John McCourt writes: When I was a student at University College Dublin I was a very active member of Dramsoc. Each week we put on a different lunchtime and evening play, five days a week, over about twenty weeks of the academic year. It was an amazing training ground, not just for the few who went on to have successful careers in theatre, but for all of us. In 1988, we established a fringe theatre company called Pigsback and enjoyed two summer seasons at Players in Trinity (performing Tom Paulin’s The Riot Act, Stephen Berkoff’s West, and a late night comedy called The Hippodrome Hop by myself). We followed that up with a production of Red Noses by English playwright Peter Barnes in January 1989. Fergus Linehan (later director of the Dublin, Sydney and Edinburgh theatre festivals), played Marcel Flote (the leading role in a cast of about thirty). I was lucky enough to be assistant director on that show, which was directed by Gerry Stembridge (known in Ireland, among many others things, as the author of much of Scrap Saturday with the late Dermot Morgan, and for several acclaimed films, plays and novels). This production established the Pigsback Theatre Company, which later became the very successful Fishamble (although by then I had long since headed off on another path).
I found myself thinking of Red Noses the other night. It is a dark and funny play about a very unfunny subject ‑ the Black Death. Full of slapstick, it is not altogether irrelevant to our own times. The play is set in Auxerre in France in 1348 in the time of the plague, for which there is of course no cure. Marcel Flote, who has lost his wife and family to the disease, is seeking a remedy for his own misery and that of the world in which he lives. The cure is laughter. He gathers together a motley collection of followers, including two bloodthirsty soldiers, a wanton nun, a mute covered with bells, a spying priest and five mentally or physically challenged misfits, all of whom become “the Floties”. They develop a successful slapstick routine: the perfect answer to his call from God to spread laughter and bring cheer into a dark world overwhelmed by pestilence and death. They are opposed by a group called the Flagellants, who see the plague as a punishment from God, and, supported by the Pope, think the only remedy is penance and self-atonement. The Floties mount a production of the morality play Everyman, in which Everyman defeats death and manages to win round the most cynical, pessimistic of audiences to the company’s optimistic vision. Flote’s message is a call to restore compassion and faith in humanity and an exhortation to practise what we preach: “Talking of love isn’t love. It’s the acting of love that’s love!” Elsewhere Flote says: “God wants peacocks, not ravens, bright stars, not sad comets, red noses, not black death. He wants joy.” This is a message that would of course be lost in that section of right-wing America that is today buying arms and still listening to fundamentalist doomsday preachers calling Covid-19 a hoax. But it is one we need to heed.
Back in 1989, putting on Red Noses was great fun. The horrors of the Black Death in the fourteenth century belonged to a distant past we all felt had been completely left behind. It was not, we felt in our innocence, in any real way, part of our own time.
The Black Death devastated the populations of Europe and Asia, with Italy being particularly hard hit. It originally spread to Italy from what is now Russia. The plague was carried and spread by the fleas that lived on the black rat and was brought to an ill-prepared Italy on Genoese ships. The population was weak and vulnerable to the disease. It struck most forcefully in urban centres and Italy was one of the most urbanised societies in Europe, with Milan, Rome, and Florence, being among the continent’s largest cities. It is estimated that as much as a third of the population died and there was economic devastation as trade ceased for fear of the spread of plague. Any of that sound vaguely familiar?
Where we were blind back in 1989 was that we didn’t really see the play’s relevance for our own time. Although we felt safe, the world of plague and death was not a world that we had left behind. In 1989, we were living in the midst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which had begun to attack in the early eighties. Its toll would also be huge. As of 2018, approximately 37.9 million people around the world were infected with HIV and the global incidence of HIV infection peaked in 1997 at 3.3 million per year. Thirty-two million people are said to have died from Aids-related illness up to the end of 2018 (https://www.unaids.org/en/resources/fact-sheet). Yes, treatments for Aids have been found but the illness is still a significant problem and is still, almost thirty years later, part of an everyday reality for millions.
When we look at Covid-19 we are reminded of past plagues, epidemics and pandemics and that these events have always been part of the human story. Up to a month or two ago, ours was an age in which the richest countries felt they were shielded from such dangers, largely bullet-proof. But of course we never have been and we never will be. We will get through this as we got through previous pandemics, some of which make the current one seem relatively small.
Think of the Antonine Plague (AD 165-180), which was probably smallpox and killed an estimated five million people throughout the Roman empire; the Plague of Justinian:(AD 541-542), which is estimated to have killed 10 per cent of the world’s population; the Black Death (1346-1353); the Great Plague of London (1665-1666), which killed 100,000 people, 15 per cent of the city’s population; the Great plague of Marseille (1720-1723), which carried off similar numbers; the Spanish Flu (1918-1920), which is called the Spanish Flu because Spain alone published the numbers of those dying while other warring countries did not. Its toll was probably in the range of 100 million people around the globe.
We will get through this by developing a historical perspective, by reading, by maintaining our compassion, by keeping our sense of humour, by small acts of kindness and love. The best form of defence against Covid-19 is the one described back in 1353 by Giovanni Boccaccio in his great The Decameron. Sometimes called l’Umana commedia (“the Human comedy”), it contains one hundred tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men (great gender balance there!) who are practising social distancing, staying at home. They have fled plague-ridden Florence and established themselves for two weeks in a deserted villa in the countryside of Fiesole. To pass the evenings, each member of the party tells a story. By the end of the fortnight they have told one hundred. In so many ways, there really is nothing new under the sun.
This morning we are seeing worrying images in Italy, and not just Italy, of far too many people walking around the cities. It does not get any easier to stay home yet staying at home is the only thing that keeps us safe and we are the lucky ones that can do it. Each day, we read harrowing accounts of frontline medical staff working round the clock and without adequate protective gear, and we read of outbreaks of Covid-19 in old folks’ homes. We hear of elderly people who are not being treated for want of resources and we read a mounting death toll. Let’s not make this any worse than it has to be. Let’s keep our sense of humour, remember our collective humanity and keep our distance. And after all of this has passed and we move to a second phase in which Covid-19 will be partially defeated but still very much part of our new reality, let’s remember our common effort and our new-found compassion and try to hang on to it. To repeat Father Flote’s words: “Talking of love isn’t love. It’s the acting of love that’s love!”
Image: Giovanni Boccaccio