But knowing the historical references is
unnecessary, for, as Blake says, "the people are so much alike
and their language so much the same that you would think you was among
your friends." Indeed, God's plenty populates this stage and
are all easily recognized: the wide-eyed student, the insensitive
teacher, the drunken artist, the pseudo-intellectual, the fashion
slave, the gas bag, the religious fanatic, the sexual hypocrite, the
sexually repressed or obsessed. And, as one would expect, communication
among this eclectic crew is highly ironic and continually breaking
down or rendered absurd. Only songs appear communal, with the islanders
quite literally coming together at the end as a chorus.
Translating one medium into another always
requires compromises to a greater or lesser degree. I believe those
made here have been to the lesser degree while retaining the spirit
of the original. As written, Island has five different settings,
a narrator and 15 characters. I consolidated the action into one place,
a tavern, over one evening, where they “try’d every method
to get good humour,” and I used 14 characters instead of 15,
merging Steelyard the Lawgiver with either Estruscan Column or Obtuse
Angle, and conflating Tilly Lally and the narrator. I transposed Mrs.
Nannicantipot’s four lines of text to Mrs. Gimblet and Mrs.
Gittipin. I cut Handel’s instrumental Water Music,
which was written for a large orchestra, and added two songs that
I felt fit thematically, one from an 1803 letter to Thomas Butts and
one from Songs of Experience of 1794. And I moved the last
scene earlier in the play in order to end with all the characters
coming together in song, a triumphant moment among the disputing group.
I first read Island in early 1977,
while a graduate student at Columbia University, in Geoffrey Keynes’
Blake Complete Writings (Oxford U. P. 1966). I was immediately
struck by its playfulness, energy, and ribald humor and thought its
characters and actions were perfectly suited for the stage as a one-act
I had recently finished curating a traveling exhibition and writing
its catalogue on l9th-century British theatre prints and co-authoring
with the actor-musician David Patrick Kelly Tiny Kingdoms,
a cabaret verse-drama performed at the Other End Cafe, Greenwich Village,
23-30 November 1976. It seems that at the time I was inclined to see
nearly every text and event as inherently theatrical, suitable for
farce, melodrama, burlesque, tragedy, or comedy.