The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

Children Denied Childishness

The play ends with the children setting off, a classic story of a journey going from darkness to light.

To David Harrower it is a mystery how he became a playwright. While at college he wrote short stories but no plays and the hardly went to the theatre. Afterwards while earning a living washing dishes, he wrote a short play for a competition as an experiment to see how much he could convey by dialogue alone. Four years later his play Knives in Hens was accepted and then produced by the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. On first reading The Crysalids David Harrower recognised the power of the story.

The story and ideas coming from the novel were fascinating. What I tried to do was carve out the core of the story from Wyndham's writing to achieve a short, sharp narrative with, I hope, at times shocking moments that would reflect the savagery of the world that is Waknuk.

Waknuk is indeed a savage society. Wyndham invented an enclosed world that is surrounded by a fearfully vast wilderness. In this post-nuclear society only those who are without mutation are allowed to live in the community. Any person or animal with genetic mutations is banished to The Fringes where an alternative society has loosely formed. Wyndham never explains how a mutant baby finds its way into The Fringes but David Harrower explores how a symbiotic relationship between the two societies is essential and he has created a chilling moment when a man takes away a baby and leaves it in a field for collection.

David Harrower uses a rock-like language. He will write a scene and then carve it, chipping away at extraneous material until he comes to the essence of what the characters are. As a result, on first reading his play, young people may find the language sparse but David Harrower is confident that actors will come to realise that symbolism has a dramatic power.

This play has few stage directions and David Harrower expects that the directors and actors will bring their own perceptions and interpretations to it but there are some themes that he believes are implicit in the play. Strangely, considering that the novel was written at the height of the cold war, he does not see nuclear issues or the contemporary debate about genetics as being central. Instead his play deals with exclusion and inclusion, how society treats outsiders and the brutality a society can practise on its own citizens.

There are different forms of brutality in every society. Obviously there is the overt brutality of murder, torture and imprisonment that happens the world over. But there are also subtler forms of brutality to be found in this country: ways of treating people such as immigrants, asylum seekers, single mothers and recently beggars; and ways of portraying them to suggest that they are upsetting the stability of our society. It is possible to create a culture which suggests that these people are threatening a way of life we should be living, a mythical way of life. Waknuk contains both forms of brutality but the latter was more interesting to me as a playwright. I wanted to explore the idea that they actually need the mutants and when they cast them out they are using them to confirm the myth of Waknuk that's been built up over many years.

David Harrower heightens the dramatic tension by including the idea that the Waknuk people are building a wall to seal themselves in and the fringe people are making more and more raids. There is a state of emergency in Waknuk and much black propaganda about maintaining the purity of the people. The children who are telepathic have felt different from birth and have used their powers imaginatively and creatively, saying things in their heads that would be proscribed in this restricted society. Over the years their power has been eroded so that, at the start of the play, they do not communicate very much. In a sense, it is only by being excluded from Waknuk that the children are able to use their powers and attain their freedom.

Writing it, I felt great emotion for the children, for the strength they have. The communication between them, the ability to think freely and imagine freely without fear of reprisal gives them this strength, something the other people of Waknuk do not have. It was difficult finding a way of creating this telepathic group but I eventually decided on monologues spoken by each of the children with a suggested stage direction that we see the other children lit or grouped around them at the same time. The monologues have a certain poeticism about them to show that the only way they can express themselves is in their heads, in secret. This is the only way they can use language without restriction.

The climax of the novel is when a spaceship comes to rescue the children. David Harrower leaves out the spaceship. Instead, when the children get to the fringes, Petra makes contact with a woman. She does not communicate fully until the very end when the woman describes a place to her and how to get there. The play ends with the children setting off, a classic story of a journey going from darkness to light.

I wanted to show a society that denied its children their childishness, took from them the ability to be imaginative and surreal, blocked the process of discovering their own creativity and place in the world.

The Crysalids, the play, is more than the story that John Wyndham created. It has poetry and insights and reflections on how society can brutalise itself in the quest for purity and the pursuit of a high and essentially wrong moral code. David Harrower is not preaching about our society today. His first aim was to tell the story in a most entertaining way but it is more than likely the young people who take part in productions of this play will be forced to question some of the assumptions we make about social control.