John Pierce’s Introduction to A Critical Reading of The Glass Empire, with Annotations by Gordon Bishop
by Jesse Livingston
Issue 9: Alternate History | 3,137 words
© Angela Yuriko Smith/pixabay
It has been suggested by certain critics that Nathaniel Marwood’s play The Glass Empire is somehow ‘lesser Marwood.’ While I don’t agree with this assessment, I do understand why it gets made. The Glass Empire is inarguably more conceptual than his other works, more experimental, and – perhaps the worst crime of all – it’s a piece of ‘genre fiction.’ At the mere mention of those two words, the academic mind recoils in horror. But, in this case at least, the academic mind is wrong. To quote scholars more astute than I, ‘There’s nothing you can say in fiction that you can’t say in genre fiction.’[i]
The conceit of the play is simple: What if the American Colonies had won the War of Secession in 1776? This puts the story squarely in the realm of alternate history, although Marwood himself never referred to it as such. In fact, he seemed largely unconcerned with the implications of this central idea, treating it more as window dressing than anything else. The play has more in common with a romantic comedy than it does with an examination of history; characters joke with each other in a light-hearted fashion, and the plot of the piece is basically a question of whether or not the two leads will fall in love and get married.[ii] Thus, we must view The Glass Empire more as an experimental exercise than any kind of traditional narrative.
Despite the extensive background notes that Marwood took during the writing process, the alternate history aspects in the play itself exist only as aesthetic choices in set design and costuming, as well as in passing references to fictional entities. Characters allude to things like Georgetown University, Apollo 11, Hoover Dam, and United Nations; and supposed cities, such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington DC. As a result, there’s a feeling of something otherworldly lurking around the edges of the story, and there is some debate in the critical community as to how the reader is supposed to receive these details. Did Marwood include them as nothing more than whimsical frippery, or are we meant to focus on them and ignore the – it must be said – largely uninteresting plot?[iii] Your answer to these questions may well depend on your opinion of Marwood’s dramatic instincts and his writing as a whole.
In The Glass Empire, the most interesting implication of the world, a result of the Americans’ winning the War, is the absence of magick. Instead of David Bowie becoming Prime Minister in 1979,[iv] a woman from Grantham named Margaret Thatcher is elected following a season of social upheaval Marwood terms The Winter of Discontent.[v] Thus, Bowie never creates the Department of Occult Sciences, magick remains dormant, and civilisation proceeds down a more technological path.
This idea of a world without magick is a never made a focal point in the play; rather, it’s a subtext with strong implications. Characters don’t discuss what their lives are like without magick. How could they? They’ve never known any other life. After all, we don’t have conversations about what it’s like to live with magick. We just take it for granted. Therefore, to gain an understanding of what life must be like for the characters in The Glass Empire, we must listen to what they’re not saying. Like the proverbial notes that skiffle musicians don’t play,[vi] Marwood’s portrait of a world without magick is to be found in its silences and omissions.[vii]
The most notable silence in the play is the deadness of its world. The hopelessness and resignation of the characters leak through every syllable, even as they speak of events that should be the happiest of their lives. Through subtle hints and allusions, we learn that the political discourse of The United States is locked in an unending sequence of recrimination, deception, and betrayal; that its culture has become a wasteland of recycled ideas;[viii] and that its citizens live out their days in a fog of hedonistic mental slavery. Again, this is a world where Bowie never realised Crowley’s Mistake, never broke the Ouroboros, never raised the Black City, never turned the Gnostic Mass from Great Work to Great Working. In The Glass Empire, the Rending of the Veil is nothing more than an esoteric curiosity in a fading grimoire. The Americans anaesthetise themselves like there’s no tomorrow – because there isn’t. Their planet is dying, and their society is already dead.
Today’s readers are most likely too young to remember a time before the Black City appeared. I would venture to say that we take magick for granted nowadays, and this will only increase as we draw further away from 31 October 1979. Those like myself who grew up before that date knew a world now lost to all but a memory – a world in which telepathy, wayfinding, divination, augury, catoptromancy, and revelation were merely concepts, not things that worked.
It’s impossible to communicate to a young person what this world was like, being unable to locate yourself geographically at any given moment, being unable to instantaneously send a thought to a loved one as soon as it entered your mind, being unable to look into a mirror and learn the answer to a question or see a prediction of tomorrow’s weather. I must confess, I don’t fully remember it myself. Each day it seems more and more like a dream whose details have vanished and whose rough outline is gradually coming apart like an ice floe drifting into tropical waters.
It’s also impossible to explain what it felt like when the Black City first began to manifest in the heart of London; but if you’ll allow me a short digression, I’ll try. People forget that it started with only a few buildings – the first being the British Museum, followed quickly by St. Paul’s, the Old Bailey, the Temple Church,[ix] Caxton Hall, and 36 Blythe Road.[x] These buildings turned completely black, inside and out, and stood silent for weeks. All wooden, plastic, or glass elements of the structures had disappeared, so doors and windows gaped vacantly, with nothing visible inside but a lightless void. Those brave souls who did cross the threshold vanished without a trace, and the rest of us quickly learned to steer clear. It was simultaneously a confirmation that another world existed within our own and an assurance that we could never hope to understand it. For those too young to remember: imagine what it would feel like if a space-ship descended from the sky and then sat motionless and silent for years, impervious to entry. How would you feel the next day? How would you feel a month later? How about five years on?
We all thought it was over until the National Gallery turned. Then the phenomenon slowly spread to all thirty-two boroughs like a patch of mould sending out tendrils across the map of Greater London, first hitting Islington, Southwark, Westminster, Hackney, Camden, Lambeth; and finally reaching Enfield, Havering, Croydon, Bexley, Hounslow, etc. several months later. The final building to change was Bentley Priory in Harrow, after which the Black City seemed to have reached the limits of its grasp, or perhaps concluded that it was satisfied with its dominion.
The buildings affected were quickly determined to have been replaced with exact replicas of themselves carved from pure onyx.[xi] There were no signs of any seams or joins, and every square centimetre was inscribed with rows and rows of glyphs in the Rongorongo[xii] language of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Unfortunately for us, Rongorongo, now dead, is one of the few human languages that has never been successfully translated due to the fact that Rapa Nui’s geographic isolation may have caused it to be one of the few places on Earth to develop language completely independently from all other cultures. As a result, we have no way to know what the inscriptions say.
When all was said and done, the City had claimed about one-eighth of the buildings in London. Incredibly, these buildings, which were predominantly public, municipal, or commercial, all seemed to have transformed during times of day when they were either vacant or occupied by a few unlucky caretakers and cleaning staff. Thus, we were spared the loss of any significant per cent of the population. Of course, this is no consolation to those whose friends and family members were consumed by the Black City. However, given that magick was suddenly real and available to everyone, the event was considered, overall, to be a world-changing, positive thing.
Today we occasionally ponder the existence and meaning of the Black City, but most of us simply ignore it as we go about our daily lives. We may walk down a street containing an unusual number of onyx buildings and feel a brief chill go down our spines, or we may sit on a park bench and gaze thoughtfully into the pitch-dark void in the mouth of a cathedral. We rarely think of the City as an active participant in our world. It’s merely a fact, like the sky.
It’s this boredom with the miraculous that I believe Marwood is trying to capture in The Glass Empire. By emphasising the lifelessness of the Americans’ world, he’s inviting us to contemplate the potential lifelessness of our own should we allow ourselves to forget that our way of life has been founded on a mystery.[xiii] We mustn’t take the Black City for granted. Rather, we must keep it in our thoughts – as potential ally or threat – so as not to lose the feeling of wonder that keeps us alive. If we become as lost as the Americans, then magick surely will leave our world, and we’ll be left just as hopeless. In that sense, The Glass Empire is none other than our British Empire: delicate and poised to shatter if not properly cared for.
As we examine the text of the play, I urge you to consider the possibility that there’s more beneath the surface than meets the eye. The Glass Empire may be one of Marwood’s least praised and least performed works, but it may also be one of his most misunderstood. To quote Crowley himself, ‘Imagine listening to Beethoven with the prepossession that C is a good note and F a bad one; yet this is exactly the standpoint from which all uninitiates contemplate the universe. Obviously, they miss the music.’
[i] I have been unable to track down the original source for this quote. The earliest instance I can find is in a treatise by Smith and Bax, although they attribute it to a personal acquaintance. Perhaps they are the scholars Pierce is referring to?
[ii] I find this to be a bit of an oversimplification, but maybe that’s because I like romantic comedies.
[iii] Again, I beg to differ.
[iv] The reference to Bowie is of course made only in passing, as the play takes place in a nation called ‘The United States’ which has been emancipated from British rule. During Thatcher’s term, the leader of this nation was a former actor named Ronald Reagan – almost certainly an allusion to Bowie’s pre-political life as a musician.
[v] This detail isn’t mentioned in the play, and we know of it only from Marwood’s notes, in which he describes it as a period characterised by multiple labour strikes, including a gravediggers’ strike that prompted the Liverpool City Council to hire a factory in Speke to store hundreds of unburied corpses. One can only imagine what the odour must’ve been like.
[vi] I think Pierce is referring here to the old adage heard in skiffle clubs: The notes one doesn’t play are just as important as the notes one does. This platitude is often attributed to Ken Colyer, although its true source is anyone’s guess. Personally, I don’t see what’s so great about musicians not playing these notes. I spend all day not playing them, and no one gives me any credit for it.
[vii] The implication here is that Marwood wrote The Glass Empire as a kind of formal exercise – an attempt to tell a story not through traditional narrative but through ancillary comments and references. I have to say, an exercise like that sounds tiresome, and I can understand why some critics would rather dismiss the play as a mundane romance than grapple with this more challenging analysis. But let’s press on and see if there’s any merit to Pierce’s assertion.
[viii] Returning to Marwood’s notes, we learn that Hollywood (the American version of the Shepperton film industry) has taken to re-making the same stories again and again. Here, if you’ll indulge me, dear reader, I would like to introduce my own hypothesis about what’s going on in The Glass Empire:
Having ‘proceed[ed] down a more technological path,’ the culture of The United States has progressed exponentially further than British culture in terms of storytelling – not that American stories are necessarily better, but that they are more numerous and more easily delivered to the average ‘consumer’ in need of entertainment. Where Shepperton may release thirty new films each year in cinemas, the American number is implied to be several hundred – and the average American doesn’t even go to the cinema that often, due to the availability of films and television for home-viewing. (Home-viewing habits are referenced several times in the play. In fact, they seem to be one of the major topics of conversation in American society.)
Having perfected the technology for delivering the maximum number of stories to the maximum number of people as quickly as possible, as well as the technology to capture data about viewing habits, the Hollywood industry has been able to synthesise a few basic plots they know will be enjoyed by the widest range of demographics. This allows them to tell the same stories over and over with only minor variations. As a result, they have built a spiritual wall that literally keeps magick from entering their world. Not only has the Veil not been rent, but it has also been fortified into an Iron Curtain (a cryptic term mentioned in Marwood’s notes, which I am cheerfully appropriating for my own purposes).
As we know, telling one’s own story is essential to successful magickal workings; therefore, being inundated by a constant flood of stories told to you – all of which are basically the same story – could only serve to deaden your spiritual instincts and deafen your metaphysical ears. I have no idea what it would actually feel like to be in this deplorable state, but I can imagine it would be like being frozen in ice and slowly suffocating. This may sound melodramatic, but I think we take for granted how rich and full of variety our lives are. If nothing else, The Glass Empire serves to remind us how badly wrong things could’ve gone had our civilisation taken a different path.
Is there direct evidence for this interpretation of the play? Perhaps not. But read further and you may start to see what I’m on about.
[ix] Aside from being built by the Knights Templar, nothing about the Church would suggest it had any connexion to the occult. As for St. Paul’s and the Old Bailey, your guess is as good as mine.
[x] These last two had a direct connexion to Aleister Crowley. Caxton Hall was where he staged his Rites of Eleusis in October and November of 1910. As for 36 Blythe Road, on 19 April 1900, a meeting of the London temple of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, led by the poet W. B. Yeats, was underway when Crowley burst in brandishing a dagger and wearing a black Osiris mask and a kilt. Crowley and his mistress shouted spells at the adepts gathered there, attempting to seize the temple for his mentor Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, the recently ousted leader of the Order. Of course, the police were called and the whole affair ultimately came to nothing.
It’s tempting to believe that Crowley’s involvement with these two locations had something to do with their being among the first to be claimed by the Black City; however – as with most things concerning the City – we have no hard evidence either way. But if I may editorialise for a moment: it would be an enormous bloody coincidence if it didn’t.
[xi] The significance of this particular mineral has not gone unnoticed. In many cultures, onyx has long been associated with bad dreams and misfortune. It has also been said to absorb spiritual energy, making it an ideal container for imprisoning demons. No one knows where the onyx of the Black City came from, but just stand near one of the buildings and you’ll feel a thrum of suppressed power emanating from it. Might this be a trick of the imagination? Yes. But just try it.
[xii] Given that the British Museum was the first structure to be consumed by the Black City, it has been hypothesised that the origin of the phenomenon may have been the three Rongorongo texts in the Museum’s collection – Text J, also known as ‘(London) reimiro 1’; Text K, also known as the ‘(Small) London tablet’; and Text L, also known as ‘(London) reimiro 2’. These texts consist(ed) of a tablet of Pacific rosewood and two ceremonial crescent-shaped gorgets/epaulets also carved from wood, each of which bore the untranslatable symbols of the Rongorongo language. Of course, there’s no way to test this hypothesis, as the Museum’s interior remains inaccessible.
While it’s tempting to believe that these artefacts had something to do with the genesis of the Black City, Windram has opined that their involvement may have been a coincidence; perhaps the City just happened to begin in the room where one of these texts was housed, and it decided to adorn itself with whichever symbols were available. While I agree that it’s generally a good idea to be sceptical of the notion that ancient cultures wielded all kinds of occult powers, I note that Windram is silent on the question of why the City didn’t choose to include any of the other languages on display at the Museum. Given that we don’t know what the City is or what it wants, I suspect we may never find the answers to these questions.
[xiii] If Marwood is indeed using The United States as a metaphor for the Black City, then could the City itself not also be used as a metaphor? Perhaps it could be a metaphor for the every-present spectre of death that we live with, side-by-each, as we navigate our lives. It’s always there, always threatening to swallow us, but it also provides us with the ultimate mystery that keeps our days from sliding into stagnation. I see no problem with turning the City into a metaphor. If it’s just going to sit there doing nothing, it might as well be one.
Jesse Livingston is a filmmaker and musician from Denver, Colorado. His fiction has appeared in audio magazines such as Pseudopod and The Drabblecast. His band The Far Stairs can be found at thefarstairs.com, and his film The Blue Room is at blueroomhorrorfilm.com. He’s currently co-writing a TV pilot about a vanished Iowa artist whose work channels mysterious forces.