The “Mythic” Does Nothing To Illuminate a Flawed Premise

rsz_rondopicWe toddled off to the Rondo again last night for a second visit after the recent success of our “Poetry can what…?” evening.  I had noticed a production of a play called “Knives in Hens“¹ by David Harrower and knew nothing about either but since I like to take a bit of a risk with theatre and since the Rondo is only ten minutes walk away I thought it would be a good opportunity to support the theatre and see something a little different.  This is what the blurb for the play said:

Best known for his play Blackbird, this is David Harrower’s astonishing début.  Set in a God-fearing, pre-industrial rural community, a young woman comes to terms with old grudges and factions, an unexpected betrayal and a growing awareness of her place in the world. 

A young peasant woman meets a miller who offers her the opportunity to awaken and learn. It’s about giving one woman the power of the written word, a power that we take for granted but which, once discovered, endowed humans with the ability to learn, to remember, to teach and to endure.”

I don’t think that either of us is afraid to make imaginative leaps or to mentally work with a creative enterprise to understand what it is trying to say but on leaving the theatre we both agreed that our primary response was along the lines of:  “Did that really work?”  Clearly there was a structure discernible in the presumed setting, the three characters and the essential dramatic conflict of what could be described as a love-triangle, but these elements were clearly there as a framework through which to tell a deeper story about being human.  To give you an idea of the mise en scène let me quote some independent sources:

 “In a pre-industrial landscape, an unsettling and threatening love triangle emerges between the young woman, the ploughman and the hated miller.”  Scottish National Theatre.
in an unspecified rural place where mechanisation gets no more sophisticated than the village mill and language itself is blunt and functional”  Guardian review of Traverse Theatre production.


feudalSo we have a generic north European peasant society where the ploughman has married a young woman from the village but who is obsessed with the care of his horses such that his young wifeis led to wonder whether he prefers them to her.  Well, this itself is ambiguous because we are told that he picked her out because she was, like him, a good worker but also it is made clear on a number of occasions that he desires her as woman.  He says she is like a “field” and he speaks emotionally of the power of a good field, of how this idea has had a hold on him since childhood.  He is made to engage in a mythopoeic mode of thinking that connects him to the elemental world and to his material livelihood, to the land and to his horses.  We learn later that he is known disparagingly in the village as ‘Pony William’.  At this stage the woman doesn’t seem to understand his metaphorical language and meaning, instead she wanders around the place uttering this sort of speech:


mythopoeiaI look at a tree and say tree and walk on. But there is more of the tree that is god which I have no names for. Each day I want to know more. A puddle I can see under. A tree when it is blown by the wind. A carrot that is sweeter than the others. The cold earth under a rock. The warm breath of a tired horse. A man’s face in the evening after work. The sound a woman makes when no one hears her. I now know I must find out the names for myself.”


 And believe me there is plenty more in that ilk and worse.  This would appear to be a proto-human who is hardly even aware of her own surroundings, who scarcely even “knows” the names of things but must discover them all for herself in some strange almost magical process.  But then, in an odd piece of plot mechanics she is sent by her husband to take their grain to be ground at the mill.  Apparently she scarcely even knows where the mill is and is scared of the “hated miller”.  At this point let me throw in another handy quote that independently verifies the trajectory of the story as it unfolds:


You could describe the plot of Knives in Hens easily enough. You could say that David Harrower’s play was about a young woman driven to kill her adulterous ploughman husband with the help of the hated village miller.  You could go into more detail and say it charted the start of the woman’s primitive journey from ignorance to awareness, from literalism to imagination, from the latent to the potential, from enslavement to liberation.” Guardian review of the Tron Theatre, Glasgow production.


knives 5It appears that the miller is a hated but necessary figure in the economy of the village, he mills the grain but takes his cut.  This is told with the same disgust as a peasant might complain of usury in a pre-industrial, Christian world.  Despite that, the miller turns out to be a fairly engaging old chap who lives a solitary life since his wife died and who passes the time both reading his small collection of books and writing out his own thoughts thus capturing and preserving them on paper.  There is a kind of magical process implied here rather than a secularising one.  Despite her fears, the woman ends up forming a relationship with the miller based on his introducing her to writing.  She traverses the cultural chasm from illiteracy to literacy simply on being handed some paper and a pen.

knives 1It is at this point that, in the aftermath of celebrations involving much beer and spirits, on the occasion of the villagers having successfully installed a new grinding stone for the miller, that the poor ploughman goes to relieve himself and is, it seems, murdered by his wife, the woman.  For the life of me I couldn’t discern her motive for doing this though it seems to be her that is conducting an adulterous affair rather than the ploughman but things are so opaque by now that I may just have completely misunderstood events.  The miller then leaves for distant parts in case he is implicated by the villagers in the murder and we are left to wonder what will become of the woman.  The Scottish National Theatre again:

“As the young woman journeys from ignorance to knowledge, her liberation is found through language and her need to name things to understand their place and hers in the world.  Knives in Hens is a remarkable play about the transformative power of knowledge and an emerging consciousness as the world moves from rural to the urban and industrial.”

I have a real problem with this type of thinking, speaking from an anthropological and philosophical perspective.  I am just not a fan of this type of mythopoeia because it makes claims without foundation to some form of deeper insight into the human condition and let’s be clear, there is actually nothing in the play about an arriving urban or industrial society.  Of such a thing we hear nothing and I take that to be mere supposition by the writer above.  To misquote Jonathan Safran Foer, “Nothing is Illuminated”.  The real human condition is all around us and throughout history.  Cultures are imbued with the reality of human understanding and of how humans have come to terms with their real material conditions.  My irritation is of the same sort as that enunciated in my recent Stars Wars post the regarding a lack of material basis for the action.  One cannot take a recognizably medieval, peasant culture and attempt to infuse it with this kind of nonsense.  The pre-industrial world embodied very sophisticated cultures even at the village level with much folk and Christian “cultural knowledge” to inform people about the world together with complex and detailed social organisation that enabled people to know very clearly their identities and place in the world.  There is not some abstract thing called “knowledge” divorced from concrete social conditions towards which one can posit a necessary movement.

It is similar to those irritating origin states that have never existed such as Hobbes’ “state of nature” or Rousseau’s “noble savage” or Freud’s ancient Oedipal drama.  We never make a transition from ignorance to knowledge because we are, as Heidegger maintains “thrown into the world”, a world that is “always already there”.  We absorb our knowledge as culture from the moment of our birth to that of our death so it is not possible to dramatize something that doesn’t actually exist in the world which is why this is a play which once again does not succeed because it is based on a fundamentally flawed premise.

I don’t enjoy being critical but I must say what I feel.  However, it is clear that the rest of the world does not agree with me. Since it was first staged at the Traverse Theatre in 1995, “Knives in Hens”  has been staged in 25 countries around the world and is widely acknowledged as a modern Scottish classic.  There’s no accounting for taste and I should add that it is clear there have been many and varied interpretations, by widely different companies and directors, with what would seem to be differing abilities, leading me regretfully to say that probably the production by “Playing Up” is not quite up there with that by the likes of the Scottish National Theatre and which may well have influenced my response.

Avante-garde style?
Avant-garde approach

Sincere American frontier
Sincere American frontier

Down Home Hokey
Down Home Hokey

¹ None of the images in this post are of the production that we saw at the Rondo.

5 thoughts on “The “Mythic” Does Nothing To Illuminate a Flawed Premise

  1. Everything Will Be Okay at the End February 20, 2016 / 6:49 am

    I have to say that I’ve happened to see a couple of plays in Sydney that had fabulous ratings, mainly I think because they aspired to address challenging issues. The reality and performance of them was however far from what they were trying to achieve. I was not conviced but critics were very impressed…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Toby the Cat February 20, 2016 / 7:31 am

      That’s interesting. Were they at mainstream theatres or more fringe type venues?


        • Toby the Cat February 20, 2016 / 1:58 pm

          Yes, Tom’s girlfriend who is very into all things theatre said she thought that the STC had become a bit “safe” of late.


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