Welsh writer, composer and performer Seiriol Davies writes for Culture about his musical How to Win Against History, which receives its Irish premiere at this year's Dublin Theatre Festival. following a sell-out tour of the UK, two sell-out Edinburgh Festival stints and an extended run at London's Young Vic Theatre...
I grew up on Ynys Môn, also known as Anglesey, or The Holy Haven of the Celtic Druids, or that flat bit at the top of Wales you go over to get to the Irish ferry. It's a barren, lovely, salty sort of place (key feature: Puffins). Furthermore, about a hundred years earlier a fella called Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquis of Anglesey, also lived there, which is handy, because I was destined to write a campy musical about him.
Henry died in 1905 but, before he did that, he lived in Plas Newydd, a delightful neoclassical-gothic pile on the banks of the Menai Straits. I used to make my parents take me there semi-regularly as a kid. Growing up, our household was steeped in the Welsh language and cultural world of choir contests, harps, anti-English folk songs and chapel jumble sales. However, there was always something about the mad, Imperial excesses of British history that darkly fascinated me.
Plas Newydd is the ancestral seat of the Marquises of Anglesey, a title that goes back to the Battle of Waterloo when the 1st Marquis was awarded it for his heroism. "Heroism" in this case is loosely defined as "being posh English, wearing a feathery hat and telling some poor people where to stand and get flattened by artillery". It’s also reputed that the 1st Marquis was so deeply butch that, that when his leg was blown off by a cannon, he didn’t even notice. "By Jove Sir, I think your leg’s been annihilated," said the man next to him. "By Jove Sir, I believe you’re right." was his reply. Totes masc.
I reckon most of us, at least some of the time, think we're an outsider in a world that everyone else gets. And whatever our actual ambitions, very few of us are quite so extravagantly emo as to want no trace of us to exist after death.
One of the principal attractions of the house is the accoutrements of that 1st Marquis: his false leg (the first articulated one in history apparently); a massive, thrusting, deliriously Freudian stone column erected in his honour, and so on. But these weren’t what did it for me. For, there, there on the wall (right there), pride of place on the wall of the back porch, just above the doormat and off the hallway leading to the toilets, was a small laminated sheet with a few photocopied photographs. These were what I came for.
Have a Google Image Seach for "Henry Cyril Paget" and see them for yourself. Aren’t they stu-hunn-ing? Doesn’t he look like Freddie Mercury after he’s legged it through Elizabeth Duke’s wearing a suit made of sellotape? Henry, it explained briefly and somewhat grudgingly underneath, was an "eccentric". He had wasted the family’s fortune (one of the largest in history) on jewels, fabulous dresses for himself made of real diamonds, and putting on plays, starring himself (obviously), wearing said dresses. He’d also done things like convert his car so that its exhaust fumes smelt of roses, dyed his poodles lilac, and toured Germany performing a show called The Famous Electric Butterfly Dance.
Watch: Seiriol Davies talks How to Win Against History
Henry’s behaviour was so scandalous, and his vainglorious exploits so catastrophic, that upon his death, bankrupt, at the age of 29, his family gathered all of his personal effects they could find - his letters, diaries, photos, all that remained of his internal life and his own voice - and burnt them. They tried to eliminate him from history. Now, I was never a glamorous child, though I believe I wore a cape for most of 1987, but I identified with those lost, dark little rebel eyes, staring out of those photos. And reading what happened to him set off my internal bell of adolescent outrage. And, because I believe in swift and decisive action, I decided to make a musical about him a few decades later.
It's also reputed that the 1st Marquis was so deeply butch that, that when his leg was blown off by a cannon, he didn’t even notice. "By Jove Sir, I think your leg’s been annihilated," said the man next to him. "By Jove Sir, I believe you’re right." was his reply. Totes masc.
Because that’s Henry. Even though on paper he’s not the most obviously sympathetic character ("Hey come see my show about this dead white millionaire and how hard his life was. Come back please!") people have just seemed to warm to him. There’s a defiance, an outsidery-ness on an epic, Imperial scale... but also, because pretty much anything he ever said or thought has been scrubbed from the record, you can just pour yourself into him.
I reckon most of us, at least some of the time, think we’re an outsider in a world that everyone else gets. And whatever our actual ambitions, very few of us are quite so extravagantly emo as to want no trace of us to exist after death. Also yes, his outfits are life-giving. History, they say, is written by the victors. Well, I wanted to make something that redressed that balance a tiny bit; that told at least a version of Henry’s story as pieced together from a lot of extraordinary events whose linking motivations can only be guessed at. With songs in it, and me in a dress and a gag about Keira Knightley. So that’s what we did.
How to Win Against History is at the Civic Theatre Tallaght from September 25-27th, as part of this year's Dublin Theatre Festival - find out more here.