When I wrote my play, A Thousand Days, 20 years ago, I researched the facts about a family confined to a plague house in 1665. I read Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and tried to imagine what it would be like living in such a time. As a contemporary quote put it: “There is grass growing up the middle of Whitehall,” an image that has stayed with me.
My most recent project was about a pandemic that struck a century ago – the Spanish Flu from 1918 to 1919.
Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, this was a community project about a terrible virus that tore through the world’s population at the end of the First World War.
Together with our oral history volunteers, we spent months tracing family stories of people who died in and around Brighton – stories that had been lost or even deliberately forgotten. Deaths were often recorded as pneumonia rather than flu, but sometimes there was a political need for secrecy. Sometimes people were ashamed that a family member had died so ignominiously at a time of such sacrifice.
But, of course, it was because of the war that it took hold, attacking young adults in particular. A whole generation of people had their immune systems compromised by living in the trenches or sub-standard, overcrowded housing, and were then shipped around the world in huge numbers, carrying the virus.
Theatre was affected, of course, and cinemas and performance spaces were closed, but sometimes only for a few hours with a deep clean in between, as then, as now, people were worried about their livelihoods.
The public were told to wear masks, wash their hands and keep away from each other, but medicine was not advanced enough to tackle the problem, and the movement of people around the world after the war meant the virus arrived in three waves, killing huge numbers.
Through these interviews and creative workshops with local people, we were set to devise a show to perform at Brighton general hospital (where the original patients had been treated) at the end of March 2020.
My play suddenly wasn’t in the past any more. Even as we were preparing for the performance, I realised that we needed to postpone
But suddenly it wasn’t in the past any more. Even as we were preparing for the performance, I realised that we needed to postpone, and that we were all going to need a lot more time and distance to be able to process what was going on.
During the project we learned a great deal about the personal, social and economic disruption of a pandemic. We learned about informal networks of care and what the state could provide, about isolation versus community, about class and the impact on rich and poor alike.
We found many untold stories, and we will be telling them, when we can, through an exhibition and performance, Breaking the Silence.
Sadly here we are again. It will pass and we will respond to it in the only way we know how – through stories and theatre. But there is a way to go yet.
Sara Clifford is a playwright, lecturer and director of theatre company Inroads