Shattered Globe Theatre

By Jack Helbig

In an age overstuffed with visual images–on billboards and in movies, on Web pages and in glossy magazines, on slick TV commercials and in ever-changing fashions–it’s easy to forget that the ear is as easily seduced as the eye, that the right word spoken by the right person with the right lilt can be worth a thousand pictures.

We forget this sometimes even in the intensely verbal medium of theater, but British playwright Sue Glover’s historical drama Bondagers reminds us of the power of the spoken word. Set in rural Scotland in the 1860s, the piece offers a banquet of beautiful language. From the moment the play begins, the audience is immersed in the rich sounds of the Scottish dialect: the luscious vowels, the trilling rs, the scads of unfamiliar words, many of them ancient ancestors of modern words or mid-19th-century Scottish agricultural terms–“ken” for know, “bairns” for babies, “tumshie” for turnip, “hinds” for farmhands. And the Shattered Globe cast are eager to display how well they’ve been tutored to speak this Celtic spin on English.

This shouldn’t have surprised me. The folks at Shattered Globe are always scrupulous about their accents. Even when they produce a play of questionable value, like the arty antiwar play of several seasons ago Love of a Good Man, or when everything else in the production misfires–as happened in their awkward, humorless version of Joe Orton’s Loot–their accents are always correct to the last vocable. What did surprise me was how quickly I was seduced by Glover’s language, especially considering that for the first 15 minutes I felt as if I’d been dropped into a foreign land where the population spoke a beautiful gibberish that sounded a lot like English and even sometimes made a little sense as English but refused to cohere into fully recognizable sentences. Example: “I’ll fettle the horses–but not your bairns. I’ll redd up the steading–but not your house. I’ll work a’ day–but not in your bed.”

A glossary of many of the more eccentric words is printed in the program, but it’s incomplete; “fettle” and “redd” aren’t on the list. But only a fool would turn from Glover’s characters and story to focus on the fact that a “tattie” is a potato and “shoon” are shoes. In fact the secret to Glover’s success with this challenging and seductive language is that, though she lovingly re-creates the sound of the border region of southeastern Scotland, she doesn’t pretend the dialogue is an authentic reproduction of the way agricultural workers spoke in the 1860s. “How could it be?” she writes in the introduction to Bondagers. “No reliable records of speech of the field (or the streets, or even the drawing-rooms) exists.” Still, she creates dialogue that, when spoken by actors of the caliber of Rebecca Jordan and Linda Reiter, sounds like a transcript of daily life.

Rather Glover wants the audience to believe in “the time, the place, and above all, the characters” in her play. Her entrancing dialogue–as realized by Lynn Ann Bernatowicz’s terrific six-member cast–is the means by which she draws the audience in: the play begins with a spoken choral section that revels in the sensual Scottish dialect. Once she has us hooked she introduces the subtler tones of her work, which is both a compelling, detailed portrait of six “bondagers”–female farm workers (actually five bondagers and one ex-bondager who married up)–and an allegory for what we lost and gained when we moved from a labor-intensive era of farming to a wholly mechanized one.

The play follows the bondagers through one year, from “the hiring” in February through the harvest in autumn to the next year’s hiring season. Glover claims she’s not interested in creating only “historical/sociological documentary,” but her play is filled with detailed re-creations of life on the farms. Scenes abound in which the women hoe, dig up turnips, and cut down sheaves of wheat, all the while wearily laughing about their options in life: toil in the field in the muck or toil at home among the bairns. Certainly no one could fault an audience for believing in the world Glover has created. And certainly the folks at Shattered Globe have worked hard to make us believe in its existence. The actors wear authentic-looking clothing–long dresses, full hats, aprons stained with dirt–and Shattered Globe’s storefront performing space has been filled with dirt to create a tiny open field complete with concentric furrows for the bondagers to hoe.

In writing Bondagers Glover seems to have had two competing goals–to create a compelling story and to convey a message about the subjugation of women, the cruelty of the class struggle, and the rape of the land and culture in pursuit of greater and greater production. A bad artist or fervent ideologue could easily have botched both. But happily Glover, like Bertolt Brecht, is a great enough artist, or a subtle enough propagandist, that her didactic points take a backseat to her art.

So you can sit back and let the language and story wash over you, wipe a tear at the trials of these high-spirited lassies, and have a grand time, yet never forget there’s a deeper level to Glover’s story.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bondagers photo by Roger Lewin-Jennifer Girard Photographers.