subscription, LORD HAVE MERCY UPON US: And that a Guard should there continually attend, both to hand to the Sick the Necessaries of Food and Medicine, and to restrain them from coming Abroad until Forty Days after their Recovery. But although the Lord Mayor and all inferior Officers readily and effectually put these Orders in Execution, yet it was to no Purpose, for the Plague more and more increased.[ii]

Hucksters, charms and cures

Other efforts to control the spread included prayer and repentance, burning pans of charcoal in the streets continually, and culling all the dogs, cats, and pigeons from the city (which unfortunately exacerbated the problem by eliminating the rats’ most effective enemies). It was thought that smoke might have a preventive effect and all people, including small children, were encouraged to smoke tobacco. Surfaces, coins, and clothing were washed with vinegar, and branches of rosemary were worn around the neck. Hucksters had a field day, selling charms and amulets, vials of “plague water,” ground unicorn horn, even mercury for rubbing into wounds. It was also thought that lancing the swollen lesions might release the foul vapors. Since not all who caught the plague died from it, nearly any of these “cures” could be cited as the cause of someone’s salvation.

The summer after the Great Plague struck, another comet moved across the London sky. Whereas the one that had foretold the Great Plague was slow and dim, this new one was fast and bright. A few weeks after it was spotted, the Great Fire of London destroyed the city.

Seventeenth century Britain faced catastrophic upheaval in nearly every aspect of public life: religious, political, economic, and communal. Plague, fire and famine added their lot to the calamity. Grounded in this crisis, One Flea Spare is a bristling, often darkly comic examination of class, sexual, and political warfare played out on a brutally optimistic human level.

Kayla Lian and Jacklyn Maddux in Naomi Wallace's "One Flea Spare"/Photo by Jennifer Murdoch

Kayla Lian and Jacklyn Maddux in Naomi Wallace’s “One Flea Spare”/Photo by Jennifer Murdoch

Naomi Wallace

“Wallace is that unfashionable thing—a deeply political US playwright who unashamedly writes about ideas rather than feelings. In a string of dramas […] Wallace has written about class, oppression, alienation and exploration in poetic, sensual language; watching one of these plays is like being stroked by Karl Marx.”[iii]

Naomi Wallace has written 15 plays, including In the Heart of America, Slaughter City, One Flea Spare, Birdy, The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, Things of Dry Hours, and The Liquid Plain (which premiered at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2013). Her work has been produced in the UK, Europe, the US and the Middle East. She has won numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship, Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (twice), Joseph Kesselring Prize, and the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize in 2013. In 2009 One Flea Spare was incorporated into the permanent repertoire of the French National Theatre, the Comédie-Française; only one other American playwright’s work has been honored in this way in the 300 year history of La Comédie: Tennessee Williams.

Wallace was born in Prospect, Kentucky, into a comfortably middle class family. He father was a journalist and “gentleman-farmer” and her mother a Dutch woman who had been active in the Netherlands Communist Party before moving to Kentucky. From the time she was eight, Wallace was a regular participant at rallies and marches for liberal causes.

The family’s left-leaning sympathies put them at odds with their conservative community, which resulted in Wallace often feeling like an outsider at school and with children of her own class. She found an easier time playing with the children of poor farm hands, housemaids, and tradesmen on neighboring farms. Her vicarious experience of poverty and the lifelong friendships developed there influenced her in two profound ways: the rhythms, turns of phrase, and naked eloquence of this community shaped her singular poetic voice, and a keen awareness of class and poverty fueled her work as poet and playwright with a rigorous, political viewpoint.

Power and agency

In her plays, Wallace examines the political through the personal, teasing apart rigid, tangled constructs of gender, class, identity, and equality. “I’m interested in relationships of power,” she says. “How the struggle for power and/or agency—or indeed withholding of that power—affects us in the most intimate ways. I’m interested in investigating how social and historical forces come to bear on who we think we are and what we need…”[iv]

Characters in her plays often experience a transgressive sexuality, an expression of her interest in the body as a political being. Whether it is the young girl Morse trading sexual favors for candy with her guard, or William Snelgrave, a powerful shipping magnate, panting to hear about potent, sinful urges of his servant/seaman Bunce, sexuality is currency, as are tenderness and compassion.

What fascinates me is how much the body and politics are connected. The body that labors is also the body that loves. And if you live in a society where what you do for a living destroys the body, then that affects how you love sexually. […] Can a love be possible between people from two different classes? In One Flea Spare, you have a sailor from the lower class and a woman from the upper class—there’s a power structure there they have to live with every day, and it doesn’t disappear in their intimate moments: it isn’t erased through sexual contact. Social roles damage our bodies, labor damages our bodies. From the day the body is born, our body is pulled and stretched in different directions through the political values of our society.[v]

Crisis and transformation

One Flea Spare (the name is taken from a John Donne poem published in 1633) was inspired by the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. ”I’d been reading Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year when the riots broke out,” she recalls, ”and I began to see them both—L.A. and the London plague—as the same event. A time of crisis. A time when rich and poor get thrown together—and, suddenly, one sees alternatives.”[vi]

Though driven by her observations of the inequity and brutal lack of empathy that global capitalism engenders, Wallace is nonetheless hopeful. Revolutions begin in fleeting moments of transformation—those dark moments of chaos and loss, when seizing a fragile thread of hope that we are all in this together is all that remains. This fragile thread is what Morse clings to at the end of One Flea Spare, when she says “I loved them, and they have marked me.”

Why now?

From our 21st century perch, we may smirk at the naive and foolish attempts to curb the Great Plague’s deadly toll. But we need only think back to our response when AIDs first appeared—fears that it could be transmitted on toilet seats or by shaking a gay man’s hand, proclamations that it was a plague on gays sent by God—to know that we have not evolved so very much.

What is our plague today? What forces may blow us asunder? Will it be disease or injustice, natural catastrophe or climate change? Naomi Wallace doesn’t dish up easy answers, but she does offer a tiny thread for us to cling to:

When we cross boundaries, when we violate our own skin to know the heartbreak or hope or resistance of another, what we come closer to, surprisingly, is ourselves. Because through imaginative empathy, we revive our own humanity.[vii]

Carpe diem. Seize the thread.

NOTES

* Fortunately for posterity, a haberdasher by the name of John Graunt became fascinated by the information that could be gleaned from the weekly Bills of Mortality (the weekly tallies of deaths compiled in each London parish during the 17th century). Though he had no formal education, his study and compilation of the Bills created the fields of demographics and vital statistics. His work offers a window through which the outbreaks and spread of the plague may be known.
** from Households and families in the seventeenth century London: a social snapshot (by Mark Merry and Philip Baker, 1996), concerns that seem weirdly similar to those today:

“We also want to consider the context of contemporary fears of a breakdown in the family at the end of the 17th century. […] Irregular and failing marriages, low fertility rates, small numbers of children, a proliferation of single adults, and high numbers of lodgers were all seen as symptoms of a collapse in the integrity of the domestic unit, brought about by the destabilising influences of immigration, high mortality, burgeoning commercialisation and urbanisation. Disorder in the household was seen as the root of wider social and economic problems: pervasive idleness, sporadic crime waves, irreligion and immorality were all significant concerns.”

***

[i] Loimologia, or An historical account of the plague in London in 1665, by Nathaniel Hodges
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] from “Enemy Within” by Lyn Gardner, The Guardian, February 5, 2007
[iv] from “Naomi Wallace talks to Martin Edwards”, Act Up Blog, April 7, 2011
[v] from TONY KUSHNER IN CONVERSATION, Poetry, Plays, Politics, and Shifting Geographies. Edited by Robert Vorlicky. The University of Michigan press,1998
[vi] from “An American Exile in America”, by Vivian Gornick, The New York Times, March 2, 1997
[vii] from THE THEATRE OF NAOMI WALLACE: EMBODIED DIALOGUES. Edited by Scott T, Cummings and Erica Stevens Abbit. Palgrave Macmillan, December 2013

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