The Swastika Party by Paul Levy
(Lights up on a living room of a flat in 1940s London. A sofa is centre stage. Doors lead off stage right, and stage left. A lamp on a low table, and also a radio stage right, a magazine rack, a rug on the floor, a window centre stage back, curtained with thick curtains, a picture on the wall stage left. A table and chairs front stage left. Sitting on the sofa reading a magazine is Kitty. As lights come up the radio is playing Lit Up by Carroll Gibbons. Kitty is humming along as she reads; a kettle is whistling offstage right. Kitty gets up, still humming and reading her magazine and exits stage left. She returns a minute later with a steaming mug of cocoa, settles down to read again and sips the cocoa then frowns at it)
(She starts to get up again and then sits down)
Kitty: No sugar.
(She frowns again and then has an idea and smiles. She gets up, taking the cocoa with her and looks in the magazine rack, pulling out newspapers and magazines as she does so. She finds a small bottle of brandy and retrieves it, pouring a little into the cocoa. She tastes it, shrugs and pours some more into it, tastes again and is satisfied. As she goes to sit down again a very loud air raid siren sounds outside)
(Kitty puts down the cocoa, gets up and closes the curtains, she then switches off the table lamp and the stage is plunged into darkness. She hums and moves about as the air raid siren sounds once more, and hums. After about a minute the stage is lit dimly as Kitty is back, curled up on the sofa. She has lit a candle in a little holder which she places carefully on the floor. She sips her cocoa again and continues to read. Music plays on the radio still, and this continues for about two minutes. Then there is the distant sound of explosions which gradually become nearer and louder. After about another minute a very loud explosion sounds and then one even louder. The scene filled with sounds of bombs dropping everywhere and the curtain shake as if the window has received pressure from a blast. Kitty continues to read and is entirely unaffected by the noise. Lights fade to black on a nonchalant Kitty and explosions become even louder. They fade out)
Questions to think about:
This is the opening scene of the play. What are the main events?
What do you think of this as an opening scene for a play?
Why do you think the writer has used so little speaking and so much action for the opening scene?
How do the lighting and sound effects add to the scene?
What do you think the writer is trying to achieve with this opening scene?
What do we learn about the character of Kitty from her reactions to the air raid?
Why do you think Kitty is up in her flat and not down in an air raid shelter?
The Director’s View
“The opening scene to the play establishes the setting very quickly. We meet Kitty, one of the four women in the play. She is doing something quite unusual – she is staying up in her flat whilst the Blitz is on. She seems almost oblivious to the noise and danger around her. I use sound and light to accentuate this effect. We used very loud soundscape of the bombs dropping and air raid sirens.”
“The opening scene of a play is the scene where first impressions are created. It would be easy to lose an audience’s interest, particularly in a play like this where the action takes place almost entirely in a small living room! I decided to create a sense of a much bigger world for the audience – the world of London during the Blitz. The sounds and impressions of the world outside this small flat are created through the soundscape, through the flashing lights of the incendiary bombs and fires. We become aware of a dangerous and volatile world around Kitty. Kitty’s response is to be unaffected by it all. She is not afraid of the danger outside which creates even more of a sense of danger! Are the audience afraid or do they share Kitty’s calm response?”
Questions for discussion
What do you think of the Director’s approach to staging scene 1?
How would you stage this scene if you were director?
What sound and lighting would you use and why?
If you only had a budget of £200 how would you set up this scene?
A Writer’s View
“In the first scene of this play I have tried to create a mood of calm in side Kitty’s flat, amidst the noise of the Blitz outside. The contrast of Kitty’s calmness with the angry sounds from the nightly bombing creates a tension. This is also achieved by the lack of dialogue. Kitty utters one or two words only, firstly in relation to the lack of sugar for her cocoa, and then in relation to the brandy she puts in to improve the taste! We have these two very different “moods” in the same scene: the cosiness of cocoa and a sofa to curl up on, and the cacophony of the Blitz outside.
“I have been very specific with the stage directions; the setting up of the scene to create the required moods, the lighting and sound effects to create the effect of London’s Blitz. Some writers specify very little in their stage and scene directions. In this play I have been quite meticulous with both set design and also the timing of sound and lighting effects. I have tried to build up the mood as the scene progresses and, though there is almost no speaking, the scene is about 5 minutes long!”
Questions for discussion
What do you think of the writer’s approach to writing scene 1?
How would you write this scene if you were the playwright?
Which parts of the writing do you think work best?
In a later part of the play, Kitty explains why she prefers to stay up in her flat during the air raid. Can you find it?
The answer is Scene 8.
According to the writer Paul Levy:
“Kitty is partly based on my own grandmother, Jenny. According to my father, she was unafraid of the Blitz and used to remain up in their small flat in the East End cooking supper as the bombs fell, while the rest of the family were safe in a shelter! One amazing fact connected with her is that this same person who defied the air raids, was also terrified of thunder and lightening!”
Let’s have a look at part of Scene 8:
Kitty: Sometimes I get afraid Mary. Up here. When the bombs are falling.
Mary: Then why on earth do you stay up here?
Kitty: It isn’t easy to put into words. There’s a freedom up here.
Mary: A freedom? In the Blitz?
Kitty: Tell me, am I cold hearted? They are packed on the platform, wrapped in their blankets and clutching their flasks, singing songs as the bombs rumble overhead. Sometimes you hear a tube train and the sound of a bomb and you can’t tell which is which. And so many cheery faces; they play I Spy and Gin Rummy and someone takes off Will Hay with a monocle. And I am covering my mouth and nose with a handkerchief. Is that bad? I am covering my mouth at the smell.
Mary: The smell?
Kitty: The stench of humanity all packed together in one place – the stench of people who could do with a hot bath. The stench of greasy hair and musty coats and damp blankets and sweat and the sheer reek of fear. Up here, when the blackout is an hour old and the sirens have gone and the German planes are dropping their late Christmas presents I open the kitchen window; the air rushes in and the smoke…
Mary: The smoke? What about it?
Kitty: It smells so good, it smells so fine. Am I cruel? I love it when the Blitz is in full swing – the air is good and I feel so alive.
Mary: I don’t know about cruel. I think fruitcake is a better word. You could be killed at any moment.
Kitty: Yes but that is part of it. An old woman died today at Holborn on the Piccadilly line right down on the platform. It took ages to get a doctor and by then it was too late. There were children crying and the daughter went hysterical. Don’t you see, we could die anywhere at anytime? I would hate to die amongst that stench of people. I love it up here in the dark, dancing in the dark in the danger; I love London when it is on fire; it sets me alight as well.
Questions for discussion
What do you think of Kitty’s explanation?
Do you think Kitty is “a fruitcake” to stay up in her flat?
Why do you think Kitty has developed the attitude that she holds?
An interesting fact:
Contrary to popular belief, not all Londoners used air raid shelters on a daily basis. In fact, many of London’s flat-dwellers chose to stay in their homes during an air raid, making home made shelters from a kitchen or dining room table or adapting an under-stairs cupboard.
Possible Historical Research Topics
What exactly was the Blitz? Why was it called “Blitz”?
What effect did the Blitz have on London as a city? What other cities in the United Kingdom were affected?
In what different ways did Londoners shelter from the Blitz?
In the opening scene, Kitty is short of sugar for her cocoa? Why was there a shortage? What other shortages of food were there and how was this managed?
How does the furniture and design of a 1940s living room differ from that of today?