The importance of understanding Heathcote Williams


It is precisely Heathcote Williams’ purity of heart that causes him to investigate the corrosion in the hearts of others,

Source: New York Times, 21 July 1974

Since the sixties, England has produced only one playwright whose inner resonance could compare with the front runners of the New Wave: Pinter, Osborne, Arden. That writer, on the strength of only one full‐length play—”AC/DC”— and a single one-acter—”The Local Stigmatic”—is Heathcote Williams. There is a need to proclaim this so portentously because England breeds writers faster than dogs breed fleas, and there is a strong tendency here, and in the United States, to be overcome by the sheer weight of numbers. There is an enormous amount of activity in England, but very few solid dramatic pieces: only a handful or plays are worth protecting or returning to.

Among these plays, “AC/ DC” rotates like the missile out of “2001 A Space Odyssey” — not simply because it is a good play but because it is the only play yet written to capture the tremulously combustible nature of the 21st century, which, because our mortal lives always trail chronology, is the century in which we are actually living.

And “The Local Stigmatic”, which was created as a brilliant piece of effrontery to Pinter’s “The Caretaker,” is to “AC/DC” what Chekhov’s “The Wood Demon” is to his “Uncle Vanya’—a testament that the writer is thoroughly equipped to dole out the small change of the drama and that the full‐scale investments are only a matter of time.

In the mid‐sixties, Heathcote Williams wrote “The Speakers,” A compelling documentary ‐style play about the real and fantasy world of Speaker’s Corner, Hyde Park. Recently, William Gaskill and Max Stafford‐Clarke and their new Joint Stock Company presented a limited run engagement of their adaptation of ‘The Speakers” — an environmental piece which, in a smallish, boarded‐up space, rem.struts the several stations of the invisible cross which make up that tawdry and tempestuous open space where free spoech travesties itself, and the supreme fringe‐characters of England come to orate their obsessions; it is a Rimbaud‐like vision of what New York’s Union square used to be.

Entering the Terrace Theatre of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the spectator is confronted by a central tea‐stall huddled beneath a giant piece of scaffolding on top of which the lighting‐operator executes his cues. Around the room, various speakers are haranguing the non ‐existent crowd they hope soon to collect. These are not politicos or erudite Oxbridge lecturers, but people with mammoth private grievances.

A half‐naked tattooed man, his face a maniacally scrawled doodle, tells of his association with Al Capone, for whom he allegedly, worked for many years. Another, a bearded Teuton who admits that if he didn’t speak publicly he would probably perpetrate horrendous crimes, proclaims, with Old Testament fervor, the historical ,superiority of ,the German race. A sober‐suited Socialist mouths the clichés of the thirties like the catechisms they have now become.

But of all the social misfits in Williams’s world, the most riveting is MacGuinness, a coal‐eyed Irishman for whom oration is an exercise in salvation. MacGuinness talks about his life, invents outrageous tales about his sexual adventures, pretends to a human grandeur which, he declares, his own being cannot contain. “There is not enough MacGuinness for MacGuinness,” he wails.

An amphetamine addict, a drunk, a buffoon, a breakerof‐faiths and a giver‐of‐laws, MacGuinness demonstrates the insanity of the Reasoned Life. He ladles out his brimming personality like a demented chef bestowing soup among the starving.

Human communion, or the best we can hope from it, is nothing more than a halfmad Irishman confessing outrageous lies to a listening but heckling crowd. Life consists of helplessly spilling the beans to an inert, if rambunctious, crowd; a supercharged Vladimir reviling a multitude of Estragons, killing time by running off at the mouth, but mainly warming up a lost and anguished crowd for the touch which will pay for today’s booze. The image of MacGuinness and the masses is, for me, as potent as Beckett’s tramps beneath the withered tree in “Waiting for Godot.” “I will tell you Myself,” he seems to say, “and thereby infiltrate your subconscious, and together we will, if not defy, then at least defer.

Amid the demons and victims who are the Speakers, Cafferty—a character presumably representing Heathoote Williams himself—floats freely, sucking up half-digested knowledge and leaden banalities. He befriends MacGuinness, records his words, is obsessed with the secret power—the deific blarney—which contaminates the man and sets him ablaze with individuality. What is MacGuinness’s secret? Why is this impoverished, dishevelled, unemployed hobo like a Titan amongst pygmies? (The real‐life model for MaeGuinness, it’s said, never got over the death of his wife, and Speaker’s Corner WAS for him a divine, slow ‐burning suicide. He died in the midsixties of drink and amphetamine poisoning. When samples of his blood were sent to the hospital to be tested, the lab ‘technicians thought someone was having a joke. The liquid was like mucous jelly, and of a color never before encountered.)

Gaskill and Stafford‐Clark have brilliantly varied the use of the environment, “The Speakers” opens up into outdoor demonstrations, and occasionally closes down for pure streams of consciousness. The actors wear their characters like hip‐length boots: snug, steady‐footed, well‐immersed. The structure of the performance is courageously low‐keyed throughout. In fact, I would have preferred a few energy bursts. My own memory of Hyde Park is that there were many occasions when things got out of hand.

But one can never talk conclusively about a performance of “The Speakers,” since the arrival of each new audience produces a different kind of combustion. On some nights, audience‐energies perforate the structure, producing an entirely unexpected dispensation; on other nights, when things are tamer, the original shape unwinds without the aid of public intervention.

There are no seats, as such. A viewer moves from one area to another; that is, from one eruption to another —an endless perambulation around uneven foothills. The only time you gain anything like a vista is at the end. Going home, you feel you have inhabited the swirling center of a Brueghel painting.

What makes “The Speakers” a stimulating experience is the sense of mingling with the desolate shades that inhabit England’s underworld—a very different sphere from its “underground,” and much more verifiable. The people one meets there and the exchanges one overhears are reminiscent of Pinter’s early plays and, indeed, there is a striking resemblance of theme between Williams and Pinter. In both, you get the sense of an anguished world, tucked desperately—but discernibly—behind a panoply of civilization.

I’ve been told that not long ago Heathcote Williams was fined £50 for ripping up a pavement near Green Park and planting some shrubbery there, It is exactly the kind of act one would expect from him—an extravagant demonstration of good sense calculated to show how the world is being run by zombies. He is co‐founder “with a million others, of a new nation under God—the Albion Free State.” To the British, who view such shenanigans as the routine gestures of the avant‐garde, Williams it, at best, an eccentric; more likely, a mental case.

But I find Heathcote Williams one of the few people I have ever met whom would call pure in heart. It is precisely this purity of heart that causes him to investigate the corrosion in the hearts of others, It is what fuels “AC/DC” with a power that is simultaneously what made “The Speakers” satanic and deific, and it is —during its all‐too‐brief run —a more rewarding experience than the current repertories of The Royal Shakespeare Company and The National Theater put together.



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