William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Rosemary Branch Theatre Club, London, July 1988
Is Blake entertaining? One step inside this tiny café theatre and the average member of the public might well regard any encounter with him as a pretty hellish experience: strange subterranean voices cry out like lost souls in an auditorium covered in shroudlike drops. From the ceiling hang various luminous objects with no apparent sense or meaning. Striding through the audience onto the stage, the three actors (two men and a woman) continue in the same vein— “Energy, Genius, Infinite, One Law,” they hiss in witch-like tones before stating “The Argument.” I say stating, but really it was chanted using various vocal styles—unison, staccato, and syncopation. This made quite a sound, but what was gained in energy and sheer dynamics was lost in clarity and finally in comprehension of the text. Happily this was not the case elsewhere, and, often following Blake’s original “color-coding” (Copy H), the swapping of lines between the actors injected a terrific pace and direction into the words. At key points, as in “A Song of Liberty,” the players set the text to music, but this was less successful, the natural rhymes and rhythms of the words seeming to fight with the imposed melody.
The biggest laughs of the evening came from the “Proverbs of Hell”—whether out of excess sorrow, nervousness, or at the audacity and wit of the man. With so many no offer it was inevitable that some were passed over rapidly, while others were given a more lingering treatment. Intended interpretation, too, was often heavily hinted at by the use of appropriate intonation. For the most part this was acceptable, but, less forgivable in the interrogative, puzzled tone adopted for “Enough! or Too much”—surely more didactic and imperative in the text?begin page 96 | ↑ back to top
But this was mostly a dramatic presentation, the three actors flinging themselves about the stage in the kind of ecstatic postures of “William” and “Robert” depicted in Milton. Things settled down, though, for the Memorable Fancies which gave them stronger character and more conventional narrative to follow. Isaiah was played as pompous and illusory to the Blakean protagonist, whilst Ezekiel became lying and pretentious. Debatable as these interpretations may be, it did make good theatre. Indeed, considering the drama of much of Blake’s work, I wonder how more has not found its way onto the stage.
“Energy,” they finally cried, “is eternal delight,” tearing away the shrouds to reveal painted fire over all the walls. A powerful and visual performance, then, of Blake’s Hell with all its heavenly delights. Corrosive stuff!