A hundred years ago, London was the commercial capital of the world.  But there were no computers, no internet, not even any typewriters.   Commerce was run by an army of clerks.  For men with no particular skills, to be a clerk was considered a steady and respectable occupation, certainly a step or two up from the near starvation existence of the unskilled labourer.  But the work was tedious and dull, copying letters, keeping ledgers, creating orders and writing invoices – the working environment oppressive. As Maggie reports  in The Orange Tree’s production of Elizabeth Baker’s play, ‘Chains’,  ‘the windows had dingy, drab blinds, and inside there were rows and rows of clerks, sitting on high schools, bending over great books on desks, and above each there was an electric light under a green shade.’    

The barracks of this army of clerks were the small terraced houses that had spread out west to engulf the villages of Acton and Ealing.  Every morning, the clerk would dress in his uniform of white shirt with detachable stiff starched cuffs and collar,  dark tie,  waistcoat, dark pin striped trousers, black shoes or boots and short coat, have an early breakfast and leave for work.  The opening sequences of the play were choreographed to Philip Glass’s ominous, repetitive musical sequences.  The clerks marched in one by one, donned their bowler hats and gloves, which were laid out on the narrow table, checked their appearance in the mirror and marched off to work.  They would probably do the same ever morning of their lives for 50 years. The mundane muffles the tragedy of lives only half lived. Clerks were not people with minds and emotions, but automatons, programmed to work for nine hours a day.  For those, who had risen to the lower ranks of the middle class, work was a duty, something you didn’t question.  There was no joy, no creativity, just the satisfaction of doing a steady respectable job, a suburban life style and perhaps if one applied oneself diligently or long enough, promotion to chief clerk before retirement.   

Charlie and Lil’s existence of unquestioning duty and respectability is rocked by the decision of Fred Tenant, the young man who lodges with them, to emigrate to Australia.  He is not going to work in the same office until he is an old man.  He is sure of that. He wants space, life, opportunity.  He is going to get some land in Australia and start a farm.   

At first horrified, Charlie is troubled by Tenant’s decision.  He is restless and dissatisfied with the unending drudgery of his existence.  He deserves something more. Why shouldn’t he go also?  Why should marriage hold him up?  He doesn’t want to leave Lil, of course, but when he’s got himself sorted out, she can come and join him.  Maggie, Lil’s sister, is also troubled.  Trapped by her sex and the job in a haberdasher’s shop, she is about to escape into a marriage of convenience, but she knows that this will be just another prison.  She rails at her fiance to be more adventurous.  ‘Why don’t you surprise me and take me to Australia?’   He looks at her as if she is mad.   Eventually, Maggie breaks off her engagement and Charlie decides to go without telling Lily, but on the morning of his departure, Lily announces that she is expecting their first child.    

The Orange Tree is a studio theatre.  We  are all in the living room of Charlie and Lil’s Edwardian house  – so close we can almost smell the food they are eating.  We feel the Charlie’s dreadful dilemma, Lily’s hurt and his final despair when the cage door finally clangs shut.  But it would be a mistake to see Baker’s play as a period drama.   

‘Chains’ is as relevant now as it was then; perhaps more so.  We may have more freedom.  Our leaders tell us we do. But we have greater expectations.  Charlie and Lil aspired to their own terrace house – living room, front room, kitchen, two bedrooms, aspidistra in the hall, but now this comes with flatbed television, hi-fi, cooker, fridge freezer, washing machine, dishwasher, holidays abroad and two cars – all bought on credit. People living in the 21st century are as shackled to our comforts and material expectations as Charlie and Lil ever were.  We also feel the same burdens of obligation;  to our spouse, our ageing parents, our children, our colleagues and line managers.  It is as difficult and frightening to opt out now as it was a hundred years ago; perhaps more so.  And options are more limited.  There is no useful land to be bought cheaply in Australia or anywhere else.  We may manage to escape one kind of cell, but as Maggie discovered, we find we are in another.  Freedom is an illusion; the  prison of the free.   So does this mean, like our ancestors, the clerks, we just have to learn to accept our lot with good grace and enjoy the comforts and society it brings.  Has the quest for personal liberty in situations of relative affluence always indicated  a neurotic restlessness, a deficiency in socialisation.  But if so, is that such a bad thing.  If we all accepted our lot placidly and with good grace,  society would stagnate.  Like a shark, it has to move forward, otherwise it dies.  Surely, it is the  neurosis embedded within our civilisation that creates progress. 

Advertisements