‘The Calm’ by Ted Hughes: Notes and Précis of a ‘lost’ Play.

© Ann Skea

Addendum, November 2016:
Robin Skelton archive, University of Victoria, B.C. (SC114). Seven lines of autograph manuscript above a much corrected fragment of Dully Gumption’s Addendum appear to contain a first attempt at beginning the ‘lost’ play The Calm. The characters are Fat and (almost illegible but later designated simply by ‘W’) Walter. Some of these lines appear in later versions of the opening of the play, where the dialogue is between Fat and Fred. Walter does not appear at all in any of the other know fragments of the play.

Ted Hughes’ play, ‘The Calm’, dates from 1961. It is almost certain that it was never performed, but in November 1961 there was a public reading of it at The Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

Diane Middlebrook (Her Husband, Penguin, 2000) refers to a letter from Peter Davison to Ted Hughes, 4 Dec. 1961 (Emory Archive): Davison “who was regularly accepting work by Plath and Hughes for publication in Atlantic Monthly, wrote that he and his wife had attended the reading and “were fascinated by the strange simplicity of the language, with shapeless forms crouching just beyond earshot”. They left the theatre “baffled but reflective”, Davison added”.
Reference Note: p.316: “Apparently Peter Hall rejected ‘The Calm’. It was never produced, and the typescript was jettisoned into the common pool of scrap paper in the Hughes household…”.

The Poets’ Theatre, established in 1950, staged plays by young poets and dramatists. Many of the world’s most influential writers presented their work and performed in their productions. “The theatre survived in one form or another until October 1968 when the small building it occupied on Palmer Street in Cambridge burned down”. (https://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/pt.html.)
The surviving records of the theatre and are held in Harvard University Library. (Call No.: MS Thr 833). No holding of ‘The Calm’ is listed.

No complete copy of the play has been found but fragments of manuscripts and typescript are known to exist at:
Smith College, North Hampton, MS, USA.
Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA.
The British Library, London, UK.
University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.
Ben Sonnenberg archive, Columbia University, New York City, NY, USA.

One speech was published:
‘Maureen’s Speech’ in the play, and titled as such in a draft which Hughes sent to Ben Sonnenberg, was published as ‘The Rescue’ in the Atlantic Monthly, March 1962. It appears under this same title in Wodwo, Faber, 1971, p.36–37; and in Ted Hughes: Collected Poems, p.157.

There are references to ‘The Calm’ in:
Reid, C (Ed.), The Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber, 2007. p.183. Ted Hughes to Aurelia and Warren Plath, 8 May 1961:
“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. I’ll send it to the poets’ theatre so you’ll be able to see it. Though it may be good enough to go further – & it may not. There’s a good chance of a good performance over here – the best director in England is interested in it (he hasn’t seen it yet).”

Plath, A (Ed.) Sylvia Plath: Letters Home, Faber 1999, p. 416 and p.418. Sylvia to Aurelia Plath, 5 April 1961:
“Best of all, he’s been commissioned by Peter Hall (Director of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and husband of Leslie Caron) for a play for their London company. This is an incredible stroke of luck, as only very well–known playwrights have been commissioned so far, and it means the play Ted is working on will have the best reading and if it’s good enough to produce, the best cast and production it could have.
We are thrilled by this – we have yet to hear just how much money it is – because it meant that Ted’s plays will go straight to the best director in England for a reading, and even if this one is not accepted (we have to keep telling ourselves this to calm down, because we think it’s a superb play, which we’ll send to the Poets’ Theatre as well, so you may have a chance to see it, too!), the next ones, no doubt, will be.”

Sylvia to Aurelia Plath, 8 May 1961.
“We are both working very hard. Ted is typing his five–act play and has got past the 100-page mark…”

Middlebrook, D. Her Husband, Penguin, 2000, pp.137-8.
Peter Hall, Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company “also developed productions for two London theatres, the Aldwych… and the Arts Theatre Club in Soho, a smaller house in which he hoped to showcase new talent”. He asked Hughes “to submit a play to be considered for the 1962 season”.
Hughes “immediately went back to work on a three–act play he already had under the title ‘The Calm’. The setting was a desert island; the characters were eight castaways from a shipwreck who retained only faint and intermittent recollections of their past lives. Plath told her mother that Hughes was writing the “dark opposite of Shakespeare’s Tempest” (Letter to AP 26 Feb. 1961. Lilly Library). “… the action of the play seems to take place on the banks of the river Acheron (from classical myth, the river in the underworld where spirits gather after death), with a band of survivors attempting to pool its memories in order for each to recover a sense of self, under the leadership of a superior being called The Helper. A baby is discovered and brought into their midst at some point, supplying the possibility of a new start”.

Sylvia to Aurelia Plath, 14 April 1961.
Middlebrook quotes a currently unpublished letter from the Lilly Library in which Sylvia wrote that Ted had almost finished his “huge 5–act play called ‘The Calm’”.

Sagar, K (Ed.), The Achievement of the Ted Hughes, Manchester University Press, 1983. Fred Rue Jacobs, ‘Hughes and Drama’. p. 158:
“Oedipus is the one play Hughes still considered ‘serious’, because it gave him ‘an idea of what the level of intensity must be’. Only in the all–but–lost ‘The Calm’ did Ted feel the same command, and then just in the first scene, after which, he complains, he ‘just had to go on and finish it’.”
Reference Note 19. p.366: “telephone interview with Hughes” [undated].

Bate, J. Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life, HarperCollins, 2015, p.175.
“His latest project was a play called ‘The Calm’, a modernised reworking of Shakespere’s The Tempest in which everyone stayed on the magical island and the characters – Prospero, Caliban, Ariel and even Caliban’s witch–mother Sycorax – were all aspects of the same self”.
(Reference: “mentioned in a letter to John Fisher and family. April 1961.” p. 586.)
Index, p.641: “‘The Calm’ (TH: radio play)”

What follows is a précis of the play as I have reconstructed it from my own transcription of the manuscript pages and from typescripts. I have relied on contextual clues and page numbers to make this reconstruction. However, a number of pages are missing, many pages are unnumbered and some passages of dialogue reappear on several differently numbered pages.

‘The Calm’ was never a radio play. And, in spite of Plath’s letter to her mother, and Hughes’ letter to John Fisher in which he refers to it as “an up–to–date inversion” of The Tempest, there is no clearly identifiable relationship between ‘The Calm’ and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, other than the fact that it concerns castaways on an island. Diane Middlebrook’s suggested interpretation of the play, based on fewer fragments than have been viewed for this précis, is unsustainable.

All the action takes place inside or immediately outside a wooden beach–house. Outside: A wood–bin is situated along one side of the house, and in a late scene a sundial has been built. Inside: The house has big doors which open onto a wide porch. Through the windows can be seen sand and dunes, brown grass and a flat, silent sea. There is an inset kitchen with pots and pans, and an oil stove. There is a tap with water. In the floor is a trap–door to a cellar. Furniture includes a rocking chair, a table with chairs, and a candelabra with candles. In one corner of the room there is a bundle of sacks.

Fred: About 20, dressed like a conventional castaway – ragged shirt and pants, bare feet.

Fat: Undescribed. Last memory: of being a truck–driver on the York to London run and stopping at Stamford.

Magark: Enters wearing a bowler hat, dark overcoat open, dark suit–jacket open, carrying a briefcase. Bald. Smokes cigars. Last memory: being a butcher in Cirencester High Street, but his briefcase identifies him as K Magark of Magark & Son, Auction, House, Land and Estate Agency Offices. Manchester.

Minnie Middlewick
Arthur Middlewick:
Undescribed. Enter together. Husband and wife, querulous, bickering, acquisitive. Magark calls them ‘the old couple’.

Sirin: Undescribed. Enters running along the beach, terrified. Open raincoat, suit–jacket open, shirt open, tie dangling. Magark later describes his ‘shark smile’.

Maureen: Undescribed. Similar age to Fred. Entry – page missing. Fred claims to recognise her. She does not recognise him.

The Helper: Undescribed. Found in the house under the heap of sacks. Enigmatic. Mysterious. Claims to have been on the island with five others who were rescued. Suggest ways of coping based on his experience. Manipulative. Unreliable.

Bertha: Undescribed. Bursts out of the cellar when the trap–door is opened, weeping, confused and disorientated. Young, big–breasted. Fat refers to her as ‘a flippin' jewess’.

A Baby: Is heard crying at intervals throughout the play. It is brought in by The Helper just before the play ends. Female.


Fat and Fred meet at the house and warily check each other out. Fred claims to have walked all round the island in ten minutes. Neither remembers how they got there, anything of their past or even their names.

They agree to shout for help. They hear a baby crying, and are worried by the silence, the stillness and a feeling of being watched. They discover the tap with fresh water and they drink. Magark appears from the distance, mistaking them for the owners of the house. He, too, has no memory but he blusters and invents a gory past as a butcher. He seems to revel in the bloody details. Only on looking in his briefcase does he discover his name and that he is part of an Estate Agent’s business. He begins inventing a new past and a scenario for why he is there and how he got there. Fat and Fred ridicule his story.

They worry about food and hear the baby crying again. Minnie and Arthur Middlewick appear, eating sandwiches. They, too, have no memories. Minnie notes the strange silence, the heat and the absence of seagulls. Magark approaches them and persuades them to share their sandwiches, of which he surreptitiously eats most. Sirin appears, terrified as if running from something horrific. They sooth him and give him water. The baby is heard again. Magark embarks on a long fanciful speech which seems to be drawn from fragments of mis–remembered history, geography and politics – it is absurd and slightly mad.

[missing pages]

Maureen and Fred meet. He recognizes her but she does not know him. Her memory, too, has completely gone. Sirin has been asleep and wakes. Magark sums up the situation – that they are all marooned on an island about two yards across. Fat points out that Magark, too, is part of the ‘game’.

The Middlewicks begin to worry. They all introduce themselves to each other. Maureen accepts Fred’s name for her but is unsure about it.

They discuss the island. Fred claims to have searched every inch of it and it is nothing but sand–dunes and grass. However, they point out that he didn’t find them. They argue, are confused, decide to shout for help. They shout and hear a confusing echo. Then they see the sacks in the corner move.

Magark thinks it is a rat – meat – possible food. He organizes them to kill it. He has a weapon of some kind but instructs them, if he misses, to stamp on it and kill it in any way possible. They pull the sacks away and The Helper is revealed. He has been asleep but wakes and is very excited to see people. When questioned he claims to have been there ‘too long’ and ‘long enough’. He is unnaturally jubilant and claims that now they are here there is hope.

They ply him with questions. Who is he? How can they be saved? He just laughs. They ask about the baby. He nods and laughs, then opens his mouth and makes a baby cry.


The Helper has told them about five previous castaways, three men and two women. He claims that they were rescued and he missed the boat. They ask him how these five got along. He tells them that they origanised it, learned, and loved each other, and that they got off quite whole because they loved each other.

The Helper goes off to search the island for possible others. They remember that they didn’t ask him about food and call him back. He suggests that they look in the cellar, which they had not noticed. They find the cellar trap–door, open it, and Bertha bursts out weeping and bewildered. She claims she just went down there to put a shilling in the gas-meter. Fat exclaims at the appearance of a flippin’ jewess.

[An un–numbered fragment which seems not to have been kept as part of the play may offer a different scenario for the appearance of Bertha. Alternatively, with the return of Maureen’s memory, a breeze, and a Red Cross Knight, it may have been part of a final scene. Fred and Maureen enter a room in the house and find Bertha and a man who is recognized by Maureen as ‘Denis’ in a bed covered with a patchwork quilt on which is the figure of a Red Cross Knight. Maureen asks Denis what has happened to them. There is the sound of wind and a piece of paper blows across.]

They calm Bertha and explain their view of the situation, then go to look in the cellar. They find a store of food, including chicken which seems, amazingly, to be fresh–cooked. They also find bottles of alcohol and a corkscrew.

Everyone eats and drinks. Magark dances. Fred, unimpressed by their response, predicts that the food will soon run out and they will die. They accuse him of cracking. Fred and Fat argue. Sirin comforts Bertha. Fat offers her wine and names her ‘Bertha’, because according to him that is what all big–breasted girls answer to. He slaps her thigh and she laughs. Fat and Sirin begin to quarrel. Bertha placates them.

Maureen accuses Fred of stealing her piece of chicken and of being over–familiar. Magark tries to prove that Fred is crazy. The Helper disappears.

Magark starts to invent fanciful memories of how he came to the island and he identifies Sirin as an old school friend. When Sirin says he was privately educated Magark changes the story. Fat joins in the fantasy which grows and grows becoming more and more absurd. Sirin suggests that they are all drugged, hypnotised and part of some morbid experiment. Minnie M suggests they are in Hell and Sirin says it is the land of the dead. Fat suggests this is just one of many islands of the dead – or that maybe it’s the nuthouse.

Maureen, exasperated by the nonsense, shouts for them all to stop. She wonders about The Helper, does not trust him, thinks he’s hiding something. She points out how he tried to take control.

Arthur M is tipsy. Minnie M is disgusted with him.

All is chaos when The Helper suddenly reappears and stops them. He berates them. Asks them how long they think they might be there. Tells them that the five who were there before them made mistakes. He suggests rules and that a quartermaster is needed to control the food. Magark and Sirin agree with this. The Helper suggests that Magark be quartermaster. Maureen objects at the lack of trust this implies. The Helper tells her what might happen when hunger sets in. He describes the worst and suggests that she might go berserk. Magark proclaims that he will be quartermaster. The Helper tells him to sleep by the trap–door.

Minnie M wants a protective committee. Magark and Sirin agree that this is a good idea. The Helper produces three flick–knives and gives one each to Sirin, Magark and Fat so that they can guard the food. Fred is deemed too crazy to have one. The Helper suggests that they decide on a punishment for food theft and likens a food–thief, in their situation, to a mass–murderer. He leaves the argument open when Maureen strenuously objects.

He changes the subject. Says he has a yacht – but it has room for only one and there is no wind. He also claims to have a transmitter and receiver – but it is broken and he is repairing it. When asked why he has not gone off before he refuses to answer. He points out the cupboard containing sleeping bags, smiles round, and leaves.

Sirin orders everyone to bed. They get into their sleeping bags and sit watching each other. Fat sits up with his knife in his hand.

[missing pages]

[‘Maureen’s Speech’ (‘The Rescue’) seems to fit in here, perhaps at the beginning of

Everyone is up and about. They discuss The Helper and his yacht. They don’t believe him.

Fat, Fred and Sirin leave.

Magark tries to bribe Maureen for favours with exotic food. He clearly controls it and he rations it out. She is suspicious of him. They leave.

Arthur M offers Minnie M a fat chicken leg and she wants to know where he found it. They hide the food when Maureen enters. She asks Arthur why he is not on food-guard duty and he tells her that Magark and Sirin had talked about it and decided they could all be trusted and guard duty was no longer necessary. Maureen suspects there is something being plotted. She goes out.

Arthur shows Minnie that there is food in the wood–box outside the house. They decide to keep it just for themselves. They gorge on food until Fat, Fred and Maureen enter.

Fred says that he has found a yacht and transmitter by following The Helper’s footprints into the dunes. Maureen is excited. Then Fred reveals that the yacht is a wreck and the transmitter just a heap of rust.

Fred persuades Fat and Maureen to shut their eyes and play an imaginative visualization game to try and retrieve their memories. They don’t get far. He tells them that soon they will: that doing this they are waking up.

Then he tells them that there are people in the dunes who need their help. Fat urges him to bring them in. Maureen immediately tells him to hurry and get them and she will prepare food – broth to sip. Fat and Fred go out.

Minnie and Arthur hear of the five people and determine to stop food being given to them. Maureen argues that they are human beings. They argue until Fat and Fred re–appear with five skulls – Fat calls them ‘their predecessors’.


In a long speech on an empty stage Magark considers their ninth day on the island, the limited supply of food and who has to go first. He wonders who these people are, whether they are important. Is Fred important? Does he even exist to him [Magark]? What would be less if he were gone? Is he less than nothing – easily wiped out? He laughs at his own ghastly brain work. Thinks Sirin is ‘fishy’.

[missing page]

Magark gives Sirin food. Sirin asks for chocolate and chicken. Magark tells him it all went four days ago and Sirin comments that Magark has not lost enough weight. Magark tries to persuade Sirin that he and Magark need food to keep their brains clear. The others can be strictly rationed – with just enough food to keep their hearts pumping whist they lie in their sleeping bags. He does not consider them real.

Sirin points out that they are human and asks what Christians would do. Magark gives a distorted account of religion to support his argument, then accuses Sirin of fooling him. He claims to be a humane man but somebody has to go first. He notes that he has caught no–one stealing yet.

Sirin says they should make an example of the first to steal but that they haven’t decided the penalty.

Magark goes off to smoke a cigar, of which he seems to have an inexhaustible supply, and Sirin suggests smoking them will kill him.

Bertha enters and Sirin pounces on her. He asks her why she has been avoiding him and she tells him she’s changed her mind and that their relationship is finished. Sirin threatens to withdraw food treats and suspects that she is getting sentimental about Fat. He is angry and warns her of consequences. Both exit.

Fred and Maureen enter. Fred begins to tell Maureen of a dream. He mentions things in it which he thinks she may remember. First she is scornful, then puzzled, then almost convinced by details he provides of their earlier life together.

[missing pages]


Fat and Fred discuss food and Fat suggests that Magark and Sirin are keeping them hungry so that they have food to trade with Maureen and Bertha for sexual favours.

Fat says he will challenge them and he produces two clubs with spikes which he has made. He says there are two more for Maureen and Bertha.

Sirin enters. He orders Fat around. [There is obviously a fishing roster and the sundial has been built and is used for timekeeping]. Arthur and Minnie enter and Sirin complains that they are late on the job.

Fat demands to know what Sirin is eating, it looks like chocolate. Sirin is defensive. They argue about food. Sirin commands Fat to go and start fishing. He points to the sundial to show him that he is late. Fat smashes the sundial and leaves.

Arthur and Minnie are horrified. Sirin tells them he wants them to do a little job for him. They leave.

Fat enters clutching a few tins and jars. He has discovered a hoard of food and is furious. He says he, too, will hide his finds. He opens a cupboard to do so and out leaps Arthur calling for Sirin. Minnie shouts that Fat is stealing food. Fat runs to escape but Sirin enters and challenges him. Fat is unrepentant and eating.

Magark enters, sees what is going on and he and Sirin try to restrain Fat. Fat fights them. The Helper enters and easily subdues Fat. He threatens to crush him, and demands to know the charge against him.

Magark and Arthur confirm that Fat was stealing and eating food – they say he is guilty.

The Helper suggests that this amounts to murder. Sirin agrees. The Helper asks whether capital punishment has been abolished on the island. Magark says it has not been instituted. Sirin wants to proceed according to the law. Magark invokes The Protective Committee to vote, saying that if there is a majority vote – Fat dies. Fat protests that he is a member of the committee but they withdraw his vote from him. They move to crush him.

Bertha and Maureen enter, are horrified at what is going on and try to stop them. Fred enters but does not understand the situation. Magark and Sirin and The Helper invoke The Law. Magark pronounces that the sentence is that Fat be killed, and eaten by those who have the stomach for it.

[missing pages]

[In an unnumbered fragment of manuscript Arthur and Minnie discuss poisons and acids, and they comment that they – the others – should have salted him so that he would keep longer.]

Sirin is in the house and Magark dies at the table. Sirin drags his body to the trap–door and drops it down into the cellar. He does the same with Bertha’s body but seems sad about that.

Fred and Maureen enter and do not see Sirin. They discuss where the others might be and how hungry they are.

[missing page]

Sirin has the trap–door open and shows Fred the bodies in the cellar. Maureen tries to stop Fred going down there, but he goes. Sirin tells Maureen that she belongs to him now, he’s the only authority left and she must be his personal body servant. He seems to be in pain.

Fred returns and tells Maureen the others are all dead, that Sirin has killed them all. Sirin says The Law killed them: he argues that they all agreed to live by the law but they didn’t keep their word. Fred questions his authority to make such decisions.

[missing page]

Only Fred and Maureen are left. They discuss their perpetual diet of Skate but Maureen eats some pears which Fred has brought her. She is dismayed when she realizes she has eaten them all without sharing them with Fred. He laughs. He gets her to play the memory game – imagining with their eyes closed.

Both imagine greenery, fertility, beauty, they share images of a nervous stag and a delicate butterfly and their imaginings merge into a single story.

[missing page]

Fred and Maureen think they heard a baby crying in the wind but the wind has stopped. They hear it again, louder. The Helper enters carrying supplies which, he tells them, come from a freighter wrecked in the storm. He has also brought baby–food and a baby, which he gives to Maureen, commenting that the baby is a ‘lucky chap’.

In the final line, Maureen reveals that the baby ‘is a she’ and wonders what they should call her.

[There are two pages with the above ending but in a third un–numbered fragment of typescript Maureen decides to call the baby Frederick (or hand-written above the line, ‘Leonard’). Then Fred suddenly sees a ship and the final line proclaims his find].

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

Return to The Ted Hughes Homepage for more options.

Go to Ann Skea’s Homepage

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional