The election debates have been dull, but gripping debates from England’s revolutionary past are on stage at the National Theatre, writes Colin Wilson.
It’s sometimes said that revolution isn’t in the nature of British people. Yet from 1642 to 1660, long before revolution in France or Russia, England went through revolutionary turmoil that included the execution of King Charles I in Whitehall. Thousands of people took part in battles between the supporters of the king and those of parliament – yet this was not just a military conflict, but one that involved unprecedented debate about how society should be organised. People felt that they were living through events of a kind which had never happened before. The old world” said Gerrard Winstanley, “is running up like parchment in the fire.”
Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire gives a sense of that turmoil and those debates, closely based on seventeenth-century history and texts. As the play opens the stage is filled with a royal banquet, yet soon the vast banqueting table is overrun with beggars, soldiers and travelling preachers. Preachers most of all, since many of the political debates of the English Revolution were conducted in religious terms. The invention of printing, and the translation of the Bible into English, made it possible for individuals to read the Bible for themselves and try to work out what it meant – but the Revolution took this process much further. As we see on stage, women overturned the social order by preaching. We hear from Ranters like Laurence Clarkson, who believed that people could free themselves from sin if they committed the same sin while believing that it was not a sin at all – Clarkson seems to have sexual sins particularly in mind. (The image at the top of this article satirises the Ranters, who were often accused of sexual immorality.) The play also quotes Abiezer Coppe’s hallucinatory A Fiery Flying Roll, in which he warns the rich that Christ is returning to earth to punish them.
Ordinary people thus influenced events and debates as they never had before. This was not an ordered process, but a chaotic and creative one as different groups took initiatives and political/religious currents ebbed and flowed. As well as Ranters, Churchill depicts the Diggers, who gathered on common land in Surrey in 1649 and began to plant vegetables and live in an egalitarian and what we would now call sustainable way, but were attacked and eventually evicted.
The eventual effect of the revolution was that it formed a turning point in the development of English capitalism. As such, it was contradictory. In England it marked the decline of absolute royal power, but the revolutionary leader Cromwell also invaded Ireland, beginning centuries of oppression. Again, an act like killing the king meant breaking with many accepted ideas, such as the belief that the king was anointed by God. But if the existing social order wasn’t fixed by God’s will, and if ordinary people had a role to play in society, that opened up the possibility of more radical change than the revolutionary leaders wanted.
These issues were expressed in the Putney Debates of 1647, where members of the revolutionary army discussed what sort of constitution they wanted for England. Henry Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law, took the view which would win out in the end – that the vote should be restricted to property owners, since he worried that if everyone had a vote, they would vote for equality of wealth. Thomas Rainsborough took a more radical view, stating that “I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he.” Other speakers asked why they had been fighting for seven years, if only to leave the powerful in charge.
This is, for me, the most gripping scene of the play, but the whole of it is fascinating. If you know a bit of the history – the production doesn’t do that much to explain it, unfortunately – the play gives a real sense of how revolutionary change is a process in which ordinary people seize an opportunity to create the world anew for themselves. The play runs till June with tickets at £15 if you’re quick – and if you want to learn more about radicalism in the English revolution, you could do worse than read Christopher Hill’s classic book The World Turned Upside Down.