Philip Howard

Philip Howard


… This useless energy of ghosts. I mean to ask: what shall be the nature of your haunting?
     Kei Miller, In Nearby Bushes XI.I

Dear Lyceum,

I stole in to the theatre last night to see your ghost light keeping vigil.

I didn’t see any ghosts, but I did spy a line from Charlie Sonata (1) under a seat in the Stalls:  
[Voice] If you look over your shoulder there will be someone there. It’ll be me. 
And I heard Sally Reid’s Tinkerbell (2) jeering up in the flies [Laughter].

Ghost Light: the light — usually a single bulb on a stand, left on stage when a theatre is closed, ‘dark’ — to appease the resident ghosts; to light their way; or to scare them off. To illuminate their ghostly performances when we are absent?

Or none of these things? Perhaps the ghost light is only a quiet offering, a candle in a secular church…

Whatever the answer, I am grateful for it. I am clumsy and, knowing my luck, quite capable of falling off the stage. I shouldn’t be here anyway, ghosts or no ghosts.

I stand next to the light, safe, and I look out across an absent audience. I think of how Philip Pullman writes of angels in The Subtle Knife, that we see them as human-formed only because our eyes expect them to be — and, in the moment I think of it, I hear a voice coming from the back of the Upper Circle:
[Voice] O heaven, the vanity of wretched fools! (3)

The voice is quiet, but firm and crystal clear.

I wonder at how deep the blue and gold of the paintwork and the red of the velvet seats appear, even with the great chandelier above unlit. The ghost light flickers and shadows dance on the safety curtain. I hear the throaty cackle of the sisters in Six Black Candles (4) [Laughter]. It’s time to move.

In rounding the safety curtain to reach the rest of the stage I am disoriented by the darkness and I trip over The Speculator (5), and fall flat on my face.

But I’m not hurt. For a time I lie there. It’s peaceful. What madness is this?

My eyes are adjusting: there’s mist in the air but I can’t tell if it’s an Edinburgh haar or a lighting designer’s haze. I look up — there is no roof — I mean, no roof! — and I see the whiteness of the Siula Grande (6) towering overhead. If I concentrate hard enough, might I be able to pick out Joe Simpson, suspended above Cornwall Street?

The thought of snow and ice trigger my brain to think of the polar bear in The Wonderful World of Dissocia (7). If I turn my head, will I see his head poking out of the trap door, centre stage right? I choose not to look; he cannot be as good as my memory of him.

It’s time to go, before someone catches me here…

There’s the glow of the emergency lighting from the tool store in the upstage left wings, and the sound of John Knox and Queen Mary — multiple Queen Marys — going at it hammer and tongs:


— So we are torn asunder
— Ripped
— Rent
— Split in two warring tribes
— As is God
— And his brother
— Satan
— But how to know the one from the other? (8)

I leave them to it.

On my way out I can’t help noticing that the chair at the prompt desk is the one that was thrown violently by John in Oleanna (9). The deputy stage manager could do with a better chair? Sally Reid’s laughter [Laughter] appears to have moved down from the flies and is now disporting itself provocatively over the prompt desk, possibly as a riposte to John from Oleanna?

I take a final peek at the ghost light. At last it dawns on me that the reason for the ghost light is that nothing else better says:
[Voice] We’ll be back.

There are no ghosts — at least not of human form. Just tricks of light, of sound, and architecture.

I walk out through the downstage exit to the sound of Jo Clifford’s mighty Every One (10) barrelling in and out of the back wall of the theatre like a rollercoaster:


We’re living through the end, I said,
The end of an era,
The end of a historical time. 
It’s time for a new beginning.
I don’t look back.

Philip Howard
August 2020


(1) Charlie Sonata by Douglas Maxwell, 2017
(2) Wendy & Peter Pan by Ella Hickson after J M Barrie, 2018
(3) Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare, 1989
(4) Six Black Candles by Des Dillon, 2004
(5) The Speculator by David Greig, 1999
(6) Touching the Void by David Greig after Joe Simpson, 2019
(7) The Wonderful World of Dissocia by Anthony Neilson, 2004
(8) Glory on Earth by Linda McLean, 2017
(9) Oleanna by David Mamet, 1995
(10) Every One by Jo Clifford, 2010

Thank you

Hope Dickson Leach, Jackie Wyllie, Jo Clifford, Linda McLean, Douglas Maxwell, Mary Robson

Tags: Letters