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Wrestling with Demons and Deities on a Strange Isle: Sue Glover's The Straw Chair



The Straw Chair, first performed in 1988, is in many ways a strangely beguiling combination of contrasting elements: characters, cultures, identities and beliefs, things earthy and ethereal. At its heart is the incredible but true story of Lady Rachel Grange, declared mad, abducted and banished by her ruthless husband to the remotest place he could find: St Kilda (Hiort or Hirta in Gaelic), a rugged but spectacularly beautiful island (or archipelago to be more exact) some forty miles north-west of Uist.

Woven into the tragic story of Lady Grange is the tale of a newly married couple who have just arrived on the island one summer in the 1730s: the seventeen-year-old Isabel and her much older husband, the 'stickit' minister Aneas Seton, who has been sent as missionary to the island by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. The island has been without a minister for some time and apparently still adhering to many of its pagan customs and superstitions.

Plays about characters finding themselves on strange islands inevitably invite comparisons with Shakespeare's The Tempest, and though the echoes in this case are fairly distant, they are discernible. While St. Kilda / Hirta is a kind of enchanted isle that has a transformational effect, it remains a personal hell for Lady Rachel Grange. Like Prospero, she has been betrayed and banished, losing all her previous power and status, but unlike him she has no powers of magic and there are no sprites to liberate her.

Unlike the sophisticated Edinburgh society Lady Grange has been banished from (and unlike those of Prospero's island), the inhabitants of Hirta live harmoniously with each other and their environment. Throughout the play these two societies are constantly set in juxtaposition, providing many sharply contrasting perspectives on each other, but the comparison is not simply historical: Glover clearly implies that the contrast is really an existential comparison of two very different cultures that addresses some of our fundamental issues as a species.

How is the island of Hirta presented in the play, how crucial a role does it play in the drama, and how does it affect the lives of the central characters? I'll try to answer these questions by concentrating on the relationship between Isabel and Aneas and examine the profound effect the strange island, and even stranger Lady Grange, have on them.

Firstly some historical facts: Lady Rachel Grange, then in her early fifties, was abducted and exiled to St Kilda, probably because her husband, James Erskine, Lord Grange (brother of John Erskine, the Earl of Mar who led the Jacobite rising of 1715) feared that his wife, enraged by his infidelities, would reveal his political double-dealing. When the play opens, Lady Rachel is being detained on the island against her will in the care of a Gaelic-speaking islander, Oona.

By contrast, we learn of Isabel and Aneas's very different reasons for coming to the island. He is a missionary, coming to do 'God's work', or rather the work of the SPCK, whose authoritarian aim is 'to catechise the natives and lead them to salvation'; she is doing her duty in support of her husband, but also naively thinking it would be 'an adventure', never having left Edinburgh where she lived a very sheltered life. We soon see that she is filled with dismay at the bleakness of the place and despairs about coping with the inhabitants, especially the 'mad' Lady Rachel. Isabel prays to God to deliver her home safely to Edinburgh as 'speedily as possible'.

But while Isabel is stunned and frightened by her meeting with Rachel, we hear in the second scene how Aneas has had 'an invigorating morning': 'I have never seen such a place.' His description of being on top of Conachair shows that he has not just been climbing a hill, but almost been in heaven looking down on creation and is in fact 'lost in wonder', which reveals that, although he appears to be a rigidly self-righteous 'little minister', he is also surprisingly open to new experiences and new perspectives.

Meanwhile, Isabel is 'brooding' over 'Hirta and its highest born inhabitant', and suddenly starts asking Aneas about Edinburgh 'oyster cellars' (which Rachel and other high-society ladies enjoyed) — he is understandably 'perplexed by the change of subjects'. Here we imaginatively plunge from the cliffs of Hirta to the cellars of a sophisticated city, from the heights to the depths — aspects of the city's life the innocent Isabel knows little or nothing about.

But in spite of being disturbed by Rachel, Isabel grows increasingly anxious to do what she can to help her, and this angers Aneas greatly — the matter at hand is the risky business of smuggling her letter to her friends on the mainland. In fact the judgemental Aneas sees Rachel as a 'godless, mischievous, evil creature' and 'a strumpet' who is a wicked influence on his young wife and even thinks that her exile on Hirta may be a 'gentle Bedlam' as opposed to being locked up in a city madhouse.

By Act One Scene Four, this tension rises to the surface in a 'bedroom' quarrel, after which Isabel insists on keeping the lamp lit, a small but highly significant act of defiance against Aneas's authority. Yet the light imagery also links to an underlying conflict between deeply embedded mythologies and beliefs: an authoritarian male religion suppressing older female deities. When Isabel starts fantasising about becoming a scaly snake (suggested by the islanders' belief that God created man with scales) we might be inclined to think about Judaic-Christian mythology of the serpent in the Garden of Eden and, since Aneas, like Adam, is asleep, Rachel's sudden appearance at this point could be seen as the devil appearing to tempt Eve with knowledge of the forbidden fruit.

However, in Celtic mythology, the snake is linked to ancient wisdom and fertility and as Isabel imagines herself and Aneas swimming together in the sea like snakes, we sense something vibrant and transformational, primordial and procreative stirring in her, while Aneas goes on sleeping in his stone bed, symbolising the sterility in a marriage that has not yet been consummated. At this point Isabel sees the light, both metaphorically and literally, as by the end of the scene dawn has broken and they see the ship on the horizon bringing MacLeod's steward who will officiate over multiple wedding celebrations — a symbol of the stability, happiness, and joyful tenacity of life on the island. […]


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