Magnetic North Blog
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Returning to Walden
On 4th July 1845, shortly before his 27th birthday, Henry David Thoreau began to live in a hut he had built next to a lake in Walden Woods, on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts. For the next two years and two months he attempted to live entirely by his own resources. Walden, his account of his ‘experiment in simple living’, is one of the most extraordinary and unclassifiable - as well as one of the most well-known but least-read - books ever written.
I first came across it in 2006 when I was browsing at a charity book sale in Edinburgh. I came across a Penguin edition of the book from the 1940s with a lovely woodcut design on the front. The man selling it apologised that it was £2, explaining that this was because it was old. When I read it, I began to develop the idea of adapting it for performance. I asked Tristan Surtees and Charles Blanc (who work collectively as Sans façon) to work with me - we had met at Cove Park, a residency centre in Argyll and Bute, and were looking for a project to collaborate on. Over the next two years we developed the ideas for the production, always trying to reflect Thoreau’s quest to “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”
The production premiered in 2008 as a site-responsive performance at Stills in Edinburgh. The following year, we adapted it to tour by creating a specially-made oval bench made from American pine. This both created a performance space and seated a 40-strong audience.
(above: the bench in Gilmorehill Theatre, Glasgow in 2009)
I started thinking about the production again in 2022 when I saw Fruitmarket’s new space, the Warehouse, and felt it was an ideal place for the production. In preparation for reviving it 7 years since it was last performed, I began to think again about the background to the book. I knew about Thoreau’s relatively privileged background - his family had made money from its pencil-manufacturing business - and degree from Harvard. This privilege allowed him to spend two years living in the woods without having to worry too much about making ends meet. He was aware of this and knew that less-advantaged people generally went unnoticed by others from his background and class. Elise Lemire, in her book Black Walden - published since our original production - suggests that, because of the history of Walden Woods as a home to the disadvantaged, he was consciously siding with those less fortunate than he. His thinking was deeply influenced by Hinduism – he refers to the Bhagavad Gita in Walden - and Buddhism, and by Chinese philosophy. This was unusual for someone of his background in the 1840s, but Thoreau was quietly radical, and his writing on Civil Disobedience (a phrase he coined) was hugely influential on many activists, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, throughout the 20th century.
In coming back to Walden, we want both to celebrate Thoreau’s legacy - his radicalism and influence – but also to explore his paradoxes. He acknowledges the history of the land he occupied in the book, writing of “disturbing the ashes of unchronicled nations who lived under these heavens long before we did” when he digs the soil, but, despite being an active abolitionist, he barely mentions the community of around 15 formerly-enslaved people who had lived in the same woods within living memory.
After reading Black Walden, I felt it was important to amplify the voices that are less present in Walden. The result of this was an open-call for artists who identified as being from the Global Majority to propose a response to Walden. The resulting project by Harvey Dimond takes its title from Thoreau’s description of slavery as having “so many keen and subtle masters”. In his installation, Harvey will explore the subject of Black Ecologies in relation to Walden, and it will be exhibited alongside my adaptation at the Fruitmarket.
I also decided to take a broader view of who the performer might be. When we developed the play, we always felt that the actor was not "playing Thoreau", but was someone speaking his words. The most important thing to me was that the actor was of a similar age to Thoreau (27-29 during his stay), but that otherwise what they really needed was a connection to the text and its themes. After an open call, I met a wonderful group of actors who all brought something unique to the text when they read it. I am delighted to be working with Shakara Rose Carter on the play, and am looking forward to starting work with her next week. We have already fascinating conversations about the book and about Thoreau and talked about the strong connections we both feel to the work.