Light shining in Buckinghamshire, a play by Caryl Churchill is set at the time of the Civil War in 17th century England, when the world was turned upside down as people fought for a different way to live and to put an end to grinding poverty and servitude.
The action of the play emphasises that this was a movement of the people, set as it is in village squares, parish churches and public highways and concentrating, in the main, on the ordinary people. This production reinforces that aspect by using a company of local non-professional actors alongside the professional actors.
The play makes reference to the movements of the Levellers, who challenged the church and state hierarchy and argued for a popular sovereignty and a transformation of society, and the Diggers, who denounced private property and set up agricultural communities which aimed to be self-sufficient and erase the problems of poverty and need. We see the Ranters who argued for religious, social and sexual freedom. We are shown the gross inequality that prevailed with the rich feasting to excess in luxury whilst the mass of the people toiled and starved and were unable to feed their children. The desire for equality for all led to the Civil War which resulted in the abolition of the monarchy (Charles I was tried, condemned and executed) and the possibility of a new form of society.
The scene which for me encapsulated the heart of the struggle was that portraying the Putney Debates. After winning the war the army commanders and soldiers met at St Mary’s Church in Putney to discuss the future of the nation. The core of the debate was whether there would be equality for all and democratic participation in government for all or, as Parliamentary leader Oliver Cromwell argued, whether that would destroy property and lead to “anarchy” and, therefore, could not be implemented. As one of the Leveller participants Sexby (who argued for complete equality) says, those who fought and sacrificed their lives were not doing so to maintain the status quo. This is a debate about the nature of democracy and is just as relevant today as it was in 1647.
Unfortunately the revolutionary ideals of the Levellers, Diggers and Ranters were defeated and the army and parliament which ensued replaced one authoritarian body (the monarchy) with another: the regime of Cromwell and the New Model Army.
But the words of the Leveller Colonel Thomas Rainborough from the Putney Debates ring out as true now as then “..the poorest he that is in England has a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly Sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government..” Apposite indeed as I saw the performance the day after the election results.
The production programme refers to the events as the “almost revolution” – it was a revolution; it just did not have the outcome that those who effected it had envisaged. We need to turn the world upside down again.
The words of the song by Leon Rosselson rang through my head as I watched the play
You poor take courage
You rich take care
This earth was made a common treasury
For everyone to share
All things in common
All people one