‘Penda’s Fen’ written by David Rudkin was a ‘Play for Today’ first screened on BBC1 on 21 March 1974. Like many of my contemporaries who saw it then, I found myself haunted by the drama’s unsettling ideas and images, and over the years its almost mythic cultural status was enhanced by the difficulty of viewing it. The DVD and Blu-Ray release did not come until 2016, before which there was only a very poor copy on YouTube.
The early 1970s seem remote to us now, an era before mobile phones and home computing, the internet and social media, when the world was still locked in the Cold War. Nonetheless the themes explored in the play remain relevant, or perhaps are even more relevant in the globalised and technologised twenty-first century.
Academics have pored over its varied references and meanings, and even the writer and director weren’t entirely sure what it was about. This suggests to me that the work’s extraordinary power in part derives from, and speaks to, the psychic realm known as the unconscious. Surely it is no accident that visions, dreams, hallucinations or fantasies play a major role in the story, pointing to what is overlooked in ordinary consensual reality.
At the centre of the story is the idea of the “Machine” that has taken over the world, imposing hierarchy, demanding obedience and punishing difference and dissent.
The hero Stephen is an overly conformist teenager, the son of a vicar, who talks of Elgar and England, the English race and traditional Christian faith in ways that were already anachronistic. When such a person encounters the complex real world beyond his ideals and narrowly-defined choices, what is likely to happen to him? Either he ossifies in his beliefs or suffers some sort of crisis. For Stephen it’s the latter.
His sense of himself begins to unravel as realises he’s not the person he thought he was. The first signs of this are in his delayed sexual awakening, when he can no longer deny that his desire is for men not women. Labelling himself “unnatural” and “unworthy” he drops out of his school’s army cadets and incurs the contempt of his teachers and peers. As his inner world becomes more and more disordered he has disturbing encounters with angels and daemons, symbolic representations of his own troubled state.
Then on his eighteenth birthday he learns that he is not even English but is of foreign and mixed-race parentage. Moreover his adoptive priest-father, whom he’s hitherto seen as a figure of conventional belief, admits to heretical ideas that challenge Stephen’s own worldview. Again and again his assumptions about right and wrong, good and bad, light and darkness, prove naive and mistaken.
Along the way a local radical playwright suggests an alternative reading of the world, the world of the Machine that brings conformity, destruction and ecological collapse:
“There’s one hope for man only: when the great concrete mega-city chokes the globe from pole to pole, it shall already have bedded in some hidden crack the sacred seed of its own disintegration and collapse. Disobedience and chaos: out of those alone can some new experiment in human living be born.”
Stephen painfully acquires new understanding, but how is he to live with it? We are left to guess, but a clue is given in the climactic scene, a vision of King Penda, the last pagan king in England who struggled against an earlier version of the Machine in the form of the Church forcing its belief system on the people. He tells Stephen:
“Night is falling; your land and mine
go down into a darkness now,
and I and all the other guardians of her flame
are driven from our home,
up, out into the wolf’s jaw.
But the flame still flickers in the fens.
You are marked down to cherish that.
Cherish the flame
until we can safely wake again.
The flame is in your hand;
we trust it to you,
our sacred daemon of ungovernableness.
Be secret, be strange,
dark, true, impure and dissonant.
Cherish our flame.
Our dawn shall come.”
The story draws on history and myth to inform us about the actual and current world. More than forty years on, are we not in a time of greater darkness, when the Machine (now manifesting as the globalised economic and political system) is more powerful and more in control than ever before, though it tells us we have freedom and choice? And if we are not to fall for the lies we are told, that urge us to keep our heads down, fit in, not think for ourselves and not concern ourselves with where the world is going, do we not also have to be “dark, true, impure and dissonant”?