Saturday, 10 September 2011

WORMWOOD by Catherine Czerkawska (Part Two)

The splitting of the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking and thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.’ Albert Einstein

A scene from  WORMWOOD
When I set out to write a play about Chernobyl, I knew that people would assume that it would be virulently anti-nuclear. It isn’t. But the parts of my play that people still remember – and write to me about – are all to do with individuals. The after effects of the disaster are described by fireman, Stefan, and his wife, schoolteacher, Tanya. She goes downstairs on the morning after the explosion and senses ‘a strange heavy feeling in the air. At first I thought there had been a frost in the night, but it was too warm for frost. The new glossy leaves had this fine white powder on them. Like ash. I touched it. And then I felt my face beginning to tingle. There was no smell but my eyes began to water. And the taste... I could taste metal on my tongue.’

She experiences all this, unaware that her husband, Stefan, is fighting a fire that is ‘no ordinary fire at all. A monster, a dragon. As if this was exactly what it should be doing. And we shouldn’t be there. We didn’t belong any more. We had absolutely no resources to deal with this. We were like little kids, playing with matches...’
The play was produced at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, in 1997, received glowing reviews and  is still in print in an anthology called Scotland Plays, still on the Scottish Higher Drama syllabus.  
To say that the audience was disturbed by it, would be an understatement. I sat among them on a number of nights and saw many of them, including hardened critics, weeping uncontrollably. The other thing they did, from time to time, was to faint, an unexpected side effect of a powerful production, movingly acted in a claustrophobic setting.  Since then, it has had a handful of student productions, but has never had another professional production. A talented young actor /director demanded, only recently, (and quite unprompted by me!) why the National Theatre of Scotland hadn’t mounted a production to mark the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl. But I sometimes wonder if it might not be too uncomfortable a play for commercial success. 
One thing that interested me deeply about the rehearsals was the ignorance of the cast about the nuclear processes involved. It didn’t surprise me, because I had been equally ignorant and I had a scientist in the family. Which means that I half knew – but didn’t know. Not really. Not properly. And I think scientists have to be aware of this, that people may have certain facts at their disposal, but aren’t really aware of the implications of them. So the actors kept asking about what triggered a nuclear reaction. And it was clear that they were thinking about – for example – their oil boilers at home. They didn’t realise (and I noticed exactly the same knowledge gap in those reporting on Fukushima) that the natural state of this stuff is unstable. It does what it does unless you stop it. Well, I know it’s more complicated than that, of course – let’s face it, it’s nuclear physics - but all the same, it’s such a fundamental thing and there was hardly a single journalist who seemed to have sufficient knowledge to query the too-swift reassurances, or – for that matter – to counter the wild speculation that followed Fukishima, magnified on Twitter, as it never was after Chernobyl.

When published, my play was dedicated to my dad, Julian Wladyslaw Czerkawski, who died in 1995 and who never saw the production. I subtitled the dedication to ‘a scientist who knew how to imagine’ which was what my father was – talented, creative, a brilliant scientist but also one who loved exploration of all kinds, and inspired interest in others, not least his grandson, who was born late in 1986. The worlds of science and of fiction are often deemed to be very far apart, but I don’t think that is necessarily the case. I think in so many ways, we can and should inspire and assist each other. And one thing we certainly have in common is an insatiable and endless curiosity about the world, how it works and what our place in it might be. 

Biographical Note: Catherine Czerkawska is an award winning author of historical novels, short stories, many plays for the stage and more than 100 hours of drama for BBC Radio 4. When not writing, she also finds time to collect and deal in antique and vintage textiles, especially those with a Scottish or Irish provenance and often finds herself writing about them. She blogs about her work at WordArts
Her latest literary venture is to publish her out-of-print novel The Curiosity Cabinet as an eBook, on Amazon’s Kindle, along with a trio of short stories called A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture . There are a couple of new novels waiting in the wings, The Amber Heart and The Summer Visitor, with a new book called The Physic Garden almost completed. 


  1. I've really enjoyed these two blogs, Catherine. With the current debate about renewables and nuclear energy, WORMWOOD is surely ripe for revival.

    As a writer I'm very interested to know why you chose to write about the subject in the form of a play. I tend to draft my own novels with a great deal of dialogue to begin with and I often find myself asking, "Should this really be a play/film/tv script?" I know you write novels, plays and journalism, so I'm sure you must have considered other formats for your ideas. Did you ever consider a novel on this subject? Do you think you might tackle the subject again in the light of its topicality?

    (I doubt there's a short answer to my questions, so if you'd like to blog again about this, let me know.)

  2. Interesting questions. This presented itself so much as a play that I'm not at all sure I could do it as a novel, but never say never! The Curiosity Cabinet started out as a series of plays, but I always wanted to do that as a novel, right from the start. With Wormwood, it never seemed to be anything BUT a play. I could see it as a play in my mind's eye. And the structure of it is so odd that I'm not even sure it could be made into a novel. But I'd need to think about why that should be the case!

  3. Another great post, Catherine. I agree with Linda that WORMWOOD is ripe for revival. I would certainly love to see it. You have inspired me to order the anthology Scotland Plays from Amazon... I wonder what people who bought this also bought...

    You articulate the problem of the knowledge gap very well; unfortunately the knowledge gap applies to our general understanding of many of the technologies that we rely on every day. I would love to see more drama and fiction exploring these things.

    I'd also love to know if you have any more thoughts on Linda's comments and questions.

    Thanks again,