[Full article published in The Clyde Fitch Report, May 7, 2018.]
Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, now revived Off-Broadway by New York Theatre Workshop, takes its title from a 1648 political pamphlet outlining the sources of economic slavery amid a murky mess of religion and politics. The execution of Charles I in 1649 then left England without a king, and years of oppressive, experimental governance ensued. Churchill takes this historical question as a dramatic challenge: Can we do this human-rule thing without monarchy?
The English Commonwealth (1649-1660) was inspired by the insurgency of such groups as Levellers and Diggers, who sought everything from popular sovereignty to what we would today consider anarchism. At the same time, religious institutions were challenged by such groups as Ranters, who eschewed the authority of organized faith and believed that man had to hear the divine from within.
Ultimately, it was the existing historical fragments of the 1647 Putney Debates that offered Churchill the raw material, with additional situations imagined by the playwright, through which to craft her work. The debate language can ring righteously: the historical rights of landed privilege versus every Englishman’s right to vote. When balanced with discussions for and against formalized religion, it can seem as though God were standing for election.
It is director Rachel Chavkin’s production concept for his revival, where this production gets a bit murky. Political and religious interests represented in the Putney Debates do lead to broader questions, it’s true. What would our world look like, they debated, if there was no established religious order and no monarchy? The debates unpacked “one man one vote”; there was then a fear, one eerily current, of the uncontrolled mob. The rabble is messy and uncontrolled and different: why would those in power give any of it up? The problem is that these long and very specific debate sections reference historical details without context.