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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.