"The convulsive fits - or, as the common fame has it, possessions of my patient George Lukins, take different forms. Sometimes he pretends himself a dog, sometimes a wild, fanatic dancer. Sometimes he will run violently into a shallow pond or river. Several times he has danced in a large chimney corner barefoot upon burning coals." (Surgeon Rees. 1745)
Directed by []
Comments from John FletcherEdit
Originally entitled "The Yatton Demoniack", the play is based on historic events and is set in deepest, darkest eighteenth century Somerset.
A young boy has been possessed by The Devil and thinks himself to be a dog, walking on all fours. His family use him to round up sheep on the bare and rock-cropped Mendip Hills. An ambitious young non-conformist preacher - whose already well-known in Bristol as "the silver-tongued salvationist" - decides to make a real name for himself - and convert the backward and largely godless Mendips - by challenging the Devil - speaking through the boy - to a public debate.
Things go very badly for him, however. The Devil is a very subtle debater and partially manages to enter the preacher's soul. (The debate is based on pamphlets of real life Lancashire Devil/Preacher debates held in the late seventeenth century in the most exquisite Miltonic English). The preacher goes mad and bad and, having converted her to his new religion of sexual freedom, is found in bed with the rather dim village whore (played with relish by Miriam Margoyles).
Enter two new characters. Parson Mogg, an eighteenth century divine gone native, much addicted to the skull-crunching sport of cudgelling, and the creepy Surgeon Rees, a Welshman who uses "experimental" techniques in his sanitorium to cure insanity. (This is a jab at the inutterably dense ex-Editor of "The Times" and Somerset landowner - William Rees Mogg - who while portraying himself as coming from a long line of rural grandees is actually descended from Gradgrind-esque nineteenth century colliery owners. His two children, Jacob and Annunziata, made a notably comic appearance in the 2010 General Election).
Parson Mogg is forced by the law to have Doll the whore shaved and whipped through the streets. Meanwhile Surgeon Rees captures the preacher and subjects him to what today would be called water-boarding. Surprisingly, it works partially on the preacher.
With his sympathetic uncle helping him, the preacher struggles to regain his sanity and his sense of himself back in Bristol. In Bath the now famous Surgeon Rees - he cured the “silver-tongued salvationist" - sets about practicising his grisly (and half-mad) arts on all the faddish aristocrats who flock down from London for the waters.
In the meantime Parson Mogg lies in bed with Doll - for whom he has bought a wig with which she is thrilled. The human heart of the play, Parson Mogg, in that satisfied eighteenth century way, concludes that by-and-large everyone has had their just desserts, and God's work has been done.
The Devil lives to fight another day.
Monday Play-writer John Fletcher will be recognised as a voice comparable with John Arden, as soon as his work is presented in the theatre. Meanwhile, this astonishing evocation of the earth, the flesh and the devil in 18th century Somerset drawing on contemporary texts and using the plain power of the language of Bunyan and Milton, is the radio event of the week. The Guardian.