Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.
Week 34: Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare (1995)
There is no doubting the originality of One Flea Spare. Wallace chooses the setting of a Plague riddled London in 1665 to let us consider class inequalities anew. In the afterword, Wallace writes about specific recent global relations such as the Mexican/US border and how social inequality today in the nineties is akin to the Depression in American and to Victorian times in the UK. In 2016, I wonder, how much has this changed? What One Flea Spare successfully does and timelessly does is to create a defamiliarised setting to allow us to consider who poverty and disease affects now, how it is treated, and what the effect is on wider society.
London, 1665 and the body count from the Plague is on the up. Locked in their own home in quarantine are upper class couple William and Darcy Snelgrave. Their marriage hasn’t been the same since Darcy was injured in a fire when younger. Their servants have died but a sailor, Bunce, and a girl claiming to be the daughter of some friends, Morse, are also stuck there. In one confined space, characters of different social standing are forced to cohabitate. In one very affecting scene (scene six), Snelgrave cruelly allows Bunce to wear his fine leather shoes saying that history doesn’t usually allow the poor man to wear the rich man’s shoes and admits that he is only teasing Bunce, his status still only that of a lower class sailor.
The play inspires thoughts on social roles and gender roles, and it seemed to me that the characters, just as they are locked in the one house/room, are locked in the roles given to them. Snelgrave plays the part of the unloving, dusty old man; Darcy the part of the unloved, sexless burnt wife; Bunce the part of the nomad sailor apparently living up to the image of a pirate pillaging his way around the pubs and brothels of the world. But there are moments in the play – often very subtle – where they open up to show something more tender and complex. Then there’s Morse, who’s not only the keystone of the piece but who also poses a significant challenge to a young actress. She won’t let the older characters trample on her irrespective of gender or class, and a question is posed asking who she really is and whether she’s something more spiritual. She also has the ability to bring characters together and gets them to realise that they can still feel for each other. Bunce and Darcy fall for each other and he touches her burnt skin, something which Snelgrave hasn’t done for years. Yet they either don’t have the depth of feeling or the capability to express them to transcend their social barriers. On one hand, this perhaps is an unsatisfying ending but on the other Wallace suggests that happy endings are harder to achieve when class inequalities and such poverty as this exists in the play.
Wallace has a firm grasp on her characters: from Morse’s lyrical language to guard Kabe’s swindling and his sharp tongued critique of those in power: ‘The hungry. The dirty. The abandoned. That’s who dies. Not the fancy and the wealthy. Clergymen, physicians and surgeons, all fled’ (Wallace p.302). Finally, scene nine of the second act is missing: an editorial typo or elusive cut scene?