“In 1961, Ted wrote: ‘I’m just finishing a play — a real play. No resemblance to that other at all. 8 people wake up on a desert island without memory — or with only floating fragments of memory’. Can you identify this play?”.

This is a description of the play called The Calm which is set on a desert island and does have 8 amnesiac characters, plus a ‘Helper’. Fragments of the typescript are in the British Library, and fragments of manuscript (used by Sylvia as scrap paper for drafts of some of her late poems) are at Smith College, Northampton, MA. There are also fragments at Emory University, Atlanta, USA; and at the Universwity of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Notes and a precis of the play can be found here: The Calm; and a copy of my transcript and collation of the known fragments is held at Smith College.

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“In a letter to Richard Murphy (LTH 9 March 1965) , Ted wrote: ‘And on writing radio plays. I’ve brought one long work out of it — a drama in about 7 scenes, highly poetical & theatrical, which has been amusing to compose & which may have hidden virtues. Most of its visible qualities are vices. It’s a sort of Alchemical Marriage, I now realise, though it began as a grand demolishing of in-laws’. Can you identify this play?”.

This is probably Difficulties of a Bridegroom but it is hard to be sure. The BBC script which I have is only a short 30 minute play in just one act, although music breaks it into smaller ‘scenes‘. This was broadcast on BBC 3, 21 Jan 1963. Another broadcast on 17 Oct. 1965, is entitled Difficulties of a Bridegroom but consisted of poems (‘Nightfall’ and ‘The Knight’) extracted from a play which the announcer introduced as a stage play subtitled “A marriage in 17 murals”.

Ted told Ekbert Faas (The Unaccommodated Universe, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1980. p.212) that Difficulties of a Bridegroom was “part of a long waddling verse drama… partly based on Andrea’s The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz.”, which included ‘Ghost Crabs’ (THCP 149; originally broadcast as ‘Nightfall’), ‘Waking’ (?: Possibly Gog 1), ‘Gog’ (THCP 161) and parts of Crow Wakes (1971).

Later in 1965, Ted told Ben Sonnenberg that his ‘Alchemical Marriage’ would take about and hour-and-a-half to perform. (LTH Summer 1965). And he told Daniel and Helga Huws that he had written “a 13 scene cave-drama” (LTH 26 Sept. 1965).

Cave Birds (1978) has the subtitle ‘An Alchemical Cave Drama’ but the first Cave Birds poems were not published until 1974 and the whole sequence was first broadcast only in 1975. It is unlikely that the cave-drama Ted referred to in 1965 was Cave Birds but I think it is quite likely that Plato’s cave is the metaphor which Ted was using in all these alchemical works. The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz, which Ted told Ekbert Faas he was immersed in all that time, was very much a NeoPlatonic alchemical text.

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“Does a manuscript for The House of Taurus exist?”

I have seen no manuscript or fragments of The House of Taurus. Sylvia Plath, in a letter to her mother on 7 Oct. 1959, wrote that the play was finished and that it was based on The Bacchae of Euripides “only set in a modern industrial setting”. She noted in her journal that she had started to type it (1 Nov. 1959); and that Ted had finished about 84 pages (11 Nov. 1959). But on 9 July 1960 she wrote to her mother that Ted had “scrapped The House of Taurus which was really only a rough rather unpoetic draft, or redraft, of a theme from the Bacchae with an antiquated social message

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The House of Aries

Broadcast 16 November 1960, BBC Third Programme. Produced by Sasha Moorsom.

Sagar and Tabor, Ted Hughes: A Bibliography 1946–1995:
G5. 21 August 1960 BBC Third Programme. The Poet’s Voice: ‘ The Captain’s Speech’ from The House of Aries.
G7. 16 November 1960 BBC Third Programme. The House of Aries. (Rpts. 3 Dec. 1960 / 8 April 1961 / 7 May 1961)
C92. Audience 8:77–105, Spring 1961: The House of Aries Part 1.
C99. Two Cities, No.6, Summer, 1961 pp. 12–13: Excerpts from The House of Aries : ‘The Captain’s Speech’ / ‘Speech of the Ouija’ / ‘Wife’s Song’.
C102. Texas Quarterly, 4:146–7, Autumn 1961. Excerpts from The House of Aries : ‘The Captain’s Speech’ (different to C99) / ‘The Gibbons’.

Plath, A. (ed.), Sylvia Plath: Letters Home:
23 Sept. 1960, p392: “…he wants to work on a three act play now. He read his speech from his BBC play wonderfully over the radio and I can't wait to hear it produced there this fall”.
13 Sept. 1960, p.394: “Ted’s radio play is so queer and interesting that I’m dying to see this next one [The Calm], which came to him in a dream.”
28 Sept. 1960, p.395: “…heard Ted read two of his poems, one of them a speech from the play, which was lovely”.
8 Oct. 1960, p. 396: “His story ‘The Rain Horse’ is going to be broadcast over the BBC again next week and his translation of a section of the Odyssey in a series of twelve translations by various people, and, in November and December, his play, which I have just finished typing up in a final revised form.

Reid.C (ed.) Letters of Ted Hughes:
p.166–8. To John, Nancy, Angela and Francis Fisher. “I wrote a tragi–farcical melodrama in verse, fairly fantastic, which the BBC will put on in Autumn. I wrote it at great heat, but now I’m not so sure. Because it moves in a super–real dimension, a sort of dream dimension, it seems over emotional & over&eloquent, but there’s no poetic drama in any other dimension, as far as I can see. Normal people don’t speak like that, but the stresses that break them down from within are trying to get things expressed in even more violent & complete language. Realistic drama seems to me to leave the reality unexpressed & I mean also unsuggested. But that is no competitor for poetic drama… ” (Reid’s Note, p.168: “the tragic–farcical melodrama was The House of Aries which Sasha Moorsom was to produce for the BBC”.)
pp.173–6. To Warren and Aurelia Plath (Early December 1960): “…I’ve written a story called The Harvesting, which is easily my best, I think: it’s about a man out shooting a hare who finally seems to turn into the hare – only seems to, I don’t make it definitive. It’s a moral fable, you see: when you hurt something or somebody else, there is also a spirit in you which receives the hurt (This was really one of the two main ideas at the bottom of The House of Aries, and if those taking part in the discussion had reread the lines about

‘when you shut the door against the face,
Rejecting the beggar's face,
What shape, in your heart's darkness
Turns away forever.’

they would have caught it, but I'll come back to that.)”

See Letters of Ted Hughes Letters pp.174-6 for the second part of this letter with his much more detailed description of the meaning of the play.

Plath, A. (ed.), Sylvia Plath: Letters Home:
pp.401-2: “Written about Dec. 17. 1960): Don’t take his elaborate metaphysical explanations too seriously, and don’t show them to anyone. He is so critical of the play – which I think reads perfectly as a symbolic invasion of private lives and dreams by mechanical war–law and inhumanity such as is behind the germ–warfare laboratory in Maryland – that he feels the need to invent elaborate disguises as a smokescreen for it“.

Ted Hughes’ letter to Graham Ackroy, 14 Nov. 1960 (University of Victoria. B.C. (SC060): Hughes describes beginning The House of Aries as a highly melodramatic farce, a sort of ‘operatic burlesque’ which got serious and became an uncomfortable blend in which ‘all the characters are components of one psyche’. He describes Morgan as ‘discoursive intelligence, or frustrated cerebralised sexuality’ The Wife as the digestive tract, and Elaine as ‘the electrical impulse’ of the heart. He goes on to say that he got quite sick of the play until he read about the revolution in South Vietnam, and saw that this was almost exactly the political situation he had imagine behind his play.

Jonathan Bate, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Biography. p.333, describes the play as “a tale of Freudian family romance set against a wasteground of violent revolution, written in an array of different verse forms and broadcast on the Third Programme in November 1960”. However, the play is not a family romance; Hughes acknowledged Jungian influences, not Freudian; and the script is in that combination of dialogue and free verse which Ted described as ‘poetic drama’.

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© Ann Skea 2016. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at

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