The Gesamtkunstwerk of fragments

Ansgar Allen – Plague Theatre (Equus)

Scarborough. A man finds an old manuscript. It tells of plague and bad times.

Ansgar Allen’s larger body of work is a great thing. Across this work, he treats the same set of themes to repeated but different literary experiments. Allen’s educational writings, his work on cynicism, and his strategic experimental texts all return to the same concerns. Here, in Plague Theatre, we see them return again: ‘The intellectual persona is always a miserable creature and a fraud.’ Museums are ‘destroyed by intellects.’

Allen is, I think, exploring a philosophical core via experimental fictional strategies. Perhaps as a scientist might bombard his subject material with repeated attacks, in order to see what it is made of. The object of the exercise, though, is less about finding an unbendable, final, enlightenment truth, rather than understanding that reality is remade each time by the very experiments which try to find that truth. Paradoxically though, this gives Allen’s work a strong centre of enquiry.

Here the author begins by quoting and paraphrasing Artaud’s Theatre and The Plague. The ‘author’ then seems to split, as bacteria multiplies, into a narrator, an author within the fiction, and an overarching, organising writer, Allen himself, we might assume. Superego and Ego.

Here’s how the book begins, and establishes the premise of the story: The ‘author’ describes a found manuscript, discovered in an old building in Scarborough. This manuscript seems to be an account of the plague in Scarborough. Defoe, then, arrives later in this work, both the Tour and of course A Journal of the Plague Year.

The narrator speculates that Defoe mapped the plague in Scarborough, 1720, which the mysterious text describes, on to Defoe’s published ‘Plague Year’ text about the known London plague.

To communicate how this text works it is best to describe what it does at certain points: here, the author is describing how ‘the author’ is transcribing the found manuscript. There, the author is reflecting on how he will put together the text that has already been put together. It has obviously been put together, as you are reading it in its published form.

Put more simply, Allen unsettles the reader just as soon as they start to get comfortable. He does not allow them to immerse, and this is done subtly, rather than through some showy or contrived alienation effect. This is achieved in a similar way to Allen’s earlier work, Wretch: The author-narrator in Plague Theatre is not an exact copyist; the work is changed as it is preserved. As Allen states elsewhere, all we have left to work with are fragments. Leftovers. Again, these are core concerns for Allen. We are witnessing a literary body of work take shape here.

‘The author’ describes the found manuscript in such an adjacent way that it risks appearing without ever appearing, which is exactly the genius of Brian Catling’s Stumbling Block and Its Index, the key to its status as a piece of art (and I’m ambivalent about whether you call it art or literature or poetry).

But here the manuscript does appear, slowly, by degrees. It is revealed, although its revealing is one half uncovering and one half concealing. I am reminded of Heidegger strongly at points.

The description of course creates a new object, not a clear window we look through. All the unreliablility and speculation of the discoverer, the keeper and transcriber, is kept in the account of the object. Further, it is written back into the object. For this is truth in any age, the most recent and teleologically complex media age being the most slippery, rather than the most faithful.

Even with the scan, the digital copy, and similar techniques: Allen knows this, but pitches his ideas onto this slippery terrain of anecdotes from the east coast of England, onto a strategically sketchy account of a found text, and therefore, also, into the past. The excavation and the exhumation are merged here. An early Briton appears, in an early coffin, a hollowed tree, the body as black as Jet. Anyone who has explored the Scarborough and Whitby coastline – I have, and looking for fossils – will know that Jet comes from the remains of the monkey puzzle tree, which has been compressed for millions of years. This is more than a metaphorical device.

Actually, Brian Catling’s later work appears to describe human culture turning itself to coal before igniting itself. Plague Theatre, similarly, relates to the concept of longer historical contours. In one section the cliff edges of human time are very simply given as roughly fifty years. The way they overlap the larger units of centuries, one hundred years, is then alluded to. It is a particularly excellent passage. It does a counter-intuitive thing that lesser writers struggle with, it communicates complexity by simplifying.

The Roman ruffle on the dress of history appears, implicitly, in the concept of the ‘century’, then more explicitly in descriptions of Roman remains found around Scarborough. The hollowed-out tree coffin of the early Briton seems to be a metonym for another fictional object in Plague Theatre: a piece of wood which floats in the Atlantic for two decades before being washed ashore. Their being symbolically adjacent seems to decentre the ‘Briton’, which so many have been desperate to fakely re-centralise again, over the last few years. As I type, Tommy Robinson briefly trends on Twitter once more. There are two moments in which the author takes pot shots at blue plaques and local museums. Both underscore the sheer banality of English culture. At another point, the narrator states that English culture needs shaking out. Here be a plague, I wrote, in my book Proceedings, a parallel plague of words. A linguistic virus that arrived well before Covid-19. Plague Theatre is as much about that as it is about the philosophy of meaning.

Then a moment arrives in which the fourth wall appears to be broken. The author tells us – some way into this long description about the found manuscript, and about what he is doing to keep it – that he will start this account with Artaud’s Theatre and The Plague as a kind of epigraph. But breaking the fourth wall doesn’t suddenly bring a reliable narrator, if anything it throws the fox back in the hen coop all over again. Allen’s earlier book Wretch did similar things.

Artaud’s notion that plague and a certain type of theatre are ‘revealers’ follows: ‘During a plague the psychological makeup and moral fibre of society is attacked and attacks itself…’ Here, the raining frogs and speaking in tongues, 21st century style, of England’s turn to conspiracy appears, again, without being explicitly named. Artaud is actually, on one level, brought in simply to state what Allen is doing in this book: revealing our time to us.

The unspoken but obvious other lens here is Allen himself, writing just after the pandemic. This is the text as a kind of mitosis, but the whole book becomes a sort of prism through which we can see our present time and the past in one view.

There is so much to explore here. Like Allen’s other work it is almost impossibly rich. But its importance for our present moment is that it makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar, in order to show us where we live, in a time of very rapid transition.

Steve Hanson