Louis MacNeice’s The Dark Tower was heard at the British Library on 13 November 2014 as the fourth in a five-part series of public listenings. Below, Dr Amanda Wrigley of the University of Westminster offers some background to this work:
The Dark Tower is one of the most acclaimed creative works written and produced for BBC Radio. The poet, classicist and BBC writer and producer Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) wrote it in the spring and summer of 1945, at the close of the Second World War, and it was first broadcast on the Home Service on 21 January 1946 (9.15-10.30pm), with many subsequent revivals. This first production is the one we will hear at the British Library. Alongside MacNeice’s words, an exciting score by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) provided another dimension to the aural experience.
The location of the piece in its historical moment is crucial for its interpretation. Roland is the protagonist in this morally and structurally complicated post-war meditation on the competing demands of heroism, authority and duty, temptation, free will and personal legitimacy. He is a rather reluctant young hero who is sent by his mother ‘across the big, bad sea’ (p. 25 of the published script) on a quest to the Dark Tower – a quest which he neither understands nor takes up readily. This quest is a family tradition, and not a happy one: Roland’s forefathers, father and six brothers have themselves set out on the very same quest never to return. Just as he reaches his goal his mother issues a reprieve, summoning him home. He is delighted, but simultaneously stumbles upon a tombstone which is dedicated as follows:
‘To Those Who Did Not Go Back –
Whose Bones being Nowhere, their signature is for All Men –
Who went to their Death of their Own Free Will
Bequeathing Free Will to Others’ (p. 60 of the text published by Faber).
On reading this, Roland decides to carry on, despite certain, imminent death. In this piece, MacNeice reworks Robert Browning’s 19th-century poem ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’ which focuses on the struggles of an untested medieval knight as he journeys to the Dark Tower where he will die.
Exhausted by the reportage of the war years, MacNeice considered that ‘pure “realism” is almost played out’: in The Dark Tower, therefore, he set out to explore (I quote) the ‘fact in fantasy’ and in order to do justice to the world’s complexity, he make frequent use of literary devices such as parable to make cultural works richer and more concrete (see the Introduction to the Faber edition). But he did not want to discuss publicly the meaning of the play: ‘I have my beliefs and they permeate The Dark Tower‘, he said, ‘but do not ask me what Ism it illustrates or what Solution it offers’. The subtitle of The Dark Tower informs us that MacNeice viewed it as a ‘parable play’. But it is a parable which resists easy interpretation and he himself notes that it resisted being reduced to an algebraic formula, or a diagram.
Despite MacNeice’s public reluctance to be drawn on the play’s meaning, private letters with BBC colleagues tell us that he considered the play to be ‘an excellent vehicle […] for dealing with contemporary issues which might be too hot or too delicate for a more direct treatment’ with the dragon figure a representation of Fascism. On a simple reading, then, Roland represents the recent victory over Fascism in his successful mission to the Dark Tower. He exerts his humanity when he actively chooses to die for the greater good. But this is the kind of simple ‘algebraic’ reading MacNeice warned against. Roland’s counterparts in the recent war faced perhaps more morally complex decisions than him – but still, they were willing to sacrifice themselves for the protection not only of their own communities but those in far-flung places they would never see. And the word sacrifice is, I think, important to MacNeice’s thinking. In his writings he talked of greater and lesser evils in wartime and one live train of thought for him in his correspondence and poetry was the ambiguity of doing good in wartime. What is ‘good’? To die and to lose out personally? Yes, the community must be protected. The cutting out of sickness in the wider community cannot be avoided, but the scar on the individual and individual families may be permanent.
The play also questions the extent to which fighters exhibit free will in their choice to go to war. How much ‘encouragement’, peer pressure, etc was brought to bear? It may be important that the character of the Soak characterises Roland as a ‘projection’, a ‘puppet’: ‘Look!’, he says, ‘A pull on the wire – the elbow lifts’ (p. 40). Later, he speaks as his ‘playwright’: ‘Look – a pull on the wire, his feet move forward. / Left Right, Left Right’ (like the march of a soldier, of course: p. 57). What about the rights, the humanity, of individuals fighting in total war? This is what Edna Longley refers to as the ‘ambiguous balance sheet’ in MacNeice’s wartime poetry. There is also the big question: do individual sacrifices, en masse, bring about any permanent change in the balance between good and evil in the world? The question arises in his wartime poem ‘The Springboard’ which sharpens the lens on the conflict between individuality and common purpose in wartime. It seems to me that MacNeice brings these questions about personal and moral legitimacy and public responsibilities into sharper relief by weaving into the script resonances with the heroic code of honour in the Homeric poems. The tensions in Roland’s position are underscored and, indeed, the moral exhaustion of the post-war weeks is laid starkly bare.