Tragedy large and small
Bessie Dunlop: Witch of Dairy, By John Hodgart and Martin Clarke, Hodder Stoughton, Pounds 3.99 - 0 340 63914 8.
Mirad, a Boy from bosnia, By Ad de Bont, Longman Pounds 3.99 - 0 582 24949 X.
Arthur Miller's The Crucible proved that fear of witchcraft can be the stuff of classic drama. Miller's was not a "history play", but a modern political allegory for the theatre. He used the fierce local intensities of religious bigotry and sexual hysteria to make a larger point about a world which still succumbs to prejudice and shows an insatiable need for demons and scapegoats. Bessie Dunlop is a documentary chronicle play which explores the same phenomenon as it emerged in 16th century Scotland, at the start of a period of brutal persecution which lasted into the 18th century. The modern parallels are left for readers and audiences to infer, but it would need a good deal of complacency to overlook them.
The play is made up of numerous short scenes, linked by folk songs and narrative voices. This has two advantages. The first is a steady building up of menace and entrapment, as broad Scots comedy gives place to the horror of Bessie's increasing isolation and helplessness. Gossip and gullibility, the stuff of comedy to start with, become the poisoned source of Bessie's downfall. The second benefit of episodic structuring lies in the picture of a whole community that it allows: many kinds of people, with many different motives, conspire to demonise the innocent. Linking the fragmentary episodes is a community still hooked on the old beliefs in magic that the Kirk is teaching it to fear and hate, and therefore nervous and confused. Running through everything is the ingenuous figure of Bessie, incautiously addicted to the lure of doing people a good turn. Naive unselfishness brought Bessie to the fire, along with many of her kind.
Much of the play is written in Scots, ranging from the archaic to the timelessly colloquial, while English is used as the voice of impersonal narrative and of officialdom, most effectively in the Pontius Pilate figure of the Bishop of Glasgow. The Scots dialects will prove a barrier to performance in English schools, but should not inhibit reading or informal classroom presentation. The play is worth the effort: dramatically vigorous and inventive, its themes are sadly all too relevant for modern readers.
Even such atrocities as these grow small when placed beside the tragedy of Bosnia. To find an adequate dramatic voice for ethnic cleansing, and all the other horrors now loose in the Balkans, asks for a Greek tragedian. And there are certainly reminders both of Greek dramatic practice and Greek thought in Ad de Bont's impressive and moving Mirad, A Boy From Bosnia. Mirad's Uncle Djuka, a Muslim, reflects in Scene 7 on the categories of Serb, Croatian and Muslim that made up Yugoslavia, and reminds us that Bosnian Muslims are not a meaningful grouping based on Islamic beliefs but merely a neat device of political management on Tito's part, a bureaucratic way of classifying everyone who was neither Serb nor Croat. Djuka observes, in the simple dramatic verse which is used throughout the play: "We are murdered for something we are not.God's ways are impenetrableand humanity is heartlessbecause who does anything?" Not too distantly audible behind such lines is the voice of Sophocles.
Ad de Bont, a Dutch dramatist who is a trained teacher and specialises in theatre for the young, has made a brave and valuable effort to create a dramatic form which does justice to his terrible subject and brings it out of television cliche for audiences of children. The play is in two parts, which can be performed either separately or in sequence. Each part has only two characters. In the first play they are 13-year-old Mirad's uncle and aunt, respectively Muslim and Croatian, now refugees in the Netherlands. In the second play the characters are Mirad himself and his mother, Verica, who more than anyone else encapsulates the madness that is Bosnia, because she is both Serb and the victim of Serbs.
Since the play has so few characters and actors, each character must regularly supply other voices and take on provisional roles in order to tell the hideous family and ethnic story. The effect is something like the Greek chorus, as characters are caught in varying modes between the suffering participant and the suffering observer, in situations where mere witnessing is torture.
The play has been widely performed to school groups in the Netherlands and Germany, and successfully produced in Oxford, and its appearance in this accomplished school edition is very welcome.
Mirad, A Boy from Bosnia forms part of the Oxford Playhouse Making the Future season, on tour until November. Details: 01865 245781