Visions and Vindications: William Blake, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Radical Eighteenth Century

Second Year BA Drama students, Liverpool Hope University
Cornerstone gallery and theatre (13th-15th March 2008)

An interesting series of performances in the Cornerstone building at Hope University’s Everton campus introduced the audience to some eighteenth century British radicals. The evenings included what were claimed to be the first ever stage dramatisations of William Blake’s ‘Visions of the Daughters of Albion‘.

The first part of the show made full use of the Cornerstone’s foyer, lobby and exhibition areas. A modern day female guide walked us through some kind of hall of living statues, where eighteenth century figures gave their views on men and women’s relative places in society. An upper class dandy quoted the Bible as justification for female servitude, but Mary Wollstonecraft argued for equal rights, so that through education women could become ‘companions’ to their husbands; more than just property. A female follower attacked the slave trade, before Thomas Paine thundered against the unjust and illogical nature of a monarchist system.

This was very much the world that William Blake lived in. The quintessential Romantic era artist, he refused to compromise his poetry, his painting or his engravings, and often lived in poverty as a result, arguing that “where any view of Money exists Art cannot be carried on, but war only”. He detested the rapid industrialisation that was going on around him, and the growth in the power of church and state that it made necessary. For Blake, this seemed like the enslavement of nature itself, and he longed for a great rebellion that would set humanity back in balance with the rest of Creation. Like many Romantics, he invested great hope in the American and French revolutions, the most democratic dreams of which were embodied in Paine.

It was at this time that Blake wrote the ‘Proverbs of Hell‘ – a selection of which was presented here – and ‘Visions…’. All his work is highly symbolic, and this piece uses supernatural characters with obscurely referenced names to act-out human drama. At root, however, it is about Blake’s belief that the new nation of America would break free from the chains of British (Albion) society, and bring about a perfect and natural way of living, where women would achieve equality, and become able to fully express their own sexuality. Of course, his wishes for the revolutions were never fulfilled, as they both marked a new stage of industrialisation and the development of capitalism in the respective countries.

The Drama students’ interpretation of ‘Visions…’ was quite limited, relying on the collective positions of the twenty performers onstage, rather than many individual movements. It was mostly non-representational too, so little meaning could be teased out, and those in the audience unfamiliar with the work must have struggled to keep up. However, Blake’s poetry was delivered well, both by the main protagonists and most of the class. This was their first full production, so with a little more Blakeian imagination and…well…vision, they could turn out to be talented performers.

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