A Fortnight at Aldeburgh (Part 3): What Is Come Bargain With Uncanny Things Now?
Updated: Aug 7
This is the third in a seven-part sequence of blogs going into the work on Come Bargain With Uncanny Things done during my Creative Retreat at Aldeburgh (supported by the Britten Pears Foundation). You can read the first, second, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh parts at the appropriate links.
To start with the title: it’s a reference to a book that is very famous among historians, but probably not especially so outside that sub-branch of the academy. It’s quite good, if you have the time.
The field I am trying to understand is somewhat smaller - it is, after all, a field I have created. Thus we begin.
Overall, it is still a ritual; one in which a community strive to solve the various problems, uncanny and mundane, besetting their home. They do this, primarily, through rituals to influence the titular Uncanny Thing, a supernatural creature of uncertain essence. Some of these rituals gather knowledge, some offer it gifts in exchange for favours, and others trade in those favours for specific actions.
Also, the tooth thing is still very much a thing. People who saw the Work In Progress will know what I mean. If you don’t know what I mean, I’m going to leave it disquieting and unknowable for now. That’s rather an important part of the show.
Which, in turn, made devising a world, structure and set of usable mechanics rather tricky. Great immersive theatre tends to have pretty intuitive mechanics; either things you’ll be familiar with from daily life or popular media, or things that are very simple. We all know the not-fun of trying to play a game, only to be told that we are playing it wrong - not through lack of effort, but due to the rules’ complexity.
However, the main unknowable part of Come Bargain With Uncanny Things is the supernatural, which is (as you’ll know from the previous blog) deliberately meant to be somewhat unknowable; somewhat… uncanny. Starting this blog with the imagined history, then continuing to the mechanics and magic, how did I go about squaring the circle?
First, by writing down all the jotted notes of worldbuilding ideas I’d made on the back of receipts, torn scraps, and sometimes even actual sheets of A4 paper, like an adult. That gave me a single page of dense handwriting filled with interesting ideas to consider, synthesise, and reject. It included the interesting question “can non-naturalism be immersive?”
That then emerged into a few pages on the nature of different bits of the world - The Nature of Bargains was the first to solidify, reflecting on their social nature (pretty taboo, but pretty common) and their magical nature (what’s needed, what sort of thing works). The Nature of the World also congealed swiftly, with just a few notes on how the society might be structured and shaped by the supernatural presences in it. A major question was whether the world was just like ours, with a few extra shadows in it, or very different to ours.
At this point, I made a terrible mistake/detour. I wrote a detailed socio-political history of the world of Come Bargain, right down to the year in which the UK legalised bargaining (1967, under Harold Wilson). This was very fun, took most of a day, and was very useless as an idea. While that sort of approach is useful for shows about very strict communities with clear written histories (armies, governments, and so on), it ended up feeling far too strict for Come Bargain With Uncanny Things. Purely as a by-product of that approach, it ended up with a ‘now’ for the show that was almost exactly like our own, more out of Tolkeinesque pseudo-realism than dramaturgical need.
That history was rendered un-canon. What I needed was something else. I needed to stick to my anti-naturalism guns.
I am not a great director or writer of everyday life, and given that the show will centre around people singing to control an unknowable spirit, that seemed like a good place to start. Unlike many naturalistic approaches, it was possible to think about the history as an ‘unscientific’ oral history. What are the major events ‘about ten years ago’? What was different ‘when I was young’? What did ‘my grandmother once told me about a time when…” mean in this world? All of these things made room for useful ambiguity and uncertainty, while still feeling like a history of the world.
There were two questions that really nagged at me in the worldbuilding. Neither of them ones that will likely ever come across to the show’s audience, but ones that may well appear in the details of it.
First: this is a show by a non-white creator, being performed in the UK. Did the Empire, or something like it, happen?
This took a long time to consider. On the one hand, global travel was surely shaped by the supernatural. I could always follow the path of some great speculative fiction that begins with “yeah, there are lots of different peoples who just live together here, deal with it.” On the other hand, did I really want to build a counterfactual history going that far back? Something that big would surely have to be established out loud, would impede audience engagement, and wasn’t the focus of the show. In fact, the Empire’s attitude to the world as something to control felt very useful as way into one aspect of relating - the core subject of the show.
In the end, the world has ‘the Empire, but muted by supernatural elements.’
However, this then led to World War One, a great sacrifice of desperate people, offering to the Uncanny Things. A shorter war, then. One without the gruelling length and attrition. One, therefore, without the humiliation of Versailles. One, however, where mass death was associated with sacrifices to the Uncanny Things. Quite plausibly, then, one without the Nazis coming to power.
Was this a world without a Holocaust?
I have spent many years working with the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at UCL, along with their fellow academics in the field. Part of that work has involved engaging with scholarship about representations of the Holocaust, and the numerous tasteless ways that has been done (in addition to some very good practice, of course).
This is a show where a connection between industry and the supernatural exists. Where a connection between suffering and the supernatural exists.
Frankly, I did not want even the implication that the Holocaust might have been an offering to the Uncanny Things. Some things should not be the subject of idle fictions’ merest footnotes. While I suspect there is speculative fiction that deals well with the Holocaust, Come Bargain would never centre it in the way necessary to even begin to do so.
Additionally, obsessions with ‘Nazi magic’ are often dramatically useful devices for pulp fiction, but rarely in good taste, let alone ethical. They often seem to veer near the apologist ‘but they were really [whatever]’ crowd. Intellectually, it was unconscionable. Personally, the thought of the implication made me feel sick.
On that count, the idea of a history without a Nazi regime ruling Germany felt like a useful direction; it followed from the alternate history, and avoided a revolting possibility.
Equally, nor did I want to erase a history of persecution and suffering; the moment of reckoning after the facts of the Holocaust emerged is one that forever changed our world. Without that moment of reckoning, where would the world be?
At present, I have decided upon an alternate history where the Nazis’ early rise to power took place; one where local atrocities across the world were enough to start forcing people to think; to recognise the inhumanity people are capable of. Perhaps a slower process than in our world, and one as unfinished as in ours, but one that left its mark, and ensured that the show’s fantasy wasn’t one that tried to ignore the real history of anti-semitism. While this show is about human relations as manifested in a fantastical ritual, some human relations are too important to lightly cut or ignore.
This worldbuilding section was… longer than expected. However, those were two important questions which deserved space.
I hope my answers were of interest. Should you have thoughts on them, do feel free to comment, challenge, or criticise them. I am not so great a writer that my process is worth writing about solely for others’ benefit; I have much to learn still.
This is part of a series reflecting on my time at Aldeburgh on a Creative Retreat. There will be seven parts in total.