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Interview with John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy

20 APRIL 1989

     I travelled to Galway to meet John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy on a fine spring day that ended, as one might expect in that part of the world, in a pub where we listened to traditional Irish music and continued our wide-ranging discussion. Talking to two writers together made for a lively, if at times digressive, interview, especially since both were passionately concerned with political action. It did mean, however, that they were able to help one another recall information about the writing of their play The Island of the Mighty (London: Eyre Methuen, 1974), which had gone through several substantial rewrites before it reached its final published form.
     The account of this process and of the diverse experiences that influenced it reveals how the play has been radically reshaped throughout its different versions. Fortunately, the universality of Arthurian legend allows it to reflect not just the distant world of post-Roman Britain, but also the current political concerns that Arden and D'Arcy feel so deeply. This is one important reason why the legend has retained its power over the centuries.

RT: While there is much poetry and prose fiction on the Arthurian legend, there is comparatively little drama, and what has been written has rarely been successful. When you wrote The Island of the Mighty, did you find that the Arthurian material presented problems that you hadn't anticipated?

JA: Not in itself, no. I began with scripts for the television. I was asked to do three scripts.

MD: Can I just say, John, that you wrote a very early play about Arthur? You have always been obsessed with the story of Arthur.

JA: Yes, but that was a play that nobody liked. I wrote it back in 1953, and it wasn't good. The problem, quite simply, was my inexperience as a playwright. Then in the mid-1960s I was asked if I wanted to do a sequence of three plays for television. Since I'd been thinking about the Arthurian story at that time, I said that I'd like to write on that. The transposition of the legend into dramatic form didn't bother me at all. Problems arose for other reasons. It was never performed on the television because there were complications with the BBC about who was to direct it. There was also a problem about costs: they told me it would have to be filmed, and they wanted something that could be done in studios. It was dropped for those reasons. I don't remember having any problem about treating the story dramatically.

MD: Surely one of the reasons why dramatists didn't take up the Arthurian legend was because of its association with William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites? Once Ibsen and Shaw came in, that whole area was dead.

JA: There was also a kind of visual overkill from all the Pre-Raphaelite painting. I suspect that when you're writing a play, you think from the start in terms, not only of the story, but of visuals. How are the people going to be dressed? What kind of postures are they going to assume? It is very difficult for dramatists to dissociate themselves from the Pre-Raphaelite image, which is linked with Tennyson's poems.

MD: I think it is significant that the television plays were commissioned in the 1960s. Camelot was first produced on Broadway in 1960, and released as a film in 1967. This is the beginning of the alternative society, which is actually going back to the Pre- Raphaelites. I think that the Arthurian legend does have a feeling of pre-industrialization, of pre-imperialism. You get waves, and suddenly the stories mean something. Then there were the Kennedys. Probably because of the musical, life in the White House was compared to that in Camelot for a while. It was the start of a different era, when people mattered, and love mattered, and chivalry mattered--or at least politeness and caring. Life was much more relaxed. One can imagine people all sitting around the table together. If you think of the hippies in the sixties, you always thinks of them spending endless hours sitting round the table. In the sixties they were adapting themselves.

JA: To the softer end of chivalry.

MD: Courtesy to other people, the meaning of food, gathering round the table, the women doing all the cooking, and the men quarrelling amongst themselves.

RT: Well, now the sixties were certainly an exciting time which we tend to look back on with a certain amount of nostalgia. It's also the time of a growth of interest in fantasy, which has become a very popular genre of literature. Your play, however, is totally devoid of fantasy. If anything, it's demythologizing, deromanticizing, isn't it?

MD: In the sixties people were trying to reach back to their roots. In North America they were trying to find even a tiny little bit of Native American blood in themselves. They were trying to recover the past, not through an academic process, but more by feeling their way back to something before things went wrong. But I never think of it as a flight into fantasy, nor nostalgia, because they actually went out and did things. They gave up everything, leaving their parents, their wives, their houses, their jobs, and all went off in great herds, wandering around the place. Because they didn't really understand the power of the state, they travelled up a cul-de-sac, but you cannot say they didn't suffer. Just like knights proving themselves worthy of membership in Arthur's court, they had to go through all this experience before they reached a stage where they could really say, yes, I am a hippy, or I live an alternative life-style.

RT: So you see this as a return to a kind of reality?

MD: Yes, it was. Yes.

JA: I think people thought it was. Yes, I think they thought they were getting back to the real life. They could argue that the battles in Chicago were the Camlann of Camelot. It was as though they suddenly came up against the organized armed power of American law and order, in exactly the same way as, in the soppier versions of the Arthurian stories, all these gorgeous knights and their beautiful ladies suddenly found at the battle of Camlann what it really means to quarrel among themselves and to bring in the Anglo-Saxons.
   The Anglo-Saxon invasions are always at the back of the Arthurian stories, even if that isn't always made very clear in many medieval versions. The invasions are important in Geoffrey of Monmouth, but hardly at all in Malory. Behind the stories, however, there's always the implication that there are some very ruthless, very hungry, totally unromantic people entering the land by ship, and that the British haven't actually got the final capacity to stop them.
   You could read the whole of Malory's story--and I tend to think of the Arthurian story in terms of Malory most of the time, because that's the first book that I read right through on the subject--as a wasted opportunity. After being selected as king by pulling the sword out of the stone, Arthur spends time fighting everybody to secure his power. Then he establishes a Round Table, but they totally waste their time going on individual quests and mysterious adventures. They eventually go looking for something called the Grail, the exact nature of which medieval writers can't even agree on among themselves.
   When they listened to these poems in the Middle Ages, I don't know whether they thought that the actual business of questing was ridiculous, but sometimes you wonder about adventures like King Pellinore's pursuit of the Questing Beast, which he can't even see. And then at the end, when there is a family row about Lancelot and Guinevere and Mordred, and the Round Table splits into civil war, you suddenly realize that their whole purpose had been forgotten. When it's most needed, which is for the big Saxon invasion that finally takes over the island, the Round Table is not there anymore.

RT: Yes. The story does warn against the dangers of becoming self-indulgent.

JA: Well, that's one reading of the story.

MD: I wouldn't use the word self-indulgent. The danger, actually, is of not really knowing what you want, of not being grounded in reality. The hippies were doing their thing, and their instincts were right. They recognized that they did not want what was happening in the world around them, but they did not then make alliances and contacts with the others in the Third World, or get involved in what was happening in Central America, or with the civil rights movement in their own country, except in a very, very romantic way. They thought that, because they had rejected where they had come from, they also were revolutionaries, struggling to overthrow the whole of American imperialism. But they hadn't actually gone through the biggest hurdle of all, which was to stay to the end.

RT: Yes. The revolutionaries were in some ways so preoccupied with their own concerns that they neglected some of the implications of their actions. People dedicated to the struggle for a particular cause aren't necessarily tolerant of the demands of others for their rights. It's an interesting irony, but I suppose human nature is like that, isn't it?

MD: Well, I don't think it's anything to do with human nature. Often action is initiated because a group of people feel that they're not getting their share of the power. It's actually power they want, not change. They want change for themselves, but not change for everyone. In the eighties, certainly in the ranks of the women's movement, is this what Arthur stands for? A great imperialist and world conqueror? So in a way, the legends are more important today than ever before.

RT: Island of the Mighty is very much concerned with power and the struggle for power. Was this an aspect of the legend that you found important from the very beginning?

JA: Yes. The television scripts are very different from the stage play. Both versions deal with the same story, but the television scripts are written in a much more naturalistic style. When I wrote them I was interested, primarily, in the breakup of the Roman Empire, and in relating it to the breakup of the British Empire and the change in power blocks following World War II. We spent a year in India, looking at the results of the breakup of the British Empire. I conceived the idea of Arthur as the last Roman commander in Britain, or somebody who thinks he's the last Roman commander in Britain, without actually having any credentials from the center of the Roman Empire. Trying to run things on that basis is, he finds in the end, totally impossible. I saw the story all the time as a question about power.

RT: You fell sick in India, I believe?

MD: Yes. John fell sick when he began writing the plays, and so they weren't very good.

JA: They were awful. I was writing in a state of incipient hepatitis, and I don't know what happened. I've never written anything so bad. All the dramatic tension disappeared.

MD: The plays had to be thrown out and started all over again. The stage version is completely different.

RT: Is the stage version of the plays the result of your joint efforts?

MD: It was the work of the two of us. You see, I know nothing about the Arthurian legend. To me the traditional figures were just characters.

RT: So you're reacting to what John had written, rather than to your own exposure to the legends?

MD: That's it; the legends had no interest. As soon as I see somebody with a sword wanting to take control of things, I know he's a bad guy. Why would he want to rule the world when he doesn't want to change anything? Because we were in India, however, we developed the element of matrilineal societies in the plays. We were actually living the kind of experience we were writing about. It didn't matter whether it was Arthur, or whether it was Mrs. Ghandi, or whoever. We actually saw the effect of rulers upon the people.

RT: When you were working, did you find yourself responding to particular themes and ideas which you decided to develop further?

MD: I think that I was responding to the things that were left out. I felt the plays were too orientated to the clash of power, without thinking about the people who were suffering and have no power. So I would think--so, and then John would do his bit. And then I would add my bit again.

RT: Obviously, it's never very easy to work out who's doing what when people are working together on a creative piece. I'm not trying to determine who wrote which line. The process doesn't work that way, does it?

MD: No.

RT: But, I'm interested in the general process because your preparation for dealing with the Arthurian legend is so different from your husband's.

MD: That's it.

RT: The experience must have been very interesting indeed?

JA: Yes.

MD: Right. Yes.

JA: My problem is that I can't remember what those television scripts actually had in them. There were three scripts, which match the three parts of the later play. They had the same characters and basically the same events, but the treatment of the characters, or the implications of characters, have changed markedly. I know that what Margaretta was just saying about the people, the peasants, the refugees, who crop up a lot in the plays, was much less in evidence originally.

MD: I don't think the earlier version had such a feeling of people having to move all the time, constantly moving, moving, moving.

JA: No, I think that came in with your contribution.

MD: I think that the scenes of the television play were much more static, weren't they?

JA: They were, yes.

MD: And much more internal. The play reflects our experience in India where we were moving all the time, and every time we moved, others were moving as well.

JA: It's also a question of focus. I feel that good television, to some extent, depends on the close-up. One is looking at actors or characters in close-up through a camera when one writes for television. I always saw this play as being at the far end of a telescope: a lot of little people moving about on a fairly large stage--not necessarily a big theatre, but almost an empty stage-- and suddenly one or other of them, or a group of them, coming forward into direct contact with the audience, and then going back. This was one of the problems we had with the productions of the Royal Shakespeare Company. They didn't understand this at all, and it's very difficult to put it into words.

MD: When we were in jail in India, we were living with people who were constantly on the move. This was in Assam at a time of political unrest.

JA: They wanted independence. The situation was very confused. Unknowingly, we had wandered into an area where foreigners weren't supposed to go without permission. We didn't know this and we hadn't got the permission. We spent hours in the police station, trying to argue this one out. Hardly one policeman in that police station spoke the same language as another. They were conducting all their internal business in English, which was fascinating because some of them didn't speak it at all well.

MD: And then the people inside the jail all had their own different religions. Some worshipped the snake, and they sacrificed women to snakes--it was a patriarchal religion.

JA: And then there were the Khasis who were matrilineal. The women dressed like old-fashioned, Irish, itinerent women in plaid shawls, and they ran the families and the businesses. The young men were rather effete-looking, and they lounged about all the time, dressed like pimps in Harlem, or something, in broad- brimmed trilby hats and zoot suits.

MD: But the music was Celtic.

RT: This kind of experience, then, really did shape the play?

JA: Yes.

MD: This is why, when you're asking about the Arthurian legends, it doesn't mean anything to me, because we've actually seen changes taking place, and it was that reality that actually was in the play.

RT: The experience of a society in upheaval and rapid transition?

JA: Yes.

MD: That's it.

RT: Were other contemporary experiences, such as those in Ireland, influential as well?

MD: Well, during that time the civil rights movement began in Ireland. In Oughterard, which is a few miles away from here, we became involved in the civil rights movement with small farmers against the multinationals which were taking over the land, and trying to take over the fishing. That was 1968-69. Even before that, though, the civil rights movement was bubbling away. Back in 1963 we were involved on behalf of the travellers, or tinkers as they used to be called.

JA: The civil rights movement south of the border here in Ireland has been neglected by history. Attention has shifted to the north.

MD: Yes it has. 1966 was the anniversary of the Rising, the Easter Rebellion. There were enormous celebrations and an awakening of the principles of international socialism, travellers' rights, and housing rights, particularly in the rural areas. Such was the turmoil that five hundred organized party workers could have taken the country over.

RT: In what sense does this experience manifest itself in the plays?

JA: It was an influence upon the background and general feeling, rather than a specific theme. It was implicit, I think, in my early television plays, but it became much more developed when we started working together on the later version. Arthur becomes not so much a liberator, but a man who, as leader of an institution, was perpetuating a tyranny.

RT: Certainly Arthur can be seen in very ambivalent terms. You don't deny sympathy to him, totally, however?

JA: No.

MD: But then what about people like the Picts who were in Britain already?

JA: When we were in Assam, we made an interesting discovery. They had been invaded by the Chinese two or three years before we went to that part of the country, which was why we weren't supposed to be there. It was still regarded as a very sensitive area, being up on the border. The Indians generally regarded the Chinese invasion with horror because it was against the new Indian Republic. It was devastating to the national psyche. That was what you heard in Delhi, but in Assam you discovered a totally different view. Our guide told us quite cheerfully that when the Chinese came in, the principal effect for the populations of the parts of Assam that they occupied was that they paid for everything they ate. This policy contrasted favorably with that of the Indian army who'd been there before.

RT: Was the play radically changed by this experience?

JA: I think it was changed in its internal meanings rather than in its story. In the television plays I was more concerned with the collapse of the last attempt to preserve the Roman Empire. I included the theme of Gwenhwyvar and the revival of matriarchal practice as well. At that time, however, I had no personal experience of a post-colonial situation. Our joint experience in India gave new life to the characters.

MD: We went to India because of the rapid changes in Ireland. We were invited to India by the Ghandi peace movement, and we went to learn from more experienced people, so that we could bring these lessons back to Ireland.

RT: That you were in India, had nothing to do with the plays, then?

JA: Yes, exactly.

MD: It was, moreover, a complete accident that John and I worked on the plays together.

JA: I had broken off discussions with the BBC about the television plays a year or two before. The reason I was working on the plays when we went to India was that, just before we left, I received a request from the Welsh National Theatre. They expressed interest in the project as a stage play, and so I was rapidly trying to adapt the scripts for them. The original idea was that we were going to stay in Delhi for a month, during which I would complete these scripts and post them back to Britain. We would then proceed with our Indian travels. What happened was that I ended up in hospital, and the plays weren't fit to be sent.

RT: By the time you redrafted them after that, so much had happened that it reshaped the plays, I suppose?

MD: Yes, it reshaped them. I think the Welsh National Theatre had collapsed by the time we came back.

RT: In the course of redrafting the plays did you look again at the Arthurian legends?

JA: No. We hadn't brought any books with us. We worked from the recollection of my unsuccessful television version and the bad scripts I'd written when I was sick, but I had accumulated quite a collection of books on the subject when I was working on the television scripts.

MD: In a way, though, the legends weren't necessary, because they were all there where we were.

JA: We drew upon our Indian experiences to fill out the legends we'd forgotten.

MD: All legends are the same.

JA: If you asked me to find bits in the text where we did this, however, I'm not sure that I could.

MD: But shall we say we were in the right country for the Arthurian period?

JA: Yes, I think it was the right country for the period. Somebody would tell us, don't take that road; there are bandits. Another would warn, be careful if you go through such and such a district, because the police chief is totally out of control there, and making things very difficult for motorists.

MD: It was also a country where it's completely natural to have gods and goddesses and temples, since this was part of life there. It was not a strange experience to them. This helped us with the religious element in the plays. Often it can be difficult to understand different religions.

RT: Was the ritual laming of Arthur and Balan in the television version of the play?

JA: Yes, I think it was. I got that out of Robert Graves' White Goddess. The mythological elements in the Arthurian story are very corrupt and mixed up, and so you can make what you like out of them.

RT: Did you read any of Jessie Weston as well, by any chance?

JA: I think I did, but I decided at the beginning I wasn't going to handle the Grail. The Grail struck me as being something else altogether, and I wasn't sure that it really belonged. I know that opinions differ on that. Some people think it's an essential part of the story, but I think it's an importation myself though I'm not quite sure where it comes from.
   I cut out the Lancelot character because he too seemed to be an importation. He was in my first play of 1953, but I dropped him when I did the television plays, because it struck me that he doesn't crop up in Geoffrey of Monmouth, does he? I had a feeling that really the quarrel is between Arthur and Mordred, and that Lancelot is a romantic invention of the medieval French people, even though his name may have Celtic connections. They wanted a romantic love affair in the approved medieval style, and Guenevere couldn't have it with Mordred because Mordred was after the kingdom.
   I don't think I used any characters in the play who aren't in The Mabinogion except for Balin and Balan. That story I found in Malory, but it struck me as being very old.

RT: Had you read Tennyson?

JA: I had read Tennyson, yes, but I put him aside. He relied heavily on Malory though he obviously did know some of the other versions as well. I read Swinburne's poem on Tristram and Iseult, and William Morris' "The Defence of Guenevere" when I was young.

RT: So you had, in fact, quite a background in Arthurian literature?

JA: Yes, I had because I was interested in the Arthurian legend and read it when I was at school. The interest developed almost accidentally. When I was about eight years old, they did an adaptation of Malory on the Children's Hour of BBC Radio. Since I found it difficult to understand, it must have been aimed at children slightly older than me. I found it all rather strange, but quite haunting. I also had a little children's book about Arthur's knights. Then the matter dropped until I was about fifteen. I found that the school library contained a copy of Malory with some interesting illustrations, and I read it all at one go, which is quite an interesting thing; I don't know how many people ever do that. At that age, you tend to get into big books.
   Thus I was fairly familiar with the Malory text. Then in the early fifties I read The White Goddess by Robert Graves, and I grew interested in the earlier versions of the story. I became aware, for example, that the clerics disliked Arthur because they regarded him as a rapacious tyrant.

RT: Yes. Your treatment of religion is interesting. You don't really make judgements about the Pictish religion, but observe it in a relatively detached fashion, don't you?

MD: That is probably influenced by our experience in India, travelling around and seeing other people's religions, because India is very tolerant.

JA: It's difficult to be idealistic about any one religion, actually. Some of them have attractive features, but then suddenly you discover there's an awful drawback.

RT: Did your experience with religious conflict in Ireland influence your view of religion in the plays?

MD: No, because I left the Church at a very early age when I went to England. I never met a priest until we entered into controversies with the clergy over the civil rights movement, but that was after we came back from India.

RT: The role of women in the plays is also interesting. The fate of the slave girl is sad, but really it reveals the oppression of all who are powerless, rather than the oppression of women as such, does it not?

MD: Yes, that's where I was at the time. In the sixties it was all power to the people. We did not actually analyze the relationship between men and women. Indeed, I had just become active politically. Before that time I pretty much followed the conventional attitude of art for art's sake.

RT: There are several artist figures in the plays, though your introduction to the text reveals that there weren't as many in the earlier versions.

JA: The quarrel between Merlin and Taliesin occurred in the earlier versions, but I am not sure whether Aneurin was there.

RT: Nor are these artist figures viewed very favorably.

MD: In the sixties theatre was the big thing in Britain. Theatres were being built, companies started, and there were enormous perks if only you could have a successful play. That was also the beginning of the rise of the director. In the theatre the writer's main struggle was against the director and the producer.

RT: So when we're talking about the artist figure in the plays, we could include people like directors?

MD: Oh, yes, and producers. In the sixties mainstream theatre was still very much restrained by pre-war attitudes. Producers tried to refine this whole new energy that was around them, and to put it on to the stage. Then the dilemma amongst artists was, how much should you compromise? What are you selling out? We did think of it as a kind of revolutionary struggle to make sure that the work would not be taken over and abused. Film was controlled by the big distributors so that the only outlet for a collective form was the theatre. Criticism of the establishment was widespread, and art was going to be what would change everything.

RT: I can see why you were concerned with the theme of the abuse of power by the powerful.

JA: Also we had been in America in 1967, at New York University, and we were very conscious of the views of American writers about the Vietnam War. Old Steinbeck, for example, was in terrible trouble for having supported the war in Vietnam, and people were writing about him. There's a bit of that in Merlin.

MD: We'd also had the experience of the Nelson play. We were asked to write a script about Nelson for a big Broadway musical, but we didn't like the direction in which it was moving. We wanted to pull out, but it is not easy to pull out of a contract with these business people who carve the world up. They said that if we pulled out, we could have, I think, just two countries, while they had everything else. That is quite an experience for two innocent people, suddenly meeting millionaires,

JA: And company lawyers.

RT: Was your experience with this conflict reflected in the argument between Merlin and Taliesin?

JA: It was reflected.

MD: Not only that, but in the end, when we took the play away to the Roundhouse, there were awful rows, and various people were trying to bump us off!

RT: Experiences like this make the lives of artists so exciting, don't they?

JA: I could do without them.

MD: Well, it also shortens their lives. Anyway, as far as our analysis goes, there was a great flowering of the imagination in the sixties and the feeling that, if only everyone's imagination got going, they'd lose their fear. Then suddenly funding began. In the sixties there was no funding of various little groups, but the money started to flow in the seventies, in America first, then in Canada, perhaps because of the Quebec separatists, then in England, and now in Ireland in the eighties. And suddenly certain things are not allowed--everything has got to be controlled. Control the artists, control the imagination, control this kind of unrealistic imagination of what is possible. And we were right in the middle of it. So actually, in the end, it's a very personal play.

JA: This is the thing about the Arthurian legend, or for that matter any legendary cycle. We could have been writing about the Red Branch of Ulster, and the same thing would have happened. The material contains a series of human relationships and struggles which can go in almost any direction you want them to go artistically, but it does provide you with a nice framework of evocative plot.

RT: Another feature of the play that I find intriguing is its ambiguity. On the one hand, there is a sense that self-interest and ambition lead to destruction and chaos, and to all sorts of problems in society. On the other hand, self-control can also be very dangerous. It leads to repression, particularly in the figure of Merlin.

JA: Yes.

RT: Aren't you saying, you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't?

MD: Well, that's where we were at that time, and that's one reason why we left to go to India. If you're not sure about which direction to go, you can't tell the world. Besides, this is the reality, isn't it?

RT: Is reality that pessimistic?

MD: The play's not pessimistic; could you point to a speech that shows pessimism?

JA: Well, it's the general flow of the play you're talking about, I imagine?

RT: Yes. On the one hand, we have the downfall of the kingdom through the quarrels that take place, because everybody is out for him or herself. On the other hand, when people try to impose discipline--even Arthur is, in a sense, trying to impose discipline--this results in repression that is very destructive to the poor people who get caught in between. Nor have you provided an option that would offer some hope, have you?

JA: There wasn't actually much of an option at that time. By treating a legendary theme, you are stuck in the period of history in which it's set. The big social option didn't seem to be available, actually, unless we examined the Anglo-Saxons, and we really didn't have room for that. Rather than pessimism, however, it reveals inevitability, if you like.

MD: This is the reality of the situation, and it shows that more work needs to be done. We have written political plays since The Island of the Mighty. This came at the end of that period of, you might say, the soft belly of idealism.

RT: So this theme is part of a broader development in your work?

MD: Yes.

JA: I think it is important to mention that, when we were working on the play in India, we were at the same time discussing, with some energy, the development of our next big work, The Non-Stop Connolly Show. That answers a good many of the questions you've asked because we felt that the ideas were a further development of those in The Island of the Mighty. It's a six-part cycle that runs for over 24 hours.

MD: It was performed in Liberty Hall, Dublin, in Easter 1975, to commemorate the Easter Rebellion. The audience wandered in and out.

JA: There was a restaurant in the building where full meals were served between the individual plays. We got the idea in India, where we saw these Hindu religious plays which last like that. People bring their food to it, and they go on all night, and all the next night, and so on. The Non-Stop Connolly Show explores the same theme as The Island of the Mighty: the problem of a community in turmoil. Except that one is modern history and the other is ancient legend, they're not far removed in form and feeling, I don't think.

MD: Indeed, our later and current work continues to develop many of the ideas in The Island of the Mighty.

JA: We never actually saw a performance of The Island of the Mighty by the Royal Shakespeare Company, but they didn't get terribly good notices, so they can't have been all that good. They were severely cut. The plays do work in the theatre, however. They were performed in 1982 by students of King Alfred's College in Winchester, under the direction of Raymond Ingram, and that was a good production.

RT: Do you think they could work on television as well?

JA: No, I don't think so. Perhaps as a film, but not on television. Nobody's going to make a film of it, however.

MD: No. They wouldn't employ us after all the people we've upset. We put ourselves out of the market. But then, do we want to be part of the market? The thing is, we did have a choice.

RT: Another feature of the plays that I find interesting is the extensive use of deception. The characters are always misleading each other, it seems?

MD: That reflects the whole business of secrecy and deception, which is one of the evils of our society.

JA: I think a lot of that comes from our experience in America in 1967, when we were working with the students of the drama department at New York University on a big improvised show about the Vietnam War. There was a great deal of political intrigue going on behind everybody's backS to get it stopped or changed. The University was beginning to get nervous about the nature of this play, fearing that funding might be threatened if it went ahead. It was all very unpleasant. People whom you thought were on your side suddenly turned out not to be there when you wanted them, and this kind of thing.

MD: Other people told us about the impact of McCarthyism on the left wing. There were people who had been threatened by the Mafia; the CIA or the FBI came to one young Greek student. They told him that if he took part in our show he would be thrown out of the country. This was during the time of the Colonels' Takeover in Greece.

JA: Yes, and there was a lot of peculiar business going on in what you might call intellectual circles of New York at that time. I think this affected our portrait of the poets, as well as the political people, in The Island of the Mighty. Then, when we came back to Ireland from India, what had been a civil rights movement had turned into something else. The Provisional Wing of the IRA had split away from the Official body. There were all sorts of peculiar things that happened in the north that we had missed during our absence.

RT: So this view of deception arises from your discovery, over the years, of such political deviousness?

MD: Absolutely right, yes.

JA: When you look at the stories of King Arthur and the Round Table, you wonder whether they were covering something up. Malory concentrates on the adventures of individual characters, so that the sense of a community is rather lacking until you get to the end. Then suddenly you begin to feel that he has become aware of this dimension. I think this was his experience in the Wars of the Roses, of a whole country falling to pieces from civil strife.
   In the earlier works, like The Mabinogion and those Welsh fragments, there is a sensation all the time that Britain is a very strange place in which nobody really knows what the hell is going on on the other side of the hill, and what is going on is not romantic at all. The characters may be described as giants and enchanters, but they're actually political figures. I think that's stronger in the Welsh stories than it is in the later medieval versions.
   The later medieval poets see the Arthurian legend in the context of their castles and courts, and they write about Camelot as if it were Windsor. But in the earlier Welsh stories you get a sense of a much earlier society, of little stockades on the hillsides with clearings in the woods, and nobody very well equipped with anything. They had no great social organization, but at the same time they practised a great deal of treachery and intrigue for peculiar motivations.

RT: Do you still have manuscripts of the earlier versions of the plays?

JA: No, I don't. They are probably somewhere, but we've moved house two or three times since those days.

RT: We've talked about sources, about the works of fiction that you'd read before, and we've talked about contemporary developments that had an influence on your writing. Did you look at works of archaeology and history about period?

JA: Yes, I did. When I was working on the television scripts I wanted them to be as accurate as possible. I wanted to find out what people wore, the kind of houses they lived in, the kind of weapons they used, and so on. I became quite knowledgeable for a time about Britain in the fifth century though I've forgotten a good deal now. Nor do I remember any of the titles of the books I read. As far as I could tell, so little survives from that period that scholars do not have a very clear picture of what it was like. Archaeologists dug at Cadbury Castle, but in the long run they didn't tell you much more than you would have known before they started, unless you're an archaeologist. A few foundations and some bits of pottery at various levels still don't give a very clear picture of what it would have been like to live there. For example, the Romans built a lot of towns, houses, villas, and fortified places all over Britain, but who knows what condition they would have been in by the fifth century? How long does it take a Roman villa to become a ruin? Even if people are living in it continuously, they might not have the services of a good building contractor from the neighboring town anymore.
   It's easy around here, because you can observe the process. Since we came to live in the west of Ireland, people have been steadily moving out of their old thatched cottages into modern bungalows. It takes about a year for a house to deteriorate once the occupants move out. Whether that would have been the case with a Roman villa with a tiled roof and pillars, I don't know. Even if you are well-read in the archaeology, you've still got to do a lot of guesswork.

RT: Did you find that the traditional representation of the characters and stories limited you in some ways?

JA: No, I wasn't too troubled about that. If a person's a hero, then he must have been originally, one supposes, a person of distinctive, but not necessarily good, character. You can make a hero out of anybody, and people do. Something that influenced my views on this matter quite strongly was "The Dream of Macsen Wledig" in The Mabinogion. This is an example of what you might call epic recreation, which you can actually check against history. Quite a bit is known about the Roman usurper Maximus and his attempts from Britain to seize the imperial throne, and when you look at what a succession of Welsh poets have made of the account, over several hundred years, you can see how they have transmuted the original situation, and how ideas of the Roman Empire have been totally turned upside down in their minds.

RT: This influenced you when you were writing the plays?

JA: Yes. Yes it did. If you work back from legend to history, you recognize that there's no rule about how it develops, except that some people become much bigger, and other people or institutions become much smaller.

RT: Did you find that this gave you freedom to invent and interpret?

JA: I did, yes.

RT: When you were writing the play, did you have in mind any particular kind of audience?

JA: Well, I don't know. Margaretta, what do you think about that?
MD: Because it was for the Welsh National Theatre, we thought it might be for a Welsh audience.

RT: When you're writing, do you have more than one project on the go at a time?

JA: When I was writing the television scripts, we were in the middle of doing this show in America. They feed off one another to some extent.

MD: Yes.

RT: Women play an important role in your play, and they wield power among the Picts. Was this a response to aspects of the Arthurian legend, or was it something you added solely because of other interests?

MD: This really came from Robert Graves' White Goddess.

JA: Yes, but when I was working on the plays way back in 1953, this aspect was present then as well. Women are important in the legend. Guenevere goes from the old king to the young pretender. The stories of Igraine and of Morgan le Fay at the beginning of the legend, and the peculiar presence of Morgan throughout, do suggest to me that there is something in the mythology which is much older than the fifth century; that poets have actually got hold of the British myths of the goddesses and their displacement by male gods maybe two thousand years before; and that these were current in poets' repertoires. They fed these stories into their versions of the events of the fifth century, so that certain women in Arthur's time attracted these stories. They seemed to be reliving aspects of earlier mythology, which then entered in toto into the material. I imagine that epic poetry works like that.
   You can't be categorical about this at all because you don't know how conscious people were of the earlier meaning; or how Christian the Britons were at the time; or whether the stories that they told themselves had come down through the years of Roman occupation in a pure form, or had been affected by the importation of all sorts of foreign influences from the Roman Empire. By the fifth century the inhabitants of Britain were a mixed lot. The Romans didn't march out of Britain in a body. They removed a few front-line regiments and simply ceased to connect the island with the system of bureaucracy. Then it reverted fairly speedily to an island which was conscious of its Celtic, rather than its Roman, identity. By the time you get into the beginning of Welsh poetry, with works like The Gododdin, it's almost as if there has been no Roman occupation. You're reading the kind of literature that you feel might have been produced by the poets attached to Boadicea. Yet the clergy were in contact with the continent all the time.
   You read these extraordinary Celtic legends of saints sailing about Cardigan Bay on an alterstone, and so forth. At the same time, if you go into it a bit further, you find that this particular saint might very well have been educated at a fairly sophisticated college in Gaul.

MD: Remember, too, what you wrote in your preface to the plays, about the connection between the legends of Merlin and Sweeney? We were going to make a film about the Sweeney legend with George Morrison.

JA: Well, it seems to be the same story, and one doesn't know whether it originates in Ireland, or Britain, or even further afield. We had our children with us in India, and we used to buy them English language books of Indian mythology as told for children. So many of these are similar to European folk tales.

RT: Have you ever reread the play?

MD: No.

JA: No. I can't say I have, though we went to see it at Winchester when it was performed there.

RT: I should like to move finally to some specific questions about the play itself. Why does Merlin oppose Taliesin's peace efforts in the play, when the avoidance of conflict seems so desirable?

JA: Merlin thinks they can win. It's as simple as that. Arthur must win his battle; the Christian army must prevail. He is totally committed to the war effort. After all, the country is being invaded by Medraut, who is a traitor and who is combining with an army of pagans from across the sea. It's the cavalry's job to keep them out, or die in the last ditch. It's a fairly simple position he's in.

MD: I remember we did discuss that, John. it was a call for the armed struggle.

JA: Yes. In the third play, scene two, when Taliesin is setting off on his peace mission, Merlin says,
   By word of Poet my General is betrayed
   His twelve great victories are all betrayed.
   The lives of his brave Companions are every one of them betrayed,
   The English will grip everything.
I think it was a Vietnam War state of mind. When we were writing this, the Americans would not leave Vietnam, because they said they had a duty to the boys who had died there. That struck me, at any rate when we were writing this, as being a dreadful argument; and yet it's the one that's always brought up on these particular occasions. You've got to go on killing because you've done it before, and the people who have already died will expect you to keep on doing it. This may or may not be the case, but they're not in a position to be consulted on it.

RT: One gets a powerful sense of people being overwhelmed by forces that they can't control. Medraut, for example, seems reluctant to attack Arthur, but he finds himself swept along by forces that he doesn't really control himself and is not comfortable dealing with. One has the vision, ultimately, of people powerless to oppose the tides of history, even those who try to shape them, doesn't one?

MD: This recalls the experience of Connolly in 1916. He had not wanted to take part in the rebellion, but events pushed him into action. There does come a time when it's extremely difficult to avoid doing certain things.

JA: Also that sense of doom, that sense of the inevitability of the final battle, crops up in all the versions of the Arthurian legend that I've read, particularly Malory and Tennyson. Tennyson's "Morte d'Arthur" is the best of his Arthurian poems. That sense of doom does seem to me to be an essential part of the story. Many of the medieval poets, particularly the French ones, don't seem to have given a damn about it. They weren't looking towards the end, just writing about the middle.

RT: When Bedwyr becomes a priest at the end of the plays, why do you condemn his religious activities?

JA: He was reimposing through the Church the sort of authority that he'd had as a senior officer in the army. For this part I worked very closely from the Sweeney story. The names are changed, but Saint Moling is the figure upon whom Bedwyr is based. The fellow Sweeney kills is not a poet, but a priest called Saint Roman. Robert Graves suggests that it might very well be a legend about one poet killing another, and that it was transposed into a legend about a king killing a saint. Like Moling, Bedwyr emerges as patriarchal and authoritarian. A good deal of the text of that last play is a free translation of the Sweeney story, in fact. The third play probably changed rather less than the others, from the first to the final version.

RT: Were you familiar with the wild man in the woods version of the Merlin legend at this time?

JA: Yes. I used the Sweeney story, because it seemed to be so close.

RT: You didn't, however, make use of that famous legend about him prophesying three different kinds of death for the one person, all of which prove correct?

JA: I wanted to keep away from the context of Merlin as a magician. He doesn't do any magic. I thought that, by making him into an accredited poet, it would change the emphasis. Then, to my great annoyance, the actor who played the role in London kept wanting to insert bits that suggested he was also a magician.

MD: They were into magic at the Royal Shakespeare Company!

RT: Thank you.