Revising Atrocious Cultural Histories through Theatre: Oliver Cromwell and Genocide in Ireland

There is a statue of Oliver Crowell out­side the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. Whenever lists of the great­est Britons are com­piled he reg­u­larly sits in and around the top ten1. He de­signed and ex­e­cuted geno­cide against the in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion of Ireland. Yet, by some, he is cel­e­brated.

How can we in­ter­rupt the nar­ra­tive of the cultural hero” in cases where that hero” should not be cel­e­brated? How should we best stage cul­tural in­ter­ven­tions in cases where the cul­tural nar­ra­tive has been rewrit­ten to omit in­crim­i­nat­ing parts? One of the most pow­er­ful things about the­atre and other per­for­mance-based me­dia is its abil­ity to cul­ti­vate em­pa­thy. What is be­ing de­picted — per­formed — hap­pens with real live peo­ple. Perhaps, here, in the­atre, we can cre­ate force­ful art, sit­ting peo­ple down in front of it: real bod­ies, real pres­ence, real hu­man be­ings. Perhaps this in­ter­rup­tion of the real with a dif­fer­ent real could work.

In this ar­ti­cle I de­tail some of my re­search as a play­wright in­ves­ti­gat­ing meth­ods to in­ter­vene in the cul­tural cel­e­bra­tion of atro­cious peo­ple. My aim is to cre­ate a piece of the­atre that, when con­sumed, will make some­one feel un­easy — con­flicted — dirty — per­haps a lit­tle cul­pa­ble — at their next en­counter with Oliver Cromwell. In this way, I hope to con­tribute to the rewrit­ing of the nar­ra­tive that sur­rounds him. The play We Didn’t Kill the Wolves (It was Cromwell) has been de­vel­oped as part of the Act II Festival in London. Rehearsal and de­vel­op­ment was di­rected by Catherine V. Mclean, with en­sem­ble mem­bers Mia Kitty Barbe-Wilson, Ceara Harper, Tom Hunter, Magnus Korsaeth, and Louis Vichard. At the time of writ­ing, de­vel­op­ment is on­go­ing


In 1649, Oliver Cromwell led his New Model Army into Ireland to re-con­quer the coun­try for England and ex­act re­venge for the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Cromwell com­manded an army that mas­sa­cred civil­ians in Drogheda and Wexford un­der no-quar­ter or­ders, en­acted laws and di­rec­tives that his­to­ri­ans ar­gue amounted to at­tempted geno­cide, and shaped the sav­agery of his suc­ces­sor Henry Ireton’s com­mand. Cromwell signed the Act for the Settlement of Ireland in 1652 and over­saw fur­ther rat­i­fi­ca­tion in 1657 as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. The act or­dered sum­mary ex­e­cu­tions, mass land con­fis­ca­tion, and forcible de­por­ta­tions of in­dige­nous Irish to the West of Ireland, and as indentured ser­vants” to plan­ta­tions in the Caribbean. Irish re­sis­tance was strong as they fought for their lives and cul­ture. They tied branches to­gether in forests to form im­pen­e­tra­ble thick­ets against ad­vanc­ing armies; but the English burned those forests. Estimates sug­gest be­tween 10 to 41 per­cent of the Irish pop­u­la­tion were mur­dered be­tween 1649-53. By 1659, af­ter en­su­ing famine and the set­tle­ment of English Protestants, the drop in the in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion has been ap­prox­i­mated by some to be as high as 83 per­cent234.

In writ­ing the play around Cromwell, I set some pa­ra­me­ters from the out­set:

  1. Irish peo­ple and their cul­ture would be the pri­mary fo­cus — not the story of the English. There is a place for close analy­sis of the per­spec­tives of colonis­ers, but voices and sto­ries of the colonised should come first. British cul­tural rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the ef­fects of coloni­sa­tion in Ireland are poor, barely pre­sent­ing the sto­ries of Irish peo­ple from the time of the Cromwellian Conquest — nor from many other points in his­tory.
  2. Oliver Cromwell — al­though not the fo­cus in char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment — should fea­ture. It is a key part of the pro­jec­t’s aims that the au­di­ence leave the the­atre feel­ing cul­pa­ble in the per­pet­u­a­tion of Cromwell’s sta­tus as a British hero.
  3. The play should be within rea­son­able means to pro­duce. This pa­ra­me­ter fore­grounds ques­tions about pro­jected bud­get of re­al­is­ing the writ­ing, po­ten­tial toura­bil­ity, re­sponse to pro­gram­ming trends, and the qual­ity/​en­ter­tain­ment value of the play.

This ar­ti­cle will fo­cus on my de­vel­op­ment of the char­ac­ter of Cromwell, in pur­suit of pa­ra­me­ter two, within a larger body of re­search about po­ten­tial story, struc­ture, genre, style, and form.


Three po­ten­tial ap­proaches for the de­pic­tion of Cromwell came from the fol­low­ing plays: Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976), which ex­am­ines the English Civil War in­clud­ing drama­ti­sa­tions of Cromwell and Henry Ireton; Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison (2019), based on the book by jour­nal­ist Luke Harding, which both de­picts and im­pli­cates Vladimir Putin in the as­sas­si­na­tion of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 — a task par­al­lel to my own; and Tim Crouch’s Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation (2019), which pre­sents the neg­a­tive ac­tions of an au­thor­ity fig­ure in a cult, and uses par­tic­u­lar for­mal in­no­va­tions to ad­dress au­di­ence com­plic­ity in the story.

Caryl Churchill uses doc­u­men­tary sources in her de­pic­tion of Cromwell. She drama­tises sec­tions of the Putney Debates — a se­ries of de­bates in 1647 about a pro­posed new English con­sti­tu­tion — de­pict­ing Cromwell’s de­bat­ing vic­tory against left-wing ideals. The doc­u­men­tary ma­te­r­ial is con­trasted with a se­ries of short scenes of or­di­nary peo­ple and pro­test­ers with pared-back, func­tional di­a­logue. Their po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions are fore­grounded at the ex­pense of deeper char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment, and the ef­fects of Cromwell’s pol­icy de­ci­sions on the in­hab­i­tants of England are high­lighted. The re­sult is a honed-in fo­cus on the missed op­por­tu­nity for rad­i­cal po­lit­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties in British his­tory — such as the uni­ver­sal nat­ural and le­gal rights and ex­tended suf­frage the Levellers po­lit­i­cal group were com­mit­ted to, or the agrar­ian so­cial­ism cham­pi­oned by the Diggers — and the use of rich source ma­te­r­ial as the ba­sis for Cromwell’s char­ac­ter for­ma­tion aids Churchill’s mis­sion to bring the au­di­ence as close as pos­si­ble to see­ing how those op­por­tu­ni­ties were lost. Ultimately, how­ever, while the fi­nal im­pres­sion of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is a utopian pos­si­bil­ity lost in rather epic terms, I am not sure this play’s con­tent goes far enough to af­fect the shift in per­cep­tion of a spe­cific in­di­vid­ual that I want to achieve in my play. with speci­ficity.

In A Very Expensive Poison, Lucy Prebble tack­les a con­tem­po­rary his­tor­i­cal event and chooses to place a na­tional leader at the cen­tre of her ar­gu­ment about cul­pa­bil­ity. She cre­ates a charis­matic Putin who breaks the fourth wall and meta-com­men­tates to the au­di­ence on the sub­ject of writ­ing his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive. Putin ad­dresses the au­di­ence at the end of Act I.

PUTIN. Ladies and gen­tle­man [sic], you’ve been very pa­tient. Of course, of course all roads lead back to me, that is how it is now, I see. But you are too smart to be­lieve this. A the­atre au­di­ence. You know bet­ter. You know that as soon as some­one starts telling a story they start telling a lie.5

Prebble con­tin­ues Putin’s mono­logue with an ac­count of the deaths of 119 civil­ians un­der his au­thor­ity dur­ing the Moscow Arts Theatre hostage cri­sis of 2002; and tran­si­tions from there to a de­scrip­tion of Alexander Litvinenko’s life, which in­cludes de­tails con­tra­dic­tory to those on­stage. Act I ends with Putin’s provo­ca­tion, The doors are open ladies and gen­tle­man [sic]. Enjoy your drinks. There is no need to re­turn”6, and he ap­pears in an au­di­ence box at the be­gin­ning of Act II Scene 2 to ex­claim, You have re­turned. That shows a cer­tain lack of trust. Hurtful.”7 Putin’s char­ac­ter con­tin­ues to in­ter­ject com­men­tary through­out, of­ten dis­parag­ing the ap­pa­ra­tuses of the play (you’re be­ing dis­ap­point­ingly lit­eral about this”8) and al­ways with the ve­neer of a mas­ter ma­nip­u­la­tor wheedling his way out of trou­ble. Whilst al­low­ing room in the three-act nar­ra­tive to fo­cus on the story of Alexander and Marina Litvinenko, Prebble’s ren­der­ing of Putin sticks in the au­di­ence’s mind and re­flects in form the con­tent of the play’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the cover-up sur­round­ing Litvinenko’s mur­der. Where the Litvinenko Inquiry in Britain was un­able to de­fin­i­tively prove Putin’s in­volve­ment, Prebble very ef­fec­tively demon­strates his probable”9 in­volve­ment us­ing the the­atri­cal lan­guage avail­able to her. However, the play also de­mands high pro­duc­tion val­ues and a large cast to ex­e­cute. It would be dif­fi­cult for me to se­cure the bud­get to pro­duce some­thing sim­i­lar. Furthermore, the tar­get of Prebble’s play dif­fers cru­cially from mine in in­tended au­di­ence: British rather than Russian; played to the na­tion that ex­pe­ri­enced the atroc­ity rather than the na­tion of the per­pe­tra­tor. If the play were pro­duced in Russia, could it change the minds of any Putin-sympathetic peo­ple there?

Tim Crouch, in his play Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation, pre­sents a charis­matic dooms­day cult leader who has writ­ten a book in which all ac­tion is pre­or­dained. The book’s con­tent is the playscript, and the ac­tors read their lines from it; each au­di­ence mem­ber is given a copy and turns the pages along with the ac­tors. The au­di­ence fol­lows a char­ac­ter ques­tion­ing the cult (all of her ques­tion­ing, as it will un­fold, is con­tained in the book every­one holds) at the last hour be­fore the end of the world. Whilst the os­ten­si­ble ac­tion is her jour­ney, the real coup of the piece is in cast­ing the au­di­ence as the other cult mem­bers, slav­ishly read­ing along with the book. When the leader, Miles, en­ters, he lev­els provo­ca­tions to an au­di­ence that help­lessly pushes for­ward his lies. There’s no go­ing back, right? It’s too late to walk out now, right? Someone? [An au­di­ence mem­ber says yes.”] Yes.10 Audience mem­bers are is­sued in­struc­tions via the writ­ten stage di­rec­tions, for ex­am­ple, they are di­rected to read pas­sages of text and then thank Miles. The play’s ge­nius is that au­di­ence mem­bers who want the play to con­tinue are co­erced by its con­struc­tion into be­com­ing com­plicit in its ma­chin­ery: com­plicit in prop­ping up the cult leader of the play’s nar­ra­tive.


In my con­struc­tion of Oliver Cromwell I have worked from the blue­print of Prebble’s Putin, ex­pand­ing the snide au­di­ence ad­dress into an atro­cious bravado. Cromwell opens the play with meta-the­atri­cal com­men­taries:

OLIVER CROMWELL. This is one of those re­vi­sion­ist his­to­ries. Post-colonialism or some­thing. I’m barely in the play. I’m only in one sin­gle, measly scene. This one. Talk about be­ing writ­ten out. […] And me — a British National Hero, stat­ues every­where! People are say­ing I com­mit­ted geno­cide in Ireland — well I don’t know how that can be the case when I’m barely in the play.11

What starts as di­rect ex­po­si­tion gives the char­ac­ter room to push the same con­tents fur­ther and fur­ther in later ap­pear­ances on stage. The British pub­lic’s (and there­fore the au­di­ence’s) idol-wor­ship is con­tin­u­ously em­pha­sised with off­hand com­ments such as since you all love me, I’ll tell you what’s go­ing on”, I’m Oliver Cromwell, cheer when I say some­thing funny”, and you all put up stat­ues of me — don’t pre­tend like you have a prob­lem with me now.” The theme of writ­ing-out in his­tory is de­vel­oped in Cromwell’s pon­tif­i­cat­ing re­sponse to in­ter­rupt­ing a scene of Irish char­ac­ters con­fronting each other over shel­ter­ing a Protestant set­tler — an act that mir­rors the in­ter­rup­tion of Irish cul­ture that coloni­sa­tion af­fected:

OLIVER CROMWELL. If you want the truth, I’d ad­vise you to read up on what we recorded in the his­tory books in­stead, which did­n’t in­clude any of their cul­ture. […] I did­n’t for­get to record them in the his­tory books. In his­tory noth­ing else ex­ists here af­ter I ar­rive — be­cause I kill these peo­ple.

In Cromwell’s next ap­pear­ance I try to ac­cel­er­ate his flip­pant ap­proach to­wards mass-mur­der and geno­cide:

OLIVER CROMWELL. Back in England I mur­dered King Charles, who had a fam­ily and a wife and chil­dren and friends. Back in England, my friend Tommy P12 and I, we purged half of par­lia­ment be­cause they did­n’t agree with us, ha­haha, oh you should have seen it. It was so funny.


So now my best army in England and I are pop­ping over to Ireland for a spot of eth­nic cleans­ing with the lads. Hop on the boat to Dublin for some at­tempted geno­cide on ethno-re­li­gious grounds. I reckon we can get maybe five, maybe six… hun­dred thou­sand civil­ians?

The speech cul­mi­nates in the most di­rect as­sault on the au­di­ence’s re­spon­si­bil­ity within the world of the play — a call-and-re­sponse sec­tion that aims to lay bare what they are en­dors­ing by ac­cept­ing Cromwell’s cur­rent legacy in Britain:

OLIVER CROMWELL. When I say Drogheda, you say Murder all the civil­ians. Drogheda! [CROMWELL makes the au­di­ence re­spond.]

Let’s try that again.

When I say Wexford, you say Burn all the civil­ians. Wexford! [Audience re­sponse. CROMWELL re­peats un­til the re­sponse is sat­is­fac­tory.]

Okay, if you in­sist.

Finally, it was im­por­tant to me that my Cromwell would go fur­ther than the speak­ing of the three texts out­lined above — that this Cromwell would act. The vi­o­lent power of mur­der­ous ac­tion in David Ireland’s plays Cypress Avenue (2016) and Ulster American (2018) were in­flu­ences for me here13, as well as the cathar­sis in the vi­o­lence at the end of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman (2017)14. Following Cromwell’s lit­eral in­va­sion of the stage, he ex­horts the au­di­ence to cheer for him, thanks them, and then mur­ders the char­ac­ters pre­sent. This is the penul­ti­mate scene of the play, be­fore a mono­logue from a sur­viv­ing Irish char­ac­ter, which con­fronts some of the longer-term ef­fects of colo­nial­ism.

The above script seg­ments have been sub­stan­tially re­drafted af­ter con­tri­bu­tions from the en­sem­ble in the re­hearsal room — through Catherine Mclean’s di­rec­tion and Louis Vichard’s act­ing. One of the ma­jor con­tri­bu­tions to Cromwell’s char­ac­ter was the rein­tro­duc­tion of pe­riod lan­guage. The mod­ern lan­guage is pre­sent in his ag­gres­sive di­rect-au­di­ence ad­dress, but there are other mo­ments in the play when the en­sem­ble felt that a more pe­riod-spe­cific tone was ap­pro­pri­ate — par­tic­u­larly for de­pict­ing some of his re­li­gious jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for his ac­tions. They found source ma­te­r­ial to in­tro­duce to his speech — such as a prayer spo­ken when mur­der­ing one of the char­ac­ters at the end — and phrases and mo­tifs from some of his par­lia­men­tary speeches. These con­tri­bu­tions gave the char­ac­ter ac­cess to an­other reg­is­ter, which al­lowed the ac­tor to vary his de­liv­ery and cu­rate the arc of a per­for­mance with more nu­ance than my ini­tial mono­logues. The call-and-re­sponse tech­niques were also tested and honed in front of an au­di­ence, by three ac­tors from the National Youth Theatre in a work­shop set up by the Act II Festival.

The de­vel­op­ment of this pro­ject was re­gret­tably in­ter­rupted by Covid-19, and ini­tial per­for­mance dates at the Arcola Theatre with the Act II Festival and at the School of Oriental and African Studies have been post­poned. The next step for this pro­ject is to trial its cur­rent form with a test au­di­ence. Specific at­ten­tion will be paid to what de­gree the per­for­mance re­frames or in­ter­rupts the nar­ra­tive of the cultural hero” around Cromwell. The play might fail on ac­count of its ag­gres­sive­ness; it might push too far from cul­tural touch­stones and turn peo­ple away. However, to an­other au­di­ence mem­ber, it might pro­vide just the right blend of ridicu­lous-enough-to-be-en­ter­tain­ing whilst de­liv­er­ing its mes­sage. These are some of the things I (and the en­sem­ble) will be watch­ing for. Then we will take that feed­back for­ward into the next phase of de­vel­op­ment. Keep your eyes peeled for the full-length play — and don’t re­main cul­pa­ble in ac­cept­ing Cromwell’s geno­cide!

James Ireland is a non-bi­nary writer and the­atre prac­ti­tioner based in London and Dublin. They are in­ter­ested in rep­re­sen­ta­tions of mar­gin­alised com­mu­ni­ties. They will grad­u­ate from the Royal College of Art’s MA Writing pro­gramme this sum­mer.

  1. ‘The Greatest of Them All’, Great Britons: The Great Debate, Episode 12, BBC, November 24, 2002. Television. The television show and its accompanying poll is informally known as ‘100 Greatest Britons’.

  2. Pádraig Lenihan, Confederate Catholics at War, (Cork: Cork University Press, 2001), 112.Robert Bucholz and Newton Key, Early Modern England: 1485-1714, Second Ed., (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 268

  3. John Patrick Prendergast, The Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland, (New York, N.Y.: Haverty, 1868), 177.

  4. William Petty, ed. Thomas Larcom, The History of the Survey of Ireland, commonly called the Down survey, A.D. 1655–6, (Dublin: Irish Archaeological Society, 1851). Accessible at

  5. Lucy Prebble, A Very Expensive Poison, (London: Methuen, 2019), 60.

  6. Ibid., 61

  7. Ibid., 63

  8. Ibid,. 112

  9. “Taking full account of all the evidence and analysis available to me, I find that the FSB operation to kill Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patrushev and also by President Putin.” UK Home Office, The Litvinenko Inquiry: Report into the Death of Alexander Litvinenko, by Sir Robert Owen, London: Williams Lea, 2016, Chapter 12, Section 9.215. Accessible at (accessed April 25, 2020).

  10. Tim Crouch, Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation, (London: Oberon, 2019), 102.Emphasis in original text.

  11. James Ireland, We Didn’t Kill the Wolves (It Was Cromwell), performance draft, unpublished. Ongoing, January 2020-present. All further quotations, unless otherwise specified, are from here.

  12. Colonel Thomas Pride.

  13. Both plays interrogate complicated questions of identity amongst Northern Irish/British citizens as a result of settler colonialism in Ulster.

  14. The Ferryman is also set in Northern Ireland and looks at the effect of The Troubles on an Irish Catholic family.