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The Pest Years of Our Lives 

Anthony Clarvoe's London plague drama

Wednesday, Feb 17 1999
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Photo by Bob Lapin
The Living, Anthony Clarvoe's 1993 drama about the London plague, is a veritable atlas of facts and figures about the 1665 epidemic that claimed 75,000 lives, a breathing work of research that puts tragic abstractions into very human proportions. Clarvoe presents a cross section of Londoners during the pestilence's early phases, when public understanding of the disease and the scientific community's response to it were barely more erudite than their medieval ancestors'.

Not surprisingly, everywhere he turns Clarvoe finds men behaving badly, for when the going got tough, the not-so-tough got going -- all the way to Oxford, with the required Crown passes tucked into their silk-lined pockets. The Living's principal characters are those who stayed behind: Lord Mayor Sir John Lawrence, demographer John Graunt, physician Edward Harman, shopkeeper's wife Sarah Chandler and nonconformist minister Dr. Thomas Vincent.

The Lord Mayor (John Ross Clark) is probably the most pressured of these, since he has the choice of leaving -- like King Charles II and others of the privileged elite, he can escape to the country -- but feels he must stay. Not only that, he dutifully remains at the controls of a government machinery whose wheels are breaking apart at the hubs. Ross plays this rugged but troubled soul with ease, a quality wanting in most of the ensemble. If the calculating brain of Clarvoe's narrative is John Graunt (Kelly Foran), the man whose meticulous inspection of parish death records allowed him to accrue enough facts to guard against the plague's recurrence, then its heart belongs to Sarah Chandler (Alison Shanks), a commoner whose family has been wiped out and who eventually becomes a nurse.

The problem with these stalwart characters is that they are mostly too granite-jawed to engage us; Dr. Harman, who seems to be in perpetual mourning for himself and London, also forsakes a ticket-of-leave to the countryside, ministering instead to the afflicted with methods he has no faith in and which he knows only cause more pain. I'm not saying Clarvoe should have turned his history into a burlesque -- any plague, like the AIDS epidemic or the Holocaust, is one of those brushes with extinction that make glibness a tough sell. (As Edgar Allan Poe wrote in his own plague classic, "The Masque of the Red Death," "Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made.")

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But Clarvoe proceeds with such high-toned grimness that by the end of Act 1, we are all but begging for a little comic relief. (Paging Theodoric of York, Steve Martin's medieval barber from Saturday Night Live.) Nowhere is this more painfully apparent than in a scene where Sarah tries to enter the town of Walthamstow. A trio of local yobs (Al D'Andrea, Greg Foran and Clayton Whitfield) block her passage on the road, first with words, then, after an escalation of threats, with dogs and musketry. (The men don't want to risk letting their community become infected by tainted Londoners, though ironically Walthamstow would one day be swallowed up by London's East End.) The reasonable Sarah entreats them with "Prithee, kind sirs, let me pass," or reasonable words to that effect. We know we're supposed to be outraged by these unyielding men's behavior, but we only want to shout, "Lady, there's a fucking plague going on -- you're lucky these guys don't cut off your head and stuff it with garlic!"

There is one recurring character who does command our attention every time he appears -- the minty Lord Brounker (an ebullient D. Ewing Woodruff), a toff who seems more concerned with his new wardrobe and exit visa than with the welfare of the capital. We're supposed to scowl at this dandy and ask, "Just what are they doing in Oxford, anyway?" Well, we do think this, but not in the manner the playwright intended, because, what with London's plague, then Clarvoe's unsmiling heroes, Oxford sounds like a pretty swingin' place. In fact, we'd give anything for a play that took us to its world of moneyed cowardice and debauchery.

The only strategy Clarvoe employs to lighten up his gallant figurines is to puff up their dialogue with rhetorical winks to the future that include jabs about government-funded medical care and safe sex. "Please thank Dr. Condom for his invention," emphasizes one character, while Graunt proclaims a new science: "I call it statistics. Do you think it'll catch on?" By play's end, when Sarah mentions having seen "a man with a scythe," the story's intellectual imagery has mired down into Pre-Raphaelite kitsch.

 

All of this is really a shame, because Clarvoe has, to put it mildly, done his homework. His exhumation of data and anecdote is breathtaking, as is his seamless weaving of these into the narrative. The details of how doctors "relieved" afflicted patients, the role of "body searchers" who verified the plague's presence and the unintentional connivance of parish Bills of Mortality in concealing the breadth of the epidemic, are good, gossipy history, as well as enlightening.

But there is also the fuel for a combustible farce amidst all the grief, if only Clarvoe would awaken to the possibilities. Similarly, there's the potential for a more balletic and ceremonial presentation of the plague; this production's most arresting image occurs at the very start, when the lights come up on the Boschian figure of Dr. Harman wearing a protective robe and prophylactic headgear in the shape of some terrible bird. But then the play artlessly glides from the poetic to the pedestrian. (Director David Rose, who normally finds lightness whenever it is appropriate, plays Clarvoe's script like a dead man's hand. As always, the Colony's design elements come to the fore, expressed here by Matthew O. O'Donnell's moody lighting plot and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg's period costumes.)

Writers love plagues; from Defoe to Mann to Camus, literature is full of stories about bands that played on and how people responded to biological anarchy. Political metaphors invariably abound in these tales, often at the expense of those ancestors who don't measure up to our moral standards. People never miss a chance to quote Santayana's famous aphorism about the price of ignoring history's lessons, but what they themselves ignore is that history is not so much a teacher as a guidance counselor -- it only suggests certain options and possibilities.

What we learn from the past are the technical pointers -- the need to boil water and to avoid building on undrained swamps, not the advisability of treating people with compassion. "Never again" makes a good slogan, but it never gets translated into practical policy -- ask the Bosnians. Plays like The Living only remind us that, while it is easy to bristle or laugh at the attitudes of our predecessors to crises, it is easier to forget that at this very moment everything we hold true and dear is quietly fermenting to provide the punch lines of tomorrow's satires.

THE LIVING
By ANTHONY CLARVOE
At the COLONY STUDIO THEATER
1944 Riverside Drive Silver Lake
Through April 4


The 20th annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards, with Circle X Theater Company, the cast of Naked Boys Singing!, Chris Wells, Karen Finley, Pasadena Shakespeare Company and others, will be held at the Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtown, on Monday, April 19, beginning at 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 7 p.m.); reception to follow. The posting of nominees can be found online at www.laweekly.com. Admission for all nominees plus one guest is free; for all others, $12. All queries and RSVPs can be made on the Awards hot line: (323) 993-3693. Please make checks payable to L.A. Weekly c/o Lisa Yu, 6715 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90028. Checks must be received by April 4.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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