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Hang of the Gaol


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A: Howard Barker Pf: 1978, London Pb: 1982 G: Pol. com. in 2 acts S: Burnt-out shell of Middenhurst Gaol, the moors, and the Coopers' drawing room, 1970s C: 9m, 3fThe historic Middenhurst Gaol has burned down to the distress of the Governor, Colonel Cooper. Two gay fire inspectors and Home Secretary Stagg arrive to inspect the damage. Three ministry officials, Scottish ex-Communist George Jardine, the long-suffering Elizabeth Matheson, whom Jardine desires, and junior civil servant Barry Ponting, conduct an inquiry into the fire. The self-effacing Ponting surprises himself by bullying one of the prison officers into admitting that there was a discipline problem after Cooper had introduced reforms. Cooper, a former officer responsible for suppressing rebels in the Colonies, is now distraught to find himself blamed. Although an eccentric and highly intelligent killer called Turk willingly claims to have started the fire, his attempt at arson failed. The evidence begins to point to Cooper, the failed idealist, as the arsonist, but the session is interrupted when Cooper's wife Jane enters, bleeding from a head wound inflicted by Turk. Stagg, concerned to avoid a scandal before an impending election, persuades Jardine in exchange for a knighthood to blame Turk for the fire and exonerate Cooper.

A: Howard Barker Pf: 1978, London Pb: 1982 G: Pol. com. in 2 acts S: Burnt-out shell of Middenhurst Gaol, the moors, and the Coopers' drawing room, 1970s C: 9m, 3f

Barker's savagely comic genius uses the metaphor of a burnt-out jail for contemporary Britain, which he regards as being in a similar state of collapse. The socialist Stagg manages to corrupt the vicious but principled Jardine with his pragmatism: ‘the party-system’ gives most people ‘the impression it is freedom.…We did not choose the system, but we have got to get the hang of it.’ Jardine's falsified report about the fire shows that he has got ‘the hang of the gaol’.

Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).


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Howard Barker (b. 1946)


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