The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

If we do not feed the dragon with blood, what happens?

The debate about free will is central to the The Dark Tower.

The year after World War II ended The Dark Tower was broadcast for the first time with original music composed by Benjamin Britten. Louis MacNeice was to direct the play four times in all, once as a stage production. Since then the play has generally been considered quintessential radio drama. It is not surprising, therefore, that Michael Quinn, a producer for BBC Belfast, chose the play as part of the BBC’s epic undertaking Towards the Millennium, a decade by decade overview of the twentieth century.

There are numerous moments in The Dark Tower when you feel the poetic and the dramatic jarring. The play can be obscure but if it connects with people it is precisely because it is heightened by the poetry. When I was directing the play writers would ask me: “What does it mean?” I think a more important question is: “What does it make you feel?” It’s a provocative play. It makes you think, but the conduit is though your heart. It’s difficult to write about Louis MacNeice without sounding pretentious because his work is drenched with allusions and he is very erudite, but a simple way of looking on it is to see the play as a quest for self. That is why it is so important.

The play was written in response to the events of WWII. It seems clear that Louis MacNeice had the rise of Fascism in Germany in mind when Blind Peter says: 'Everything went sour; people’s mouths and eyes changed their look overnight – and the government changed too – and as for me I woke up feeling different and when I looked in the mirror that first morning, the mirror said, “Informer!”’ What is extraordinary is how little things have changed.

Those phantoms of tradition and authority – 'Your Country Needs You' – are imperatives that are still placed on people to make them do something they would rather not do: to kill people or risk being killed themselves. In The Dark Tower it is almost as if there is a force outside of Roland determining that he will sacrifice himself. The mother’s role is crucial. It seems incredible that she should send seven sons to their death, and yet mothers have been waving their sons as they have gone to so many wars in the fifty years since this play was written. Blind Peter sorrowed for his daughter’s death but the mother didn’t for the deaths of her sons. The only way she could retain her sanity was to take refuge in duty - a terrible word and honour is worse.

The Tutor, an avuncular character, who would much rather do research than teach says: 'We had a word, honour, but it is obsolete.' This is a strange comment when everything that drives the characters is precisely honour or, at best, duty. In Roland he finds a student who is interested in learning and asks questions but he has to send him off to make his sacrifice. The mother sees Roland as different from her other sons but she still tries to bind him to his duty with the ring she gives him.

Several times in the play she lists the names of the sons she has sacrificed. It is a litany that is the same as the list of names on any war memorial. In her mouth, it becomes a corrupt mantra. Those dead names place their obligation on the living. The blood sacrifice is the most potent guarantee of a sense of continuity and it is only when someone says, 'I refuse to spill the blood to water the argument' that the argument or tradition withers.

The debate about free will is central to the The Dark Tower. Roland is sent on his quest by his mother. He vacillates and turns back. By this time, the ring his mother gave him is cold as if she has withdrawn her involvement, so that it seems he is free. He then chooses to face the evil of the Dark Tower and the terror of the dragon. It is almost as if there is a force directing him that is even greater than tradition, honour and duty. One of the subtleties of the play is that The Soak is the puppet master who is pulling the strings, the writer who is creating the part of Roland. We are into a labyrinth where Louis MacNeice might be The Soak or Roland might be acting freely or the mother might be controlling events.

I think Roland realises that people are not defined by their tradition but by a multiplicity of things: sexuality, gender, family geography, a sense of who you are in relation to other people. In the end he recognises that the Dark Tower is dark only because it doesn’t exist. All wars feed the dragon with blood sacrifices; it is the only way to keep back the wave of evil that is in the Dark Tower. But if we do not feed the dragon with blood sacrifices, what happens? Does evil flood the world? I think Louis MacNeice is presenting us with an unresolved problem. But one of the lines that rings true for me is: 'to be a human being, people agree, is difficult.' When World War II broke out, Louis MacNeice was in the USA and his friend Graham Sheppard, who was in the navy, was killed while on convoy escort. Louis MacNeice applied to join the navy but was turned down on medical grounds and then returned to fight the war on the propaganda front with the BBC. It makes you wonder what his attitude is to those who answer the call of duty. I have a feeling he never got over the guilt of escaping death. It is possible that he actually approved of Roland going out to fight the dragon.

At the time when this was written Michael Quinn was Radio Drama Producer, BBC Northern Ireland. His production of The Dark Tower was the first radio broadcast of the play for over twenty years.