The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

The time when next week might be cancelled

Liz Lockhead is adamant that she writes plays, not political tracts. Her plays do not have a message.

Liz Lockhead was educated in a school that was similar to the school in Cuba in that it was a senior secondary school with high academic standards - the equivalent of an English grammar school. But, like most Scottish schools in the public sector, it was for both girls and boys. She then went to art school to become a painter and came out a writer. In the 25 years since her first book of poems was published Liz Lockhead has written 15 plays and her Collected Poems have been published.

I wrote a version of The Tempest for the Unicorn Children's Theatre and a play about evacuees called Shanghaied to tour primary schools. But I don't particularly write for children. I took the opportunity in Cuba to write a large-cast play that young people can perform. But I wouldn't say it's a children's play. It's a play that young people will get a lot out of, I hope. Today's young people don't grow up thinking the world is going to end with an atomic explosion as my generation did. I wanted young people to be able to explore a time when people really did think that next week would be cancelled.

Liz Lockhead lived through the Cuban missile crisis in the sixties and recalls a sense of doom and outrage that was prevalent then. The philosopher Bertrand Russell did in fact send a telegram to President Kennedy that read, 'Stop this madness'; politicians did indeed agonise over whether a naval blockade was different from a quarantine; and children brought the prejudices of their parents into classroom discussions. But, while she wants to make young people aware of this historical event, Liz Lockhead also wanted to explore how this kind of tension could affect relationships and the decisions people make.

External events make things happen in Cuba. If it wasn't for the Cuban missile crisis, the girls in the play wouldn't fall out, one of them wouldn't be expelled from school and Miss Arthur would not walk out of her engagement and her job. If you really believe the world could end next week the stakes are very high and you're able to make that kind of decision. The audience sees Bernadette and Barbara leading very similar lives. The ordinary and loving parents speak, dress and behave in a similar way. But, if they were asked, they would say they had nothing in common with each other. The headteacher recalls that the doctor's wife had been captain of the school and does not know the other family. 'Griggs? I don't know any Griggses.'

Mr. Cairncross doesn't mean any harm when he says that, but the very fact that he says it without being aware of its implications says a lot about the subtle way class works in Scotland. The Scots are not as class-obsessed - or not in the same way - as the English. Because education is so prized, it is possible to become a teacher, for example, without leaving your working-class culture behind. In this play I'm interested in the minutiae of class differences, the way growing up in different families will determine the kind of life you have.

In Cuba Liz Lockhead is exploring conformity, the effects of stepping out of line and what makes a rebel. Even in a school that places such store on academic success the girls can cut loose in a lesson when the teacher lets her control slip a little. But to defy authority in an overt way is unthinkable. The play, after all, is set at a time when young people accepted authority much more readily than they do now. And ten years before Miss Arthur could have the support of the feminist movement.

Barbara stays on at school and loses her status, but I don't think she suffers terribly. Bernadette gets betrayed, and Miss Arthur makes her stand. The two of them have their moment of heroism. However, they don't beat the system, and remember Barbara, the one who keeps her head down, is the one who's telling a story and I think she probably regrets not being more heroic. She's remembering and telling herself the truth, perhaps for the first time, about that particular 'long ago', when a couple of people she admired made a stand. So the play has a poignant ending rather than a ‘happy ending’ or a heroic one.

Liz Lockhead is adamant that she writes plays, not political tracts. Her plays do not have a message.

Of course your own politics and the way you think go into what you write. You might write because you are convinced, but you don't like to convince others. All you can hope is that for the duration of the play, people will see the world is as it is. And by measuring it against their own experience, recognise what you have to say about the workings of the human heart, as well as how the world works.

In her view, a successful play is one in which the forces that are pitted against each other are of equal weight.

All drama must have conflict. In Cuba, the families and head master are in a single state that remains unchanged throughout the play; the narrator has an internal conflict, and she's changed, albeit in a small way, by coming to terms with a long-ago act of betrayal; Mr. Shaw and Miss Arthur are changed forever by the conflict; and Barbara and Bernadette together are in conflict with the ways of the world until their own deepest nature forces one to betray the other. You write a play to tell a particular story about real, though not necessarily realistic characters and you hope people will recognise the forces that determine the choices people make.