Revising Atrocious Cultural Histories through Theatre: Oliver Cromwell and Genocide in Ireland
THERE IS A STATUE of Oliver Crowell outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. Whenever lists of the greatest Britons are compiled he regularly sits in and around the top ten. He designed and executed genocide against the indigenous population of Ireland. Yet, by some, he is celebrated.
How can we interrupt the narrative of the “cultural hero” in cases where that “hero” should not be celebrated? How should we best stage cultural interventions in cases where the cultural narrative has been rewritten to omit incriminating parts? One of the most powerful things about theatre and other performance-based media is its ability to cultivate empathy. What is being depicted — performed — happens with real live people. Perhaps, here, in theatre, we can create forceful art, sitting people down in front of it: real bodies, real presence, real human beings. Perhaps this interruption of the real with a different real could work.
In this article I detail some of my research as a playwright investigating methods to intervene in the cultural celebration of atrocious people. My aim is to create a piece of theatre that, when consumed, will make someone feel uneasy — conﬂicted — dirty — perhaps a little culpable — at their next encounter with Oliver Cromwell. In this way, I hope to contribute to the rewriting of the narrative that surrounds him. The play We Didn’t Kill the Wolves (It was Cromwell) has been developed as part of the Act II Festival in London. Rehearsal and development was directed by Catherine V. Mclean, with ensemble members Mia Kitty Barbe-Wilson, Ceara Harper, Tom Hunter, Magnus Korsaeth, and Louis Vichard. At the time of writing, development is ongoing.
In 1649, Oliver Cromwell led his New Model Army into Ireland to re-conquer the country for England and exact revenge for the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Cromwell commanded an army that massacred civilians in Drogheda and Wexford under no-quarter orders, enacted laws and directives that historians argue amounted to attempted genocide, and shaped the savagery of his successor Henry Ireton’s command. Cromwell signed the Act for the Settlement of Ireland in 1652 and oversaw further ratiﬁcation in 1657 as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. The act ordered summary executions, mass land conﬁscation, and forcible deportations of indigenous Irish to the West of Ireland, and as “indentured servants” to plantations in the Caribbean. Irish resistance was strong as they fought for their lives and culture. They tied branches together in forests to form impenetrable thickets against advancing armies; but the English burned those forests. Estimates suggest between 10 to 41 percent of the Irish population were murdered between 1649-53. By 1659, after ensuing famine and the settlement of English Protestants, the drop in the indigenous population has been approximated by some to be as high as 83 percent.
In writing the play around Cromwell, I set some parameters from the outset:
Irish people and their culture would be the primary focus — not the story of the English. There is a place for close analysis of the perspectives of colonisers, but voices and stories of the colonised should come ﬁrst. British cultural representations of the effects of colonisation in Ireland are poor, barely presenting the stories of Irish people from the time of the Cromwellian Conquest — nor from many other points in history.
Oliver Cromwell — although not the focus in character development — should feature. It is a key part of the project’s aims that the audience leave the theatre feeling culpable in the perpetuation of Cromwell’s status as a British hero.
The play should be within reasonable means to produce. This parameter foregrounds questions about projected budget of realising the writing, potential tourability, response to programming trends, and the quality/entertainment value of the play.
This article will focus on my development of the character of Cromwell, in pursuit of parameter two, within a larger body of research about potential story, structure, genre, style, and form.
This is an extract from an article first published by Arc Magazine on August 7, 2020. Visit https://arcmagazine.org/pieces/external/james-ireland/ to read the complete article.