Jo Clifford on War in America

Feature by Amy Taylor | 19 May 2017

The Skinny chats to the leading playwright and performer about the long road to staging her 1996 play, War in America

Jo Clifford has stepped back in time. While we sit in the cafe of the Festival Theatre, it is no longer 2017, but 1996, and War in America, the play she was commissioned to write by the Royal Lyceum Theatre, has just been rejected.

Deemed "too rude", the Lyceum feared the play would alienate their audience. Upset, but undeterred, Clifford took it to Scotland’s new writing theatre, the Traverse, who also turned it down. She recalls: “They rejected it because they hated it, basically. The Traverse had been my artistic home and that rejection marked the final break, the final end of that relationship with the Traverse, and it was done really hurtfully and insensitively and I felt devastated. I assumed it was because it was a bad play, because that what you do, really. I’d never been particularly self-confident about my work, and so I assumed it was crap, and I put it in the cupboard and I forgot about it.”

Set in an unnamed European country, in an ancient, crumbling parliament building itself the only remnants of a dysfunctional government that no longer functions democratically, War in America paints a picture of a fractured society, where the divide between the rich and the poor has exploded and spilled out onto the streets. The play seems eerily prescient now, with its themes of civil unrest, revolution, and the war in America of the title which has erupted between the two halves of society; the rich and the poor.

“It turns out that it’s very prophetic in a way that I hadn’t quite realised,” muses Clifford, “which means that I haven’t changed anything. Nothing at all. I could’ve changed it, but no, I decided not to. It’s still a first draft. The thing is, it’s in really, really good shape for a first draft!”

Following the double rejection, the text of War in America remained hidden for over 20 years, until Clifford’s friend, director Susan Worsford, asked if she had any play scripts that hadn’t been performed. Clifford sent her the file that contained her rejected play without looking at it – “I couldn’t bear to read it, I couldn’t bear to look at it, it was too painful” – but Worsford contacted Clifford with some unexpected news.

Clifford explains: “When she came back, she said it was wonderful! And then she told me she was applying for the job at the Attic Collective (the Festival City Theatres Trust’s new company for emerging actors), and it was absolutely central to her application that she was going to produce this play. And then, she told me that she’d got the job, and I thought, ‘Wow! I’m going to read it!’”

It was on a journey to Manchester, where Clifford was teaching playwriting, that she opened the file and re-read the play that she had tucked away all those years before, and she was pleasantly surprised: “God, this is really fucking good! I did a good job on this play. This is amazing!”.

War in America was originally intended to be the second play in a series of five plays for the new millennium, the first being Clifford’s 1991 piece, Light in the Village. Each play would focus on issues of wealth, poverty and inequality. “It was going to be about dreaming a post-capitalist world into being, that was the whole idea of the series of plays, and I couldn’t get a single person interested. They just looked at me blankly, and I was so hurt.”

But a mere 21 years later, the “long-forgotten dream” as Clifford puts it has finally come to fruition, and with it, the opportunity to continue the original five post-capitalist plays she dreamt of finishing for the millennium. Thanks to the staging of War in America, she is already starting the next play in the series, entitled Manchester, allowing her to continue her quest to create more post-capitalist drama and with it more acts of rebellion.

“Making theatre is a radical act, it is an act of resistance. It is saying there is something much, much more important than making money and it is also saying that working together is essential. We are not isolated individuals struggling against each other, we are a collective.”

War in America, Old Royal High School, Edinburgh, 24-27 May,