The Return Room

WR Rodgers' radio play is reissued with illustrations and a recording of the original production

The epitaph on WR Rodgers’s gravestone in Loughgall, County Armagh, where he was Presbyterian minister from 1935 to 1945, reads ‘poet and preacher’. Certainly Rodgers is best remembered as a poet, as reflected in his collected Poems (1993), edited by Michael Longley.

In 1945, however, encouraged by Louis MacNeice, Rodgers took up a new career as a BBC producer in London. This Blackstaff Press publication of Rodgers's play The Return Room, with its remarkable evocation of his pre-First World War Belfast childhood suggests that, even as the Ulster History Circle plan the erection of a blue plaque to his memory, they should add ‘broadcaster’ to any inscription.

Yet Paul Muldoon, in an impassioned foreword here, calls The

Return Room ‘one of the most important Irish poems of the twentieth century’, though it uses a kaleidoscope of forms all rapidly intercut in a style that came to be known as the ‘Rodgers method’, and is above all a radio play, hence the value of the accompanying CD of the original production.

Muldoon welcomes its ‘cherishing of stereotypes’, but perhaps misses its powerful subversiveness. This is no mere romance of Belfast. Affection there is, and eloquence aplenty, but there is a cutting edge too.

Douglas Carson provides a valuable history of the play’s genesis with due tribute to Sam Hanna Bell as director. Gerry Dillon, better known to us today as a painter, was also a source of inspiration, features as a singer, and provided 15 sketches now published for the first time.

The Return Room, first broadcast in 1955, opens with the birth in 1909 of Thomas John Todd (certainly Rodgers). ‘All the pubs held their breath… the bells of the city danced… and the soothering river ran wild'. His father remarks, ‘We may put a nick in the post today’ but then, accompanied by a drum roll, recites the biblical genealogy of Adam, to which Rodgers, now as narrator, responds:

'Son of Adam; Sin of Adam,
I was the heir to all that Adamnation
And hand-me-down of doom…'

Rodgers goes on to create his own family genealogy:

'Humdrummery of history:
Three hundred years ago my foundling fathers,
With farthing fists, and thistles in their eyes,
Were wished upon this foreshore;
Bibles for bibs and bloody pikes for rattles.
And tombs for keeps…'

And concludes:

'Put to a frugal breast of swollen hopes
They did their levelling best.'

Now the Todds cling to the sandy ridge of Mountpottinger, just above the backstreets of east Belfast. Thomas wears boots; the boys below go barefoot. Godliness and respectability suffocate together. Mrs Bittercup worries that the street is becoming ‘so common… what with lodgers and policemen and the like’. Worse still it features an unmarried mother, Maisie Modesty, who is to be avoided like the plague.

The small boy can look down on the city 'like a monster eye, staring up at the soft sky and the wet Atlantic winds'. He sees Mary Marley, ‘the rag woman’, and the ‘black man’, the sweep. He hears the city: the ’resurrection sound’ of the shipyard horn, the ‘hoof roar’ of the horses, ‘the grasshopper chirp of the blacksmith’s anvil’, snatches of song and of hymns, the wind in the eaves, and the ‘drumming’ of an infinite variety of rain.

Corncrakes speak of the still nearby country, and of other repressions: ‘The midnight fields round Belfast creaked and rocked like a rusty bed spring with that intolerable sound. Ache, ache – the waking guilt at the back of the Puritan urge…’

Thomas’s mother is ‘a wonder of goodness and would have given you the bite out of her mouth’ but ‘even when she smiled it was as if the “weaks” of her mouth were sore with apprehension…’ She reads death notices, and Ezekiel Knight, the undertaker, is a frequent visitor. Thomas imagines dying as an attraction!

He rebels against the Belfast Sunday when ‘every minute seemed to have mildew on it’, and even when they climb onto the blue and orange cart to take them to the old country home cannot escape the gospel tent and the ‘wonder-working power of the blood of the Lamb’. Rodgers muses: ‘Mystery of it all. So much redness to redeem all this greenness. So much death to make life everlasting.'

What lies beyond always has more allure. The joys of Easter Monday egg rolling. The May Queen in her dress of torn lace. Other children always singing:

'King Billy was a gentleman
He wore a watch and chain,
The Pope he was a beggarman,
And lived in Chapel Lane.'

Catholics have their rhymes too. If there is a cliché here it is the Mulligan family with their 12 children, but it is one partially redeemed by a joke. 6d goes missing from the mantelpiece and Mrs Mulligan lines the children up on their knees and tells them how Jesus had 12 apostles and was betrayed by one of them. Her Judas duly confesses.

Respectable Mountpottinger is tolerant, but only up to a point. Ezekiel Knight tells Thomas’s mother, ‘I’ve known them the best of neighbours, Mrs Todd. Better maybe than some of our own'. She is not having it: ‘Maybe it’s their flyness’. When they cross the Albert Bridge to go ‘over town’ they hurry past the Falls Road, where ‘the Scarlet Woman reigned, and the Adversary held open court’ and on to Smithfield, though even here dangers lurk in Mr Love’s shop emblazoned with the word ‘H-Y-G-I-E-N-E’.

The Return Room is a special play and this Blackstaff edition - with fine illustrations and accompanying CD - justifies the ‘limited edition’ (750 copes) cachet.