What we’ve learned from … Jo Clifford

Kathryn Howden (Mary) and Liam Brennan (Man) in Every One, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 2010. Photo: Tim Morozzo

In our digital drama club with older LGBTQ + people, we often look at work by queer dramatists to help us all boost our writing and performance skills. This is what we learned when we looked at a speech from Jo Clifford’s Every One.

1 When we’re feeling our way through the beginning of a drama, we’re especially alert to all the cues about what genre of story we’re watching, and the expectations set up by that particular type of narrative. At the opening of Jo Clifford’s Every One (premiered in Scotland in 2010, and in England six years later), it looks like we’re in for a fairly conventional family drama from the cast of unremarkable white, middle class, heteronormative characters onstage – teacher Joe, tax inspector Mary and their two teenage children: daughter Mazz, partying hard while dreaming of a career in fashion, and son Kevin, showing commitment to little else other than the next level of Sin City. (Mary’s mother is also in the space, sat in a wheelchair in a care home, happier to live in the past than the present.) So we might reasonably expect that this could be the kind of show in which the family members are perhaps tested by events but ultimately learn something warm and fuzzy, like how both generations really do have something to offer each other. This is what genre does. It orientates us about what is going on and what might be coming up. If Mazz and Kevin were two teenagers meeting for the first time, we might be in for some kind of romantic comedy. If Joe was introduced to us at his under-funded school battling to convince his hard-pressed pupils to pay attention, we might think we’re in for some form of social drama. If Mary opened the piece talking about her dreams of securing a top job at Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs now that Teresa May was Prime Minister, we might expect a disillusionment narrative.

2 By halfway through the first act, the audience is pretty sure it’s got a handle on the world of the play. After all, Joe is out getting the weekly shop, Mazz is sleeping off a hangover, Kevin is sat watching TV and Mary has begun working her way through the family ironing. So far, so cosily conventional. The one element that points elsewhere is the way the piece is being built in a succession of monologues, rather than through scenes of naturalistic dialogue. But then all of a sudden there’s a violent disturbance to the frequency the play has been vibrating on up to now. Something unseen but powerfully malevolent has got its claws in Mary. “He comes. It comes. This comes,” she shudders. “Something evil Something very small but very strong Here on my shoulder … And I know it means me harm.” She’s right to be afraid. In another minute or so, she is felled by a stroke, wetting herself and making unrecognisable sounds collapsed on the floor. And while Joe is still in the supermarket, warming to what feels like some of his favourite shopping themes – the difficulty of finding potatoes that don’t taste of soap, the stained sawdust in mass-produced teabags – his wife narrates a kind of extended out-of-body experience in which she watches herself being rushed to hospital in an ambulance, stripped and washed by NHS staff and left in a bed like “a broken-down thing. Something to be thrown away.” The sense of dread only intensifies as she contemplates what’s left of her: “I don’t recognise this person … her face is a kind of catastrophe.” But while Mary is struggling to understand what is happening to her, her mother, with impeccable timing, pipes up with a very peculiar tale, in which she too, like her son-in-law, is trying to buy potatoes. But this is no 21st century supermarket – she is ‘remembering’ shopping in a Jewish greengrocers in Nazi Germany, being threatened by anti-Semitic thugs and then going home to do some ironing of her own – but in this case it’s her grandson’s uniform. And then in the midst of all this, a well-dressed older man steps out of the audience offering to help explain what’s going on – and he turns out to be Death. So this is definitely not the family drama we expected any more. And now we have to try and get our bearings all over again.

3 This abrupt shift in tone and content is as shocking as the brute fact of sudden death always is. (And in a play awash with references to film, it’s tempting to think of the most notorious genre-switch in cinema, also prompted by a man ending a woman’s life unexpectedly – Psycho.) And it leaves the audience struggling to catch up to some new realities. First, we have been sitting in the presence of Death ever since the house lights went down. Second, Death has been lying in wait for one of the characters on stage – indeed the one who was told right at the beginning “It’s your play”, which has destabilising implications for everyone on stage and in the audience And third, since this well-dressed figure was only a few rows back from the stage, Death has been sitting in a very good seat the whole time, so this whole end-of-life business seems to be a nice little earner. One of the reasons he (and this Death is a ‘he’ – Jo Clifford calls the character ‘Man’) has been able to blend in is that he is not encumbered by any of the conventional signifiers. As he says: “There’s no black cloak. No sinister hood. No scythe. No sinister smile. No grinning skull.” Death is not different to us. He is one of us.

4 But far from making everything clearer, Death only introduces another element of radical instability into the play – this time at the micro-level by constantly switching between registers as he speaks. And registers – particular uses of languages appropriate to specialised settings – are like the linguistic equivalent of genre: they, too, signal where we are, who is speaking and what we’re doing. For example, when someone announces at the beginning of a ceremony, “This place, in which we are now met, has been duly sanctioned, according to law, for the celebration of marriages”, we recognise we’re at a wedding because of the formality of the language, the complexity of the grammar and the Latinate air of the legalese – and we expect this ritual to end as it almost always does, with two people bound in holy matrimony. However, if the registrar then changed mode (“And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers and you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”), we might start worrying about the outcome (especially if we’ve watched Pulp Fiction). That’s why Death’s changes of register are so disconcerting here. For a start, just as he doesn’t look like a conventional Death (no black cloak, etc), he doesn’t sound like one either – even though he is improvising here on a speech from the beginning of the 15th century morality play, Everyman. There, instructed by God to summon Everyman on his final journey, Death doesn’t need asking twice: “He that loveth riches I will strike with my dart, His sight to blind, and from heaven to depart, Except that alms be his good friend In hell for to dwell, world without end.” But this 21st century Death sounds nothing like that. He is distinctly patronising (“Now dear just you settle down and I’ll tell you a little story”) and even cheekily channels the Listen With Mother radio broadcasts of Mary’s youth by checking: “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” And once he starts reporting God, the registers shift again. This God uses grammatical constructions conventionally associated with working-class speakers (“It’s them who should be sorry, Them humans.”). They denounce humanity for not protecting the environment in the tone of an exasperated parent contemplating their child’s untidy bedroom (“Just look at it. Look at the state of the world!”) And they perform the classic passive-aggressive fake apology for their outspokenness in the mode of a workplace supervisor reprimanding one of their staff rather than the ancient of days used to issuing non-negotiable commandments (“It just isn’t good enough. I’m sorry. It just isn’t.”).

5 Then in response to God’s narcissism (“They’re all forgetting me! … Do something!”), Death shifts register again. This time, he’s performing a kind of victimological obsequiousness (“With all respect Most Mighty Lord And fountain of all knowledge Haven’t you forgotten how hard I work?”), as if he is trapped in a nightmarish annual performance review in which his boss seems to have forgotten the enormous contribution he’s been making to the business the whole time. And his work really should speak for itself, as the savage sarcasm of his tone now implies: global conflict, genocide, nuclear energy, the combustion engine and indeed his masterstroke – capitalism itself,  “An economic system that can kill Two thirds of the world through war and starvation And the other third through overeating and excess”. But like any other employee in the era of austerity in which the play was written, Death discovers his track record counts for nothing: the boss wants to squeeze even more productivity out of him. Of course, like any well-trained manager, God knows that the way to do this is by switching to the role (and register) of his employee’s best buddy: “Of course, friend Death, you’ve done superbly well.” But the compliment (no talk of any reward, of course) is merely deployed to extract even more value from him: “You’ve done superbly well But can’t you do a little more?” And that’s when God points the finger at Mary, the new Everyman, and that is how Mary has come to be observing herself in a hospital bed, her life ending as blood floods into her brain, being prepared for the final journey she must make without family, friends, possessions, good deeds or even any of her five senses “lonely into the darkness.” Which is exactly where Act One ends. Where the macro (genre) and micro (register) shifts will lead to is the work of Act Two.

• As well as identifying lessons from work by queer dramatists in our free weekly workshops with older LGBTQ+ people, we also share stories, play improv games, write about our experiences and hone our performance skills. If you would like to know more, please email our participation producer, Daniel. No writing or performing experience is necessary!

Martin Moriarty
29 July 2020