Tag Archives: Jenny Geddes

History, witchery and recurring themes…

A few years ago I found my Story Jotter from P1. I flicked through it, interested to see what I was writing about when I was four and a half. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to find a story about a witch, another about a ghost, and one about two children playing in a tree house that inexplicably burned down. Supernatural beings and subtext, two of my favourite things… for longer than I realised, apparently.

I was a spooky little child, it’s true. I spent my first ever book token on the Usborne Book of Ghosts, and I was constantly on the lookout for anything that might be evidence of ghosts in my house (and since I’ve always been prone to sleep paralysis/night terrors, this wasn’t in short supply). Hallowe’en was my favourite day of the year, outstripping my birthday and Christmas by a long way.

Where the initial interest came from, I don’t know. I’ve mentioned before that some of my earliest memories are of powerful hallucinations and magical thinking due to the wonders of Schizotypal Personality Disorder, so perhaps it’s just that these things made sense to my addled brain. No matter how it began, the fascination only grew as I got older. I hit my teens at that point in the 90s when all things paranormal and occult were in vogue.

I got myself a deck of tarot cards and a few crystals, but actually the popularity of these things dampened my enthusiasm. Contrary soul that I am, I didn’t want to be just another teenage girl toting a mass-produced Book of Shadows. I liked history. If I was going to dabble with the occult, I was going to find out how it was done before US Games ever produced a ouija board and do it that way. This, in my teenaged mind, constituted authenticity. I was going to be the most non-conformist non-conformist that ever refused to conform. Let my peers get their ideas from Buffy and Charmed, I was going to get mine straight from the Malleus Maleficarum.

My motives may have been daft, but the important thing was that I started reading. I began with stuff aimed squarely at tourists and teenagers, but I quickly worked my way towards more legitimate sources and discovered that the history of witchcraft belief was incredibly interesting. I took Joyce Miller’s OLL Course on Witchcraft Belief in Early Modern Scotland, which fuelled my interest further and led to my amassing a respectable collection of books on the subject… and of course, since I like to plunder history for plots, those books informed a couple of plays.

Creepie Stool, the play about Jenny Geddes and the riots over the Book of Common Prayer, is not specifically about witchcraft, but it gets a couple of mentions. One of the characters is viewed with suspicion because she comes from somewhere near North Berwick, and the memory of the witch trials there a generation earlier still casts its shadow. Jenny attributes the sudden death of her beloved elder brother to witchcraft because she has no other explanation for an apparently healthy man simply dropping dead. As far as I know, none of the characters in the play have ever attempted maleficium – but it’s a concept that exists in their world. They don’t all entertain it to the same extent as Jenny, but they’re all aware of it and the dangers of being thought to practice it. It’s also in there because the play is about religious tensions in Scotland in 1637, and witchcraft belief is all tangled up with the politics of the era.

My latest play, Heaven Burns, is set in 1662 – 1663. It’s less concerned with the wider political picture, and much more directly concerned with witchcraft. Again, none of the characters actually practice witchcraft. It’s based on the story of Christian Caddell, a woman who disguised herself as a man to become a witchpricker – and a particularly vicious one, at that. In my version of her life, she’s a woman with a lust for power that gets channelled through religious fanaticism. She’s an extremist who believes she has a direct line to God. She’s the kind of person who should be frightening in any time period.

One of the other characters in the play is Isobel Gowdie, who may or may not be the same Isobel Gowdie whose famous confession was so influential in shaping perceptions of how witchcraft was practiced. The historical Isobel lived near Nairn, and Christian’s territory ran from Elgin to Wardlaw (now Kirkhill) at least, so it’s possible that their paths crossed. However, Isobel’s long and detailed confession is believed to have been taken without the use of torture – unusual in witch trials, especially if Christian was involved. The play suggests a possible reason why Isobel might have self-accused so freely, and why her case might not have fallen to Christian. It’s pure speculation, of course, based on the little information available about these women and my own overwrought imagination… but I hope it’s not too far-fetched. My aim is to explore the fears and tensions of the time, and to steer clear of anything too fantastical.

I’ve been asked a few times recently why I base so much of my work on history. The simple answer is that it’s an incredible resource. History is a vast collection of lived lives in which nearly everything that could be done was done. It’s made up of stories told by countless people, each with their own bias and limitations, so it’s never truly knowable and is open to endless interpretations. It’s never what you think it’s going to be. It’s rarely pure and never simple. It’s fucking fascinating.

If I had set out to create Christian, I don’t know if I could have done it. The process would have gone something like this:

 

ME: Ok, so I want to write a play about a woman who passes herself off as a man to become a witchpricker.

VOICE OF REASON (VOR): That’s stupid. How would that even work?

ME: Well, she’d get men’s clothes and use a man’s name and… well… prick witches, I suppose.

VOR: Right. And nobody notices she’s a woman because everyone in The Past is simple and credulous, right? So let me get this straight, a woman decides to run the massive risk of pretending to be a man so that she can, for some unexplained reason, hunt witches. Without any kind of training or preparation, she is so convincing that no-one ever doubts that she’s a man. And she becomes a witchpricker despite her lack of papers, history, letters of recommendation, license… And then what? What’s the point of it?

ME: …I don’t know.

VOR: Didn’t think so. Sounds a bit shit and implausible. Are you perhaps letting your determination to write roles for women cloud your judgement?

ME: …maybe. You know what, you’re right, it’s ridiculous. I’m just going to write another play about ghosts now.

 

I needed Christian to exist already so that I wouldn’t get sidetracked by wondering whether her story is plausible. It doesn’t matter whether a woman pretending to be a man to become a witchpricker is plausible – it happened. She was eventually arrested and made her confession in the Tolbooth in Edinburgh on the 30th of August 1662. Even taking into account the fact that records are often full of inaccuracies, I’ve yet to come up with a solid argument suggesting that Christian didn’t exist, or didn’t fake her way into a brief but eventful witchpricking career. Try as I might, I can’t think of a reason why that accusation would have been levelled at her unless it was true, or at least thought to be true.

Knowing that Christian’s story did exist, I was able to use it as a lens through which I could examine the fears, tensions and power struggles that affect her and the other characters in her world, but which have parallels today. I think one of the greatest things about theatre is that it offers a means of creating and dismantling monsters. The world is full of people who do things that I find hard to understand, whose actions baffle my bleeding heart and liberal mind. I can either ignore them, clutch my non-existent pearls at the thoughts of such horrors, reduce them to caricatures, or try to understand what motivates thinking, feeling human beings to deliberately inflict suffering on others. Christian might be a historical figure, but people like her, as terrifying as her, are not confined to the past.

Heaven Burns has been an unsettling play to write. It’s darker than my previous work, and I find myself wanting to apologise to the other characters for putting them in the same world as Christian. There were scenes I put off writing until the very end because I didn’t want to think my way through them. I’m very excited to hear it read at Previously…, especially as I’m certain the cast will make a very fine job of it, but I’m also nervous at the prospect of developing it further and spending more time sharing my head with these characters. (I’m also nervous because there will be an actual historian at the reading to talk about the historical context, which means there’ll be someone qualified to catch all my errors and call me on my bullshit. This is an inexpert enthusiast’s dream and nightmare rolled into one.)

If you want to hear the play/watch me panic/ask awkward questions to which I don’t know the answer, it’s on at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the 21st of November. What happens with it after that is anyone’s guess, but I’m hoping that it’ll have a life beyond this reading. It’s no secret that I believe there’s an audience out there for new, lively history plays that focus on interesting women. Now I just hope I’m right…


Pre-Creepie Stool thoughts on strength and complexity

Creepie Stool opens tonight. My plans to attend a rehearsal were scuppered by hospital time (no Fringe flu for me, this year I went for full-on gastroenteritis and getting pumped full of IV fluids instead). Consequently, tonight’s performance will be almost entirely new to me. (I say almost because I’m still expecting to recognise the odd line here and there, but you never know, I suppose…)

Anyway, just in time for the opening of my play, this article starts doing the rounds on social media: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters. Can’t be bothered clicking? It’s Sophia McDougall writing about the trope, primarily found in film but also prevalent in theatre, of the Strong Female Character. She dislikes Strong Female Characters because they are so seldom proper, rounded characters. Instead they are the same old weak, male-dependent figures except they also kick people (usually men) in the face. They still don’t get to have, y’know, personalities.

There are plenty of comments from people who think it’s not a problem because they can name a few female characters who are rounded, human and well-written. Many of them cite characters who are actually none of these things, but even if they were, the fact remains that we need more. There’s still a huge imbalance between male and female protagonists. We’re still defining particular films and shows and plays as being “for women”. It’s still tough for a female actor over 30 to find meaty roles.

I’ll admit that I had all of these things in mind when I wrote Creepie Stool. I had agreed that it would be a three-hander for a female cast before I had even chosen the subject matter, and both of those decisions were purely pragmatic. There was enough money in the budget to pay three actors. Women are more plentiful than men in the industry. On a personal level, I like to write roles with specific actors in mind and I know several excellent actors who happen to be both female and over 30. Writing for a particular actor can be an incredibly useful starting point, because then I can take that person’s qualities and think about what conflicts and secrets and challenges they could have… Basically, I sit down and think “how can I give this person a hard time?”

None of the characters in Creepie Stool are intended to be representative of all women, or of a particular section of society, or to be role models or good examples of any kind. I wanted them to be messy, fearful, just trying to get through life without everything collapsing around them. None of them is in a particularly great place – Jenny sees herself as a matriarch but she’s beholden to her son and to a daughter-in-law whom she protects and resents in equal measure, Marjory has married somewhat above her station and lives in fear of disappointing her exacting husband and/or her family, Christian has reached an age where she needs to get married or wind up a spinster with no security, and her choice of husband is severely limited by the secrets she carries around (one of which is never explicitly mentioned, and I wonder how many people will even notice it). They’re all aware that they have to keep other people happy if they want to have a roof over their heads. They’ve all got things they have to hide and public faces they have to show if they want to survive. They have things they love and want to protect, things they fear losing, things they’re proud of, things that upset them, things that interest them. Jenny has monologues because there are things she will only tell the audience, not the other characters in her world. Marjory doesn’t, because it would be bad manners to monopolise the conversation that way. Christian doesn’t, because there are things that are too private even for a soliloquy. Some things you don’t even tell the audience.

I hope, I desperately hope, that some of this will come across in the writing. More than anything else, I want people who see this play to find the characters believable. If I can go to bed tonight feeling that I wrote three layered, complex characters, I’ll be happy. They’re not “Strong”. None of them knows kung fu (that I’m aware of). The world they live in removes much of their agency. They all have to take a certain amount of shit from other people because, well, who doesn’t? They’re quite capable of being paralysed with fear and indecision, but no-one is coming to save them.

And they’re all on the poster.

 

Debbie Cannon as Marjory, Angela Milton as Jenny, Belle Jones as Christian


Writing Creepie Stool

Yes, it’s that time of year already… The Fringe is poised and ready to pounce, snapping us up in its five star fangs yet again. It’s no secret that I have a love/hate relationship (weighted in favour of love, but the hate can’t be ignored) with the theatrical behemoth that takes up residence on the Royal Mile every August. As it gets closer, no doubt there’ll be posts from me about its irritations and imperfections. However, at present I have reason to love it and to celebrate.

This year I wrote my first commissioned piece for the Fringe. It’s called Creepie Stool, and it’s part of the Festival of Spirituality and Peace. They commissioned two new plays from Edinburgh writers on the theme of sectarianism. I was one of those writers, Jen Adam was the other – her play is called Kiss, Cuddle, Torture. It’s a lovely feeling, being asked to write a play rather than starting by writing one and then shopping it around in the hope that you’ll find someone who wants to stage it, or producing it yourself. However, it’s really weird writing a play to a specific brief.

I’m used to writing to a brief in other styles. When I ghostwrite fiction, the briefs are often very specific. There are particular formulae I’m usually asked to use within the genres in which I specialise. They’re not the same stories that I choose to write when I have no-one to answer to but myself, and the characters don’t make the same choices that they would if their fictional world was governed only by me. My job is to put flesh on pre-existing bones.

When I write plays, on the other hand, there are no pre-existing bones. I create the skeleton myself. Plays happen when I have an idea that rattles around in my head for long enough that I can’t ignore it. I start writing for the same reason that oysters start coating bits of grit in mucus – not with the intention of creating a pearl that someone might someday value, but simply to get this fucking sharp thing to stop irritating me. I don’t go looking for bits of grit. They just find their way in.

Starting work on a play without the bit of grit was a strange experience. I knew I had to write a play, I knew it had to be about sectarianism and I knew I had to deliver it by a particular date. You would think that wouldn’t be too much of a problem, considering that I was brought up by a Glaswegian Protestant and a Glaswegian Catholic. But there are two problems with that. First, Singing I’m No A Billy, He’s A Tim has already been written. Second, this year marks the tenth anniversary of my Mum’s death and the ninth anniversary of my Dad’s. Anything that takes me too close to the world they grew up in… no. Not just now. That way madness lies.

I considered various other options. There’s sectarian violence and discrimination all over the world. You’d think that it would be easy to find some where other than Scotland and write about the situation there. I didn’t, because sectarian issues tend to be incredibly complex and I would need more than a couple of months to do sufficient research to write anything that did justice to the places and people involved. The best I could have done would have been something trite, shallow and general, the kind of play that can do nothing more than reassure my fellow Guardian-reading lefties that we all know that sectarian violence is A Bad Thing. I needed to start from a position of actually knowing something.

So I looked to history. I’ve been an amateur history nut for most of my life. I can date it back to my first trip to Linlithgow Palace, when my dad started telling me stories about Mary, Queen of Scots and I realised that “the past” was a massive repository of my favourite thing: stories.  As I grew up and began to think critically I realised that history was not something fixed and known, it was open to interpretation and revision. It wasn’t pretty and orderly, and it certainly wasn’t some kind of golden age where everyone was better behaved than they are now.

The “golden age” attitude to the past came to annoy me more and more. When I worked as a tour guide I began to see how many people thought that anything that happened before 1960 was a BBC costume drama, the kind where the good end happily and the bad unhappily (give or take the occasional tragedy, where the unhappy demise of someone good is ultimately redeemed by the dignity and beauty of their death). I listened to people bemoaning the stupidity and selfishness of people in the present with increasing vexation. You think that people were more intelligent, more faithful, more honourable a hundred years ago, or a thousand? READ MORE. THINK MORE. Check out the Greeks moaning about how stupid and selfish people had become. I came to the conclusion that people, collectively, remain more or less the same. Values and influences change, but I think we remain more or less the same bundles of chemicals and impulses no matter when or where we live. (Then again, most of the confusion in my life has been caused by thinking – hoping – that other people are more or less similar to me, so what do I know? Still, I have yet to see anything that convinces me that people living centuries ago were fundamentally different to people today, so I stand by it.)

So how did this generate an idea for the play? Well, I am particularly interested in people’s need for a common enemy. Some years ago I did a Lifelong Learning course studying witchcraft in early modern Scotland, where I learned how little the persecution of “witches” had to do with witchcraft and how much it had to do with anti-Catholic sentiments and tension between the old faith and the comparatively recent adoption of Calvinism. I found it interesting, but I didn’t dig into the details too deeply at that point.

When I went looking for the Sectarian conflict that would prompt the play, I began thinking about how little I knew about  Calvinism. It’s a religion that had a profound influence on the country I grew up in, and yet I couldn’t have explained its basic beliefs.  I knew far more about the Church of England than the Church of Scotland – score one for Religious Education in Scottish schools! I knew a little about the Covenanters’ War, enough to understand that 17th century Scottish people had issues with Charles I and it was something to do with religious strife,  but I couldn’t have told you how the whole thing got started. I wondered whether the play might be lurking somewhere in the depths of that conflict, so I started digging.

That’s what led me to Jenny Geddes. In 1637 she got quite upset at the introduction of a new Book of Common Prayer. Charles I had been advised that the Scots weren’t going to like it, but he wasn’t a great one for listening to advice. Jenny thought it sounded a bit too much like Mass, so she picked up the stool she was sitting on and threw it at the minister of St Giles. A three-day riot ensued. Shortly afterwards, the National Covenant was created and signed, and the Coventanters’ War began.I started exploring Jenny’s motives. What got her so angry that day? What was she afraid of? What were the influences that got her to the point where she felt so strongly about what she was hearing?

Then I needed to find some other characters for her to interact with. There’s not a lot to go on, historically. Jenny Geddes didn’t have a well documented life. So I imagined her employer, the woman whose seat Jenny was being paid to keep in church that day. And I gave her a maidservant, because I wanted three women with different social status. I made a few basic decisions about what they would be, engineering their characteristics to allow for conflicts of interest and personality, and off I went.

In terms of research, this was a very difficult play to write. Even now that it’s written, I still don’t feel like I’ve completely got my head round it. If I hadn’t had a deadline, it would probably have become one of those plays that I rework for years and never show to anyone because it’s not exactly right yet. I’ve done my damnedest to get the historical context right, but I know I set myself an impossible task. Which makes me quite glad that I didn’t try to write a play about a present day culture that I don’t understand from the inside. At least I know that I won’t accidentally make things worse for Jenny Geddes, upset 17th century Scots by misrepresenting them, or trivialise an ongoing conflict.

Does that mean the play isn’t relevant? I don’t think so. We have a hell of a lot to learn from history. We don’t, as a society, because we reduce history to a Sunday teatime drama or a narrowly focused and horribly dry subject at school. I’m well aware that some people will come to see this play, take one look at the costumes and decide that it can’t possibly have anything to say about the world we live in today. All I can do is hope they’ll spot the similarities between 17th century people attacking a church because they considered Catholics a threat and 21st century people attacking mosques because they consider Muslims a threat.

The play is being directed by Jasmin Egner and has a fantastic cast; Angela Milton, Debbie Cannon and Belle Jones. I can’t wait to see what they’ll make of it. They’re intelligent, sensitive people and I trust them, which is great because now I have to leave it in their hands. My only involvement now is to throw research resources their way and try not to pester them. In the meantime, I am off to write a play that no-one asked me to write, with no brief at all, about what will happen when social media eventually turns on us all…