Ted Hughes: 1930-1998: Ted Hughes and the stage

Robert Butler watches the vanishing glow of a 'hurtling rocket'
Two or three days before the first performance of Ted Hughes's adaptation of Seneca's Oedipus, Peter Brook lined up the cast, all 36 of them (including John Gieldgud, Irene Wroth and Colin Blakely) and asked them to declaim the play at double-speed, in flat, Dalek-like voices. Without actors acting, moving or interpreting, the performance took on, said Hughes, the power of a "hurtling rocket". He felt he had glimpsed "a whole greater existence of drama, one which our English stage has forgotten".

If one contemporary writer could be said to have pointed the English stage in that direction, it was Hughes. Yet none of my theatre dictionaries give him an entry. He was, in a way, the great dramatic poet that post- war theatre passed over. In 1971, working with Peter Brook, he had written Orghast, written in Persian ceremonial language and staged it at Persepolis. Perhaps the work with Brook had been too all-consuming for a poet. He once told me he had filled up notebooks with scenarios for the actors to use simply in impros in the eighties. Pete Townsend turned The Iron Man into a musical at the Young Vic. Only in the Nineties was Hughes returning to the theatre with new versions of plays Wedekind's Spring Awakening, Lorca's Blood Wedding and Racine's Phedre - a stunning new translation that's currently playing in the West End, with Diana Rigg as Phedre.

At his death, plans were underway for an adaptation of his Tales From Ovid to be performed next year at the RSC, a new version by Hughes of The Epic of Gilgamesh at the Young Vic and a new version of Calderon's Life Is a Dream for the Almeida. One of the sadnesses of his death, for the theatre, is that he had been sought out by two outstanding directors from younger generations, who shared his vision.

When the National did their recent poll of the most significant play of the century the Young Vic director Tim Supple chose Hughes's adaptation of Oedipus. Supple said Hughes could write about myth without embarrassment. He believed in the sacred. He would find the primitive and the archetypal in a way that was modern.

The Almeida director Jonathan Kent, who commissioned the Racine translation, says that Hughes sidestepped irony. He released the savagery at the heart of Racine through the muscularity of his language. Both directors say he has a poet of the spoken word. He wanted the words to come from the actors at a deep level. In rehearsals his greatest complaint had been about "TV delivery" - a tone that was witty and ironic.

He was tireless in his support of new plays. I sat on one committee with him, Sacred Earth Drama, which he'd founded, promoting plays by children or adults that, instead of focusing exclusively on man's relationship to man, dealt with man's relationship to the natural world. It was a hard idea to get across for the very reason that it was important. As he wrote in Winter Pollen: "The story of the mind exiled from Nature is the story of Western man."

Hughes would regularly sit through a couple of hours of agendas and minutes, before lunch in a cafe or pub. He believed that adults could be especially moved by plays they watched with children or plays that were performed by children. He quoted the Chinese sages that the man in whom the child's heart and mind has died is no better than a dead man. It was a view of the theatre that was quite out of its time.

two foxes, two poems: 1957 & 1998

The Thought-Fox

I imagine this midnight moment's forest:

Something else is alive

Beside the clock's loneliness

And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:

Something more near

Though deeper within darkness

Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow

A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;

Two eyes serve a movement, that now

And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow

Between trees, and warily a lame

Shadow lags by stump and in hollow

Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,

A widening deepening greenness

Brilliantly, concentratedly,

Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox

It enters the dark hole of the head.

The window is starless still; the clock ticks,

The page is printed.


London. The grimy lilac softness

Of an April evening. Me

Walking over Chalk Farm Bridge

O my way to the tube station.

A new father - slightly light-headed

With the lack of sleep and the novelty.

Next, this young fellow coming towards me.

I glanced at him for the first time as I passed him

Because I noticed (I couldn't believe it)

What I'd been ignoring.

Not the bulge of a small animal

Buttoned into the top of his jacket

The way colliers used to wear their whippets -

But its actual face. Eyes reaching out

Trying to catch my eyes - so familiar!

The huge ears, the pinched, urchin expression -

The wild confronting stare, pushed through fear,

Between the jacket lapels.

"It's a fox-cub!"

I heard my own surprise as I stopped.

He stopped. "Where did you get it? What

Are you going to do with it?"

A fox cub

On the hump of Chalk Farm Bridge!

"You can have him for a pound." "But

Where did you find it? What will you do with it?"

"Oh, somebody will buy him. Cheap enough

At a pound." And a grin.

What I was thinking

Was - what would you think? How would we fit it

Into our crate of space? With the baby?

What would you make of its old smell

And its mannerless energy?

And as it grew up and began to enjoy itself

What would we do with an unpredictable,

Powerful, bounding fox?

The long-mouthed, flashing temperament?

That necessary nightly twenty miles

And that vast hunger for everything beyond us?

How would we cope with its cosmic derangements

Whenever we moved?

The little fox peered past me at other folks,

At this one and at that one, then at me.

Good luck was all it needed.

Already past the kittenish

But the eyes still small,

Round, orphaned-looking, woebegone

As if with weeping. Bereft

Of the blue milk, the toys of feather and fur,

The den's life happy dark. And the huge whisper

Of the constellations

Out of which Mother had always returned.

My thoughts felt like big, ignorant hounds

Circling and sniffing around him.

Then I walked on

As if out of my own life.

I let that fox-cub go. I tossed it back

Into the future

Of a fox-cub in London and I hurried

Straight on and dived as if escaping

Into the Underground. If I had paid,

If I had paid that pound and turned back

To you, with that armful of fox -

If I had grasped that whatever comes with a fox

Is what tests a marriage and proves it a marriage -

I would not have failed the test. Would you have failed it?

But I failed. Our marriage had failed.

'The Thought-Fox' from 'New Selected Poems', Faber pounds 9.99 'Epiphany' from 'Birthday Letters', Faber pounds 14.99