Walking Cathedral

Europe is on the verge of war – again – and the Miner family is enjoying tea in the garden with their son Biff. Or trying to enjoy it. Biff is recently back from Oxford, where he picked up lots of ideas about class consciousness and why England deserves to lose her empire. He especially scoffs at his mother’s concerns for a new hat so she can represent the Bell Ringer at Lady Belfry’s flower contest. Lady Belfry’s granddaughter Karen makes an unplanned visit to ask Mrs. Miner to talk the Bell Ringer out of entering his flower. It could win, and the grand old dame has won every single contest she has sponsored. Biff is now really in his cups and lets Karen have it. Sensing a parlour liberal, Karen demands that Biff account for his actions to improve humanity. When his resume turns up blank, she informs him that she has been slumming among London’s poor for years. Chastened, he asks if he could join her and she agrees. Off they go, leaving Mrs. Miner miffed that this young girl comes along, first to try to talk her out of helping the Bell Ringer, then whisks her son away to go slumming in London. Now she definitely needs a new hat.

The Battle of Britain is in progress when, in the next scene, Mrs. Miner receives a surprise visit from her neighbor Lady Belfry. She suspects the old bat is there to ask her to talk Biff and Karen, who apparently enjoyed their slumming together, out of getting married. It turns out she’s already resigned to their decision, however much she disapproves. No, she would like Mrs. Miner to talk the Bell Ringer out of entering his rose in her contest. It seems she succeeded in doing so the previous year, now she would like her to repeat her success. At that moment the Bell Ringer shows up with a German pilot he captured while on home patrol. Both he and Mrs. Miner are struck by the resemblance of the pilot to their local vicar. Hogwash, says Lady Belfry, who begins grilling the Bell Ringer on what she considers his determination to subvert her contest. He assures her he’s not, insisting it all has to do with the time when, as a boy, he was nasty to a particular rose. The pilot suddenly begins reciting a poem of Goethe’s on the same theme. Upon discovering that the old lady next to him is the widow of the Lord Belfry who lost the Battle of Islandwhanna in 1879, he begins taunting her. She lets him have it over the head with her cane, allowing him to seize the Bell Ringer’s rifle and escape. After him, she orders the Bell Ringer.

Scene three opens with the flower contest and a nervous Mr. Miner, who’s worried the Luftwaffe could attack any time. Lady Belfry won’t hear of calling off the contest, smugly confident as she is that she will win because the Bell Ringer is out looking for the pilot. Suddenly he shows up with his rose after receiving Mr. Miner’s orders to hurry there on the double. Now it’s all clear to Lady Belfry. The Miners are in it together with the Bell Ringer to help him win. Karen and a uniformed Biff arrive from their honeymoon. As the vicar begins announcing the prizes, she confides to Mrs. Miner that she loves Biff but, if a Messerschmitt should take him out, she will remarry to avoid the sad miserable state of her grandmother. The winner of the best rose, announces the vicar, is the Bell Ringer, causing Lady Belfry to fume even as sirens announce the approaching Luftwaffe. She refuses to budge until the whistle of a bomb can be heard before an explosion and the lights going out.

A memorial service is being held in the ruins of the cathedral for Karen, the Bell Ringer and other members of the community who died in the bombing. The Miners tell Biff to sit next to Lady Belfry, who’s now totally alone in the world. The vicar enters and makes a speech about the tragedy that has visited them and how they are no longer safe from warfare. They must learn to fight modern wars by first and foremost forgetting about their stiff upper lips and showing their emotions. He invites them all to stand up and cry, which scandalizes Lady Belfry. She calls on the Miners to rebuke the vicar, but they’re too busy crying. Even Biff begins wailing on the old lady’s shoulder. As Lady Belfry commands the congregation to stop making blubbering fools out of themselves, she looks at the vicar and realizes what it’s all about. He’s the pilot! She tells the others but they can make no sense of her urgency. The vicar gently dismisses her accusation, whereupon she whacks him over the head with her cane, snapping the Miners out of their stupor. Biff and Mrs. Miner forcibly escort her out of the cathedral while Mr. Miner helps the vicar to his feet. The man of the cloth is most forgiving, saying the poor woman hasn’t been the same since her husband was killed at Islandwhanna.

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English Theatre Moravia – presenting problem plays in the land of Franz Kafka