The word 'abstract' is minutely examined in Rose English's The Beloved (1985). The list of abstract nouns that have been placed before the audience and toyed with in her performances would be long. 'Nothing', 'void', 'infinity', 'conception', 'identity', 'idea', 'fallibility', 'infallibility', 'intransigence', 'deconstruction', 'enthralment', 'fiction', and more, concepts that 'of their very nature bear an inherent risk of floating away into the blue'. By the time we reach Tantamount Esperance (1994) the dramatis personae are all named with abstract qualities, allegorical personages who contain layers of qualitative allusion within themselves and between each other.
Rose English has said, 'The thing that drew me first to making theatre was the empty space itself.' She felt it in the small avant-garde venues and studio theatres and even more so on the large stages; the important thing was that it was dark, a lightproof space. 'Looking into the dark mouth of the proscenium space is a very compelling thing, even before anything has happened to it.' A similar perception spreads through all the arts in the twentieth century, whether painting, sculpture, poetry, film, music or theatre: the empty space, the condition of emptiness, silence, the Void. It is closely linked with abstraction, and this abstraction in turn is linked with cosmology. The idea that the universe began at a dimensionless point, and that galaxies formed themselves out of dust and gas, inevitably throws one back to a contemplation of 'nothing'. In Rose English's The Double Wedding (1991) the story itself is imagined as 'forming the vacuum... formed of its own volition' in a space which is both astronomical and theatrical:
We start in the dark. There is a show going on. We start in the dark. It is outer space. We move through the galaxies. It is deep, deep space. It is the deep space of the theatre. It is the deep space of the cinema screen.
Every time this space is conjured up it throws us back through history to its ancient beginnings, the invention of the notion of an arena based on the audience's 'agreement... to come and witness something'. The theatre therefore is a space of thought. Rose English has described it as 'somehow like the basin of the mind itself', inexhaustibly fascinating because 'it can only be alive in the ephemeral moment'.
This is where the cosmological nature of the theatre converges with its social nature: the dark void where the earthly action begins and to which it always returns. At the beginning and the end the void poses the question of whether it is possible to represent anything at all, of what representation is in relation to the vastness and minutiae of things. The fragile yet powerful belief system that holds theatre together as a form of representation – from the archaic and perhaps very modest moment of its first invention, to the whole body of dramatic conventions since developed – converges with the belief system which holds people together in society, that 'social contract' theorised by philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.
It was not without self-questioning that they decided to work in a middle-class gallery context, rather than solely engaging in a more recognisable form of political struggle. This was a widespread dilemma for left-wing artists at the time: was art already hopelessly compromised as an essentially bourgeois occupation and must that milieu be abandoned completely to engage in the class struggle? In the end, the question posed a false pair or irreducible alternatives. What is seen emerging through a whole sequence of works, from Berlin to The Gold Diggers, is one particular shared endeavour to bridge politics, art and everyday behaviour; to articulate a politics of representation.
When English came to read the mystics of the Kabbalah it was the combination of material and spiritual in the alchemy of the word, or a material analogy of the refinement of the spiritual, that seized her attention.
The Kabbalah is much preoccupied with the relationship between words, letters and fire, in the guise of a constant exchange between matter and energy: 'The form of the letters is without vowels and is only potentially engraved in this black fire, which is like ink [on white parchment].' The relationship between light and the primordial darkness suggests that which exists between light and dark in the theatre, and some kabbalistic writings startilingly recall the descriptions of the effects of early technical inventions to produce light on stage. Sometimes the very terms light and dark seem to be taken beyond their apparent irreconcilable polarity, arriving once again at the notion of the void. Gershom Scholem, in his masterly study of the Kabbalah cites one such writer who, after enumerating the 'ten lights' – 'or mufla, wondrous light; or nistar, hidden light; or mithnoses, sparkling light; or sah, clear light; or bahir, bright light; or mazhir, radiant light, etc.' – identifies the primordial light source as 'the light that is too dark to shine'. Scholem then continues:
The light is indeed called darkness, not because it is actually dark but because no creature, neither angel nor prophet, can bear or grasp it. It is the plenitude of light that blinds the eye. Evidently these definitions of the dark light agree with those of the Nothing that we have already encountered among the kabbalists.
Naturally, English's reading of the Kabbalah was not without wry amusement. One day, while I was researching this book, she handed me Scholem's anthology with a warning: 'Be careful, you can be swallowed up by this!'
The early 1980s had been a time of hope and optimism; ideas came to fruition fairly quickly and it was not difficult to find interested venues. The years from Walks on Water to Tantamount Esperance marked a change for the worse in terms of working conditions. The production process was becoming slower, more laboured and difficult. In fact Tantamount Esperance was launched in the midst of a portentous changeover at the Royal Court theatre, as the genial and resourceful Max Stafford-Clark was replaced by the aspirationally ambitious Stephen Daldry. In these conditions, everyone worked under a singular stress. For English, 1994 represented the last moment it would be possible to put on an original, devised, interdisciplinary work in London without having substantial funding and infrastructure at the artist's disposal; a state of affairs brooded over by Tantamount himself within the show. Early in the piece Tantamount is positioned precisely in this history:
I've forgotten what 'tawdry' means, possibly because I've become it – all dusty around the lapels... my home is an infinitely, sometimes interminably humble place... I've come to realise recently to my chagrin that young and struggling is so much more glamorous than old and struggling... knowing this makes it no easier.
For all these reasons Tantamount – as invented by English – is a troubled figure. After so many 'indomitable' female protagonists it was the first time she portrayed someone 'riddled with doubt'. Behind his character, in part at least, lay English's conviction that we are all complicit in social structures, that we collude in our disempowerment if we take no action.