The Proms Live, BBC Radio 3’s live streaming service, is doing a series of broadcasts of the “Proms in the Park” — music festivals in London hosted in public spaces. I’ve seen a few of them before, and the setting and the people generally seem to me to give the evening a suitable mix of communal activity and a certain degree of tension, perhaps because of the pressing concern among audiences about — well, about most things.
But I’ve never heard a performance that had such a powerful impact on me. “In Praise of Clothes” — a piece by Caryl Churchill — was on last Friday, so I’ve been listening to it now — for the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh times. It has clearly taken hold with audiences, but after every reading of it, I’m struck anew by its still striking sense of hard-won, concrete materiality.
“In Praise of Clothes” is seven long dramatic monologues, performed by eight women, each of them evoking some way or another that clothing — and clothes-wearers — are fundamentally transforming and moving on from. (There are only about a dozen words of actual text. The entire work is accompanied by a score that ranges from tonal folk music to a sugary hip-hop.)
What sets it apart from most of the many monologues and other dramatic works put on at London’s places of performance are Churchill’s iconic spaces: The tiny court of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the ruins of Auschwitz-Birkenau in “Four Saints in Three Acts,” a flash-flood of pink and blue at Cedar Tavern in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.”
This monologue is set in a bleak 1980s England. The woman, Pam (played by Alicia Morton), we encounter in the very first monologue is a bespectacled housewife who is essentially consumed by her failure to maintain standards of “high dress.” “I’m getting too heavy, Pam,” she confesses. “Merely choosing plain rather than patterned, simple rather than beige.” She says she hopes her children will stop “using heavy clothes” — though her son Michael (Max Stafford-Clark) hardly looks as if he has ever worn anything but an army surplus uniform, including the Colonel’s hat. (“Why the Colonel was in the army is a story I’ll never tell you, Pam,” Michael says later in the play. “What the damn thing was for, I’ll never tell you.”)
Later, when things have gone to hell in a hand basket, Pam resorts to tweezers. “I’m looking into my child’s gaping brain,” she says. “And it’s hard not to gloat and say, ‘I’ve got the complete shebang!’”
I recently re-read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” now twenty years older. The lines are both beautiful and sad. In 1979, they still hit home. In 2019, I still listen, twice a day, to the Bertolt Brecht cello concerto — with its revelation of solitude and boredom, and the nightmare of a full-grown woman who can scarcely control her movements.
The way Britain’s theatrical culture has changed over the last few decades — the immense amounts of money flooding the arts, and the unprecedented poached talent — makes Britain even more of a place to feel your passion at an emotionally deep level. We owe Churchill and her fellow dramatists who dwell so unflinchingly on emotion a debt of gratitude.