by John Arden

John Arden - Pearl

BBC Radio 4: The Monday Play

Broadcast: Monday 3rd July 1978

It's the early 1640s and there is unrest in Britain as the wills of King and Parliament are tested. Rumour has it that Calvinist sectarians in Scotland were preparing for war against King Charles I for their freedom of religion. To counter this, the King's Lord Deputy is in Ireland gathering a large army at Dublin Castle which he will bring over to withstand the Scots. Suspicious that the King, the Lord Deputy, and the Archbishop have in mind to use this army afterwards to erect a tyranny in the land that will destroy all English freedom, Lord Grimscar, a great Lord from the Upper House of the now dissolved Parliament, has secretly attempted to make alliance with the Scots Presbyterians and the persecuted extreme Puritans in England. By doing this, Grimscar believes they can destroy the Lord Deputy's army and utterly route out the conspiracy he has bred.

It is in these surroundings that 25-year-old Pearl has arrived in England for the first time. Dark-skinned and Arab-looking to the locals (being the daughter of an Irish woman and an Indian Chief), she has already travelled 5,000 miles on her journey. Though the O'Flaherty clan in Calamarie, Ireland, are her people, Pearl cannot claim to be one of them. She speaks their language as well as she speaks English - sideways.

Years earlier, her mother had been kidnapped by the Lord Deputy's Dragoons and sold to a tobacco plantation owner in Virginia. Within six months, her mother was captured by Indians during a raid and became a concubine to one of the chief men. From this relationship Pearl was born. She lived a happy life until the white man attacked and wiped out her village when she was a young adult. Since then, her life, like a man's cut throat, has been split in two, never from that time mended nor could it be, until all has ended. Her only keepsake from her mother was a short, bone-handled knife which gained a secret revenge again and again for the things they did to her mother.

Pearl "worked her passage" as they call it; at all events fought for it. Then, year after year, ever-changing her shape back to Europe from the New World - a conquistador in reverse - discovering everything she could from whomever was so foolish as to permit her to look into their business. In the end, she got back to that one small part of Europe where her mother had been bought and sold - Galloway, Ireland.

While in Ireland, Pearl was hired as a political operative by an exiled Catholic Chief, O'Neill of the clan O'Neill, from the northern province of Ireland where the King's Protestants - English and Scots - have been planted in the lands taken by force from the Catholic people. Seeing what is happening in England, O'Neill sees an opportunity to achieve Irish sovereignty. With every dispossessed Catholic Gaelic clan in Ireland is about to rise up, O'Neill sends Pearl to England to offer an alliance to those against Lord Deputy's army. By helping to crush the army on its return to England, the Catholics want help in removing the usurping Protestants.

O'Neill sends Pearl to deliver a secret message with his offer, but for security reasons, she does not know to whom the message is for until they make themselves know to her. Having left Waterford, Ireland, on her secret mission, Pearl's first point of contact is Mother Bumroll who runs a brothel in a small town outside of Liverpool. To prevent questions being asked about why a woman all on her own would be travelling over the wild countryside without servants nor gentlemen, she has been asked to dress as a courtesan.

The play opens with Pearl in a packed town hall full of restless Puritans in their rain-soaked home-spun jackets and their broad-rimmed black hats watching a performance paid for by Lord Grimscar of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar", the first play to performed there in the town in over a year. Mother Bumroll has put Pearl in the front of her "special girls" to attract the Parson, her next point of contact, but Pearl is nervous as she can sense the crowd loathes and abominates any notion of a courtesan....

After he had been frozen or had frozen himself out of the British theatre, and many colleagues were openly suggesting that his work had gone into decline since it became more politically overt, the producer Alfred Bradley persuaded Arden to write a radio play. His response was "Pearl", a play which delivered the power of language and imagination, sense of history and understanding of the sheer difficulty of political idealism. The play would go on to win the Giles Cooper Award for Best Play in 1978.

One wonders if Arden would have written "Pearl" had he not known his wife, Margaretta D'Arcy (an Irish actress, writer, playwright, and peace-activist)? Certainly the character of Pearl could serve as a metaphor for D'Arcy's treatment. For those who didn't know, the root of Margaretta (Latin 'margarita', Greek 'margaron') means "pearl".

With Elizabeth Bell [Pearl, a Political Operative], David Calder [Tom Backhouse, a Playwright; Grimscar's Poet and Old Friend / Actor in Jack's Troupe Playing Soothsayer], Peter Jeffrey [Lord Grimscar, a Lord from the Upper House of Parliament/ 1st Commoner], Paula Timbrook [Mother Bumroll (Runs a Brothel)], David Mahlowe [Jack Barnabas, the Head of the Acting Troupe / Male Voice], John Jardine [The Stage Manager / Actor in Jack's Troupe Playing Servilius Casca], Geoffrey Banks [Gideon Grip, a Simple Parish Tradesman], Ronald Herdman [Dr. Sowse, the Parson / Actor in Jack's Troupe Playing Julius Caesar], Lynda Marchal (stage name for author Lynda La Plante) [Countess Belladonna, a Widowed Woman of Great Fortune Staying With Lord Grimscar (Her 'Hippocleides')], Kathleen Helme [The Duchess, Belladonna's Cousin], Kenneth Allan Taylor [Captain Catso, a Former Military Engineer in the Austrian Army, Now Disgraced, Whom the Duchess keeps in her house for various services when the Duke is away / Actor in Jack's Troupe Playing Murellus, a Roman Tribune], Jane Knowles [Katerina, Play's a Concubine in Backhouse's New Play/ Female Voice], and David Morton [Actor Playing Ahasuerus, the King of Persia, in Backhouse's New Play / Actor in Jack's Troupe Playing Flavius, a Roman Tribune and a Messenger].

Music composed and directed by Stephen Boxer who also played the psaltery, lyre, and dulcimer.

The cornetto was played by Julian Drake; crumhorns, flutes and recorders by John Turner; viols, cittern, and lute by Ephraim Segerman, and percussion by Bill Nickson.

Directed by Alfred Bradley in Manchester.

Time: 2 hours


Note: After Alfred Bradley's death in 1991 at the age of 65, the BBC re-broadcast a couple of his finest productions, one of which was his 1978 production of John Arden's "Pearl". The re-broadcast was introduced by John Arden who recalled recording the play:

"Alfred Bradley's production of 'Pearl' was the first time I had ever been in a radio studio for the entire process of work and I remember it as a deeply happy experience. For Alfred was what playwrights like to call an old-fashion director, which is to say he was concerned to broadcast the story as I had written it. I'll go further than that: he wanted to broadcast the story as I had imagined it; much more difficult, much more rewarding.

What this in fact meant, during rehearsals, is that he never just turned to me, as I sat beside him behind the glass panel in the Manchester studio, and say, as I'm afraid some directors do say, "I'd better go and talk to the actors" and then leave me sitting there while he and they have their secrets like those gangs in the school playground which you were never allowed to join. No. Alfred said always: "Shall we go and talk to the actors?" and he brought me out with him whether or not I had anything to say. And when I did have something to say, he always listened as though it was really important, although often I'm quite sure it must have been niggling and pedantic. He trusted me as much as I was expected to trust him, so I did trust him. I knew exactly what he was doing with the play and why, and also how. I learnt a very great deal about radio production which I never really thought of before.

For instance, the strain on the actors: like Elizabeth Bell playing Pearl with long passages of internal soliloquy. I discovered, to my alarm, that my story-telling style had caused her to spend hours shut away in a sort-of cupboard with nothing but a script and a microphone, cut off from everything except Alfred's disembodied voice. Some directors would have handled such a technique like high-pressured police interrogation and driven the unfortunate performer up the wall. But Alfred never forgot her; he use to worry about her: "Liz must be going mad in there." he'd say "I'll readjust the work schedule. For heaven sake we must fetch her out if only for a few minutes."

We also had a labour dispute. The South Bank Show was making a film of a radio play in production and they had cameras in the studio. Were the actors to be paid for appearing on ITV as well for their work on the BBC? Someone in the London Office had failed to arrange this and they very nearly went on strike. Alfred sorted it out. I don't exactly know how, he just said: "You're quite right, of course. Leave it to me, I'll get you your money." And in what seemed five minutes, he got it. He knew exactly what was due to everyone he worked with, everyone knew he knew it; we trusted him."


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