The Living

Anthony Clarvoe

This outstanding  play was first presented 3 May 1993 by the Denver Center Theatre Company, directed by Nagle Jackson. The playscript was published in American Theatre, December 1993, pages 25-42.

[local note: American Theatre  is housed in WWU's library, basement west, bound periodicals. I know of no electronic version to point to, and the small print on the playscript's first page makes it a capital crime for me to save you the trip to the library by putting this excellent play here on this site. I trust it isn't a crime to tempt you to read the whole thing by quoting a little from it.]

The play is set in London, 1665, during the Great Plague. It opens with Mr. John Graunt standing to one side of the stage, holding a large sheet of paper, densely printed. He looks out.

GRAUNT: Ague and Fever, 5,257. Chrisomes and Infants, 1,258. Consumption and Tissick, 4,808.

He turns upstage where, on an upper level, Dr. Edward Harman, dressed in a protective suit which completely covers him, hovers near a cot with a corpse in it. Graunt turns back.

GRAUNT: This is a publication that comes out every week. Has for sixty years now. Each parish reports how many christened, how many died, what they died of. It's called the Bills of Mortality. People subscribe, glance through. At year's end, they publish a summary. Convulsion, 2,036. Dropsie and Timpany, 1,478.

Harman pulls a sheet over the body

GRAUNT: Frighted, 23. Grief, 46. Overlaid and Starved, 45. Plague, 110,596.

Harman exits

GRAUNT: We did not know where it came from. We did not know what caused it. We had no way to stop it. For all we knew, it would never end. For all we knew, the world would end, in 1665. Bear that in mind. Judge what we did. For in this account it does not matter what becomes of me, or any of us. All that matters is what becomes of you. And what we did may be of use to you, if this ever should happen again. (He exits)

This is a powerful play from start to finish. Throughout the performance no one comes within arm's length of anyone else, except the doctor. No object is ever handed directly from one person to another.

It is also extremely well researched. Material which can seem dull in reading Graunt's book comes to life, as in this exchange between Graunt and Lawrence, Lord Mayor of London. The reference is in Chap. VI of the Observations Graunt refers to the popular belief among enemies of His Majesty Charles II that coronations (James I in 1603, Charles I in 1625) bring on major outbreaks of the plague:

LAWRENCE: And you proved his enemies wrong.

GRAUNT: I proved everybody wrong. If you really look at the Bills, you see there've been plague years after some coronations but not others, you see there is no twenty-year cycle--

LAWRENCE: You see there's no predicting it.

GRAUNT: You see there is. I predicted this one.

LAWRENCE: You did?

GRAUNT: Three years ago. The plague doesn't come from nowhere, you can see it coming months away. Before the plague years, there is always a sickly year: increase of fevers, increase of stillbirths, increase of infant deaths. Same this time.

This point is made in Chap. IV of the Observations.

Amid the tragic and touching events which transpire in this play, Clarvoe still manages to work in a humorous jab at Graunt's dogged pursuit of statistical fact. Here Graunt tells of having gone to visit a parish clerk whom he suspects of terrible under-reporting. He found the office locked and, after breaking in, found the clerk at his desk, with his head lying on the register, dead from the plague in the middle of making an entry.

GRAUNT: I could see on the open page, almost the last thing he'd written. I was peering around his head. There was ink on his cheek. The entry for plague read five hundred and four.

LAWRENCE: My God. For one parish? For one week?

GRAUNT: I stood there thinking, five hundred and four. Yes, terrible. But. Did he count himself?

Get a copy of this play and read it. Or better yet, see it if you can. You'll learn what holds the world together in a plague.

Stephan Graunt