There are no easy questions with Churchill

While talking with an actor who came to see Fen following a dress rehearsal, I was asked the seemingly simple question of: “so, what is the Common Market?”  I started to reply with the simple answer: “It’s sort of a precursor to the EU (European Union).” But, as the dramaturg, I realized that I couldn’t just tell him that, because I didn’t just share that with the actors. Caryl Churchill didn’t just throw that phrase into the text without thought.  Every word that she writes is done with intent.

Fen is so deftly layered with economic and political history that its full richness can easily be missed until you delve ever deeper into the text. Aside from being able to decipher colloquialisms and learning farming jargon (both past and present), I wanted to be able to present the cast, crew, and audience with a more rounded background of the time and area that they were being presented with: East Anglia circa late 70’s early 80’s.

This, however, was not as simple as it first appeared. Sure, I could easily tell you how they dressed, what the pound was worth at the time, who was in parliament… but that would really just give you the world of the central characters. The central characters of this play, Val, Frank, Val’s kids and friends, are really about the heart of play, the emotional core, the people who are living at the time of the play. The characters who are asking you to look beyond the now and find how they got to this place and why they’re being as affected as they are, are the outside ones. The characters who appear for one or two scenes who practically demand that you learn the history, as Geoffrey does when he starts to complain about the Common Market. These are the characters who forced me to face the economic and social changes up to hundreds of years of before the play exists. It’s the information that these characters want me to pass on, that I’m going to share with you today.

I’ll begin by answering the question posed at beginning. The Common Market is the English term for the European Economic Community (EEC). The EEC was established in 1957 as a way of unifying and collectively regulating certain economic areas in Europe. The original six member countries were West Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Ireland, Denmark, and the UK joined in 1973. The organization of the EEC would later develop into today’s EU. One of the major economic implementations of the EEC was the Common Agricultural Policy.

Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was originally created as a way of maintaining high agricultural production among the members of the EEC. Food shortages, rations, and general hunger had been such a major part of European life following WWII that politicians wanted to eliminate the fear of this ever happening again. The idea was to consistently produce large quantities of food and lower tariffs between the members of the EEC so that food would always be available. While the intentions were always positive, some of the ramifications weren’t.

Sicco Mansholt, Agricultural Commissioner wrote a plan (Mansholt Plan) in which he laid out a strategy for the modernization of farming in Europe. The idea was to create bigger farms with less employees, and the monitor what was being produced. While much of the plan was discarded, three major components were implemented.  In short, small farmers were encouraged to sell their farms to others to create larger farms, and were often paid to retire or to learn a new trade.

The landscape of farming in Europe drastically changed under these political groups, and the corporatization of farming began to take hold. And this is how the play really starts. Our first speaking character, Mr. Takei, beams about the corporate ownership of the land, and how  companies like Esso (ExxonMobil), Imperial Tobacco (4th largest cigarette company in the world), Equitable Life (major insurance company in the UK, later deemed one of the first “too big to fail” companies), and Gallagher (major international insurance company) run it all. However, these are not the faces of the people who actually work the farms. We see the effects of this ownership on the characters we come to meet.

The other one scene characters beg us to continue to look further into history as well. Ivy tells us through her broken memories about the early fear of unionization on farms. Agricultural unions had a particularly hard time with momentum and sustainability as farming was so entangled with family and neighbor relations.  After many failed unions had formed in the UK over the years, the one that finally took hold and lasted was the Eastern Counties Agricultural Labourers and Small Holders Union in 1906, which would chronologically the right time period for Ivy to be remembering. The name changed in 1910 to the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers, which became the agricultural brand of the Transport and General Worker’s Union in 1982. That merging, and continuing unrest between owners and unions, is referenced by Mr. Tewson himself when he says “You want to watch the Transport and General Workers. The old agricultural union was no trouble. We’ll have these buggers stopping the trains.”

Finally, Miss Cade, whom Mr. Tewson is speaking to above, is a physical representation of the government’s place in farming as she and Mr. Tewson discuss the selling of his land. They discuss a bevy of economic terms including Inland Revenue and rollover relief. Mr. Tewson also mentions the Country Landowners Association (now Country Land and business Association), which is a group of land owners and businessmen in rural areas that pay dues and have lobbyists on their behalf in government. Essentially these two characters play out a microcosmic version of the discussions occurring in Parliament at the time.

All of this information is important and a vital foundation for the play. These people are here because of a long history that some characters have witnessed and others are simply living with the consequences. The heart of the story, however, is still the people. The play demands you to see the scope and respect the politics and economics of the world these people live in, but ultimately, it wants to you to feel and connect with the characters presented. Their story, amidst all of this outside turmoil, is the heart of Fen.

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