This is a script written for the WriteOn project in conjunction with the National Trust at Wimpole Hall, near Cambridge. It was home in the 18th century to Lord Hardwicke, Lord Chancellor of England.
In this play, the house is disturbed by what seems to be a strange presence that seems to emanate from the beautiful mahogany table in the main dining room. It is the spirit of Kange, the enslaved African who dies having hewed the tree from which the table was made. His spirit is trapped in the table: only Lord Hardwicke can set it free.
CHIPPENDALE: We aim to furnish, my lord, the whole of a house. We are not just cabinet-makers, my lord, oh no. Oh no indeed. We are furnishers of your household. Of your style of living, as you might say. (He takes HARDWICKE from room to room as he speaks this.) Here you may purchase looking-glasses; metal items – locks, handles; here we have china and glassware –
CHIPPENDALE: Yes, my lord. We sell it patterned or else you may buy it plain and you are free to colour it as you see fit. You may wish to harmonise the walls with the furnishings of the room, the upholstery of the chairs or the drapes and covers of the bed, all of which we can also provide –
HARDWICKE: This is a remarkable work, Chippendale. You are indeed a man of vision.
CHIPPENDALE: You are very kind, my lord.
HARDWICKE: However, my main interest is in a table.
CHIPPENDALE: An occasional table, my lord? Suitable for cards or social use. Or perhaps a side-table –
HARDWICKE: A dining table.
CHIPPENDALE: Ah. And may I ask how large a table you have in mind, my lord?
HARDWICKE: Large enough to seat the Cabinet if need be. Which I probably will need to do. Say a dozen people.
CHIPPENDALE: That would be four sections, I should think, my lord. We sell large tables in panels, each of which takes four diners, two on each side. Four sections allows you to have one or two ladies alongside as well.
HARDWICKE: It will take up space, will it not?
CHIPPENDALE: Only when in use, my lord. The top of each section is hinged so you can turn it upright when it’s not needed and store it against the wall.
HARDWICKE: So we have the use of the room? Very convenient.
CHIPPENDALE: It’s what is wanted, my lord, and I seek always to supply what is wanted.
HARDWICKE: No point in doing anything else.
CHIPPENDALE: No money in it, at any rate. Have you thought at all about the wood?
HARDWICKE: What is the choice?
CHIPPENDALE: There’s oak, of course. English oak, a fine wood, strong and sturdy. Just the stuff for ships and work-a-day pieces: solid chairs and tables and chests. But it won’t do for fancy stuff. Not a delicate wood. It won’t give. A wood needs to dance, you see. To dance in the light. There’s walnut. Beautiful wood, walnut. I always say it almost sings to you. We’ve made some very tasteful pieces in walnut, my lord. Very tasteful.
HARDWICKE: And mahogany?
CHIPPENDALE: Ah, my lord, mahogany. Now there, you have the very best.
- Of deepest red.
- The king of woods.
- Strong, supple.
- Deep. Reflective.
- Like the smooth surface of a lake.
CHIPPENDALE: A beautiful wood to work with, my lord. A bit playful. But responsive to the touch. Almost as if it wants you to find its shape. When it’s finished and catches the light – why, it’s like the sun reflected on the sea.
HARDWICKE: I see well, Mr Chippendale, why they call you the High Priest of Mahogany.
KANGE: You are a Chief of Law?
HARDWICKE: I am.
KANGE: Then set me free.
HARDWICKE: How do I do that? You are already dead.
KANGE: Did you once say that men can be enslaved in this land?
HARDWICKE: I said that slaves remained slaves even if they came to this land, yes. I stated the law as it stands. I would do it again.
KANGE: But you have in you the power to change that law. To say I am a man like you. To set my spirit free, free to leave this wood in which I am confined and return to the land of my ancestors.
HARDWICKE: To set you free?
KANGE: Look at me, Lord of Law. Look at me well and answer me this. Do you see a man before you? Do you see a brother?
HARDWICKE: I see a man, yes.
KANGE: A man as you are?
HARDWICKE: If you like.
KANGE: Then how can you say I am less than a man? How can you say I must remain a slave?
HARDWICKE: Because that is the law and I must know the law and nothing else.
KANGE: Look into my eyes –
HARDWICKE: No! It makes no difference, Kange of the Oyo People. I have eyes to see only as the law decrees. And the law decrees that slaves belong to their owners here, in the West Indies or at the furthest ends of the earth.
KANGE: Then you condemn me to bondage. I can never escape!
HARDWICKE: I condemn no-one. You have done me no harm, you have done no harm at all that I know of. It does not change the law.
KANGE: You will not set me free?
KANGE: Then I will not leave you. I will live in your table. Every time you sit at it you will see me, staring up at you.
MRS GLYN: No, my lord. Don’t let him do that!
KANGE: I will never give you rest. I will remind you every day that I am there not because I chose it, but because you did.
HARDWICKE: You’re a fool, Kange of the Oyo. I can blot you out with a simple tablecloth.
KANGE: And hide your magnificent mahogany that cost you so dear? I don’t think so.
HARDWICKE: What do you hope for? That I will change my mind?
KANGE: I will awaken your shame. I will make you a man. I will make you do what is right.
HARDWICKE: Make me a man? Kange of the Oyo, I am more of a man than you will ever be. I carry no spear, I have broken no heads, but I know this world and I know the emptiness of words better than you will ever know. Freedom? There is no freedom. When you fought the men of Dahomey, did you not make them your slaves?
KANGE: They served us, yes. It is our custom.
HARDWICKE: It is everyone’s custom, Kange. Here, in Africa, in the forests of Honduras – everywhere. The weak must serve the strong if the strong are to survive. Have you not learned this? This girl – (ABIGAIL) is she free? Can she leave my house and go where she wants? Not if she wishes to eat and sleep. And this woman (MRS GLYN). Are you free, Glyn? Can you go where you will?
MRS GLYN: I have a good position, my lord. I do not seek another.
HARDWICKE: We are not free, Kange of the Oyo, even as you are not free. My servants, my tenants, my parson – what do they know of freedom? Of real freedom? They too are held by chains. Are we born free? No, for everywhere we are in chains.
KANGE: Are you free, Lord of Law?
HARDWICKE: I am rich, Kange. My wealth makes my bondage lighter. But I too am bound. I cannot free you even if I would. I must interpret the law and I must declare the law and I must be bound by the law. You think I will overturn the law to do you a kindness? You think because I know the price of my mahogany, the price you paid, that I will be overcome with shame? No, Kange. I will sit at my table and dine and talk and play cards and all the time I shall know – and I shall not care. Do I put aside my tea or my coffee because of the sufferings of those who pick the leaves and the beans? Do I put by my sugar bowl because of the slaves on the plantations? Will I forego my mahogany because of the deaths of those who hewed it? I will not. But hear me out, Kange. And you look me in the eye. Had life’s wheel turned another way and I stood there and you where I stand now, you too would enjoy the fruits of other men’s pain. As you did before. When you slew your men and took your slaves. Your glory grew from others’ pain, just as ours does. So point no fingers, Kange of the Oyo. I will uphold the law come what may, and if that keeps you in bondage so be it.
KANGE: Is this how you wish it to be?
HARDWICKE: My wishes don’t come into it. I am a servant of the Law.
KANGE: It is a harsh god, this Law.
HARDWICKE: It is the creation of men. There are no harsher gods. We are both its prisoners, you and I. Go back to your table, Kange. We shall see each other again.