How to Win Against History is a musical retelling of the life of Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquis of Anglesey (1875 – 1905). He was born to inherit the Empire, but instead he burned brightly, briefly and transvestitely through his family’s vast wealth; putting on fabulous plays starring him.
Written, composed and performed by Seiriol Davies, this fabulous show has been a huge hit at the Edinburgh fringe for the second year running, and is touring the UK throughout 2017.
In this blog, Seiriol talks about how he first learned that Henry Cyril even existed.
“I grew up on Ynys Mon, a.k.a. Anglesey, a.k.a. The Druidic Haven of the Celts, a.k.a. The Flat Bit Before You Get To The Irish Ferry. It’s a barreny, lovely, salty sort of place. Henry Cyril Paget also lived there, which is handy.
While we’ve been making HTWAH, I’ve said this particular story so many times that I’ve a bit lost track of exactly how true it is (oh my god look: thematic relevance), but my recollection is I used to make my parents take me to Plas Newydd, which is the Paget family’s estate on Anglesey, over and over again as a boy. Of course, it may have been like twice and I just sucked it all in through my hungry, mad child-eyes in such detail that it felt like loads.
And I should say it’s a National Trust place, we didn’t just turn up at somebody’s house with me in the back seat, goggle-eyed and absorbing key memories for later musical theatre projects.
In fact, my mum has in her retirement expressed an interest in working at Plas Newydd and becoming one of those powerful-looking National Trust ladies who dwell by the fireplaces in an angora cardie waiting to tell you what that weird Game of Thronesy thing is (it’s probably a long-range bedpan) or to point vehemently at the ‘stop prodding that’ sign, or to pose for the odd awkward group selfie with a family in velourette anoraks from Wisconsin.
And I for one think this would be very exciting.
But anyway, there were two key reasons why I wanted to go there so much:
(i) The mural by painter Rex Whistler (the non-Whistler’s Mother one) which is all Italianate froufferies and phantastickal towers and harbour-folk, and is well worth the twenty minute tour guide talk-through, as it does things with foreshortening that beggar belief. Like, if you as a viewer do a nifty crab-walk along the floor in front of it, it can make a sailboat seem to sail out of the harbour before your very eyes while not moving at all in real life because it is a painting and this is not Harry Potter. Or at least, that is what the tour guide claimed, and my response was to just glare at it until I could sufficiently motivate myself to believe I could see what she was talking about.
But in any case, it’s a bit Where’s Wally and a bit Magic Eye and I was so preoccupied with it that we’ve now got a framed copy of it up by the sink in the kitchen in my flat. And I’m fairly sure that, if it wasn’t positioned where the glassware cupboard door slammed into it with alarming enthusiasm every time I open it, I would have by now found the peace to enter its zone and divine its secrets while washing the wine glasses of a Tuesday morning. But, as it is, I just get mesmerised and accidentally smack it again with the cupboard door.
(b) The small collection of laminated, photocopied snaps of Henry Cyril which were grudgingly stuck on the wall next to the toilet by the back porch. Now, as context, the pictures of the other, preceding Marquises (NB Other people seem to say ‘Marquess’, but I tend to prefer ‘Marquis’. I’m not sure why; I think maybe cos Henry seemed to favour it that way, and I’m just some ratbag socialisty commoner with Radio 4 affectations, so I’ve allowed myself to pick which spelling I fancied. Do get in touch, DeBrett’s) are not exhibited in the same laminatey toilet zone; their pictures are painted in oil, hanging in big gold frames in rooms you actually hang out in, or they are immortalised as busts, or full-body statues on top of huge columns erected looming over Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (a nearby village) as a deliberate copying of Nelson’s Column in London.
Well, one of them has that. The first Marquis was a hero at the battle of Waterloo (by which we presumably mean he stood in a big hat at the back telling some poor people to run that way) and was so British that, when his leg got blown off by a cannon shell, The Duke of Wellington, who was next to him, looked down and said “By Jove, sir, I think your leg’s been blown off” and Paget looked down and said “By Jove, sir, I think you’re right”. For these services to hats, shouting and limb-removal-not-noticing, he got himself a Column, which is probably one of NW Wales’s top Columns, and I really mean that.
The fact that it was this sort of lineage Henry Cyril was coming from makes it no real surprise that he got relegated to the Gallery De Toilette, because…
I mean look at him. Google Image Search ‘Henry Cyril Paget’ and look at them outfits.
Aren’t they stu-hunn-ing? Doesn’t he look like Freddie Mercury drove through Elizabeth Duke’s wearing a sellotape suit?
I drank them in, those pictures, though not really identifying very much with the whole fabulousness thing. I’ve never been an extravagant dresser per se, apart from a brief phase when I took to tying bright scarves to the belt loops of my skater jeans in an attempt to look like a sort of sexy satyr, but ended up looking (as a friend helpfully pointed out) “as though my butt was wearing a cape”. And, at the time of seeing the images,
I was probably wearing a Homer Simpson T-shirt, urban camo trousers and Hi-Tecs.
But there’s just something about him in those pictures. Okay, sure, there’s the millions of poundsworth of costume budget; but there’s also the sort of ‘don’t give a fig’ attitude he has which I loved: that he’s gazing out, dressed for some reason as a prog rock chandelier, telling the world to fig off, the bunch of motherfiggers.
And reading the little inscription underneath, which said (spoiler alert) that he’d ruined himself, died young and been expunged from the family history as comprehensively as possible – with all the letters, photos and diaries his family could find, burnt – set off my little internal bell of moral outrage. And so, because I believe in swift, decisive action, I decided to make a play about it twenty years later.
But over all that time, the simplicity of that feeling hasn’t really changed, despite growing-upness making it clear the whole thing’s more complicated, what with issues of privilege and stuff like that.
Because that’s Henry. Even though on paper he’s not the most obviously sympathetic character (“Hey come see my show about this dead white millionaire and how hard his life was. Come back please!”) people have just seemed to warm to him. Due to some combination of his defiance, his outsideryness writ on such a massive, Imperial scale and the fact that we know hardly anything about his internal life (due to the aforementioned bonfire), people seem to be able to pour themselves into him. Because I reckon most of us, at least some of the time, think we’re an outsider in a world that everyone else gets. And whatever our actual ambitions, very few of us are quite so extravagantly emo as to want no trace of us to exist after death.
Also yes, his outfits are life-giving.
I wanted to make something that redressed the balance a tiny bit; that told at least a version of his story as pieced together from a lot of extraordinary events with no internal monologue. With songs and me in a dress and a gag about Keira Knightley.
However, the truth is: there is a bit more stuff that survived the fire. I was lucky enough to have the help of Lily and Christopher Sykes, who are descendants of the actual real life Lilian from her second marriage, as well as Prof Viv Gardner, fabulous performance historian at the University of Manchester. With their help – as well as some lovely people who’ve written to me either when they heard we were making, or having seen, the show – I’ve got a few more tidbits.
Based on the conversations I’ve had with people after the show (sample:
“So, did he really exist?” “Yes. Did I forget to say that several times in the show?” “No, but I thought that was you making it more clear that he didn’t exist.” “Surely that would be quite a weird way of saying that.” “Yeah, but you are quite weird.” “Good point. A Strongbow Dark Fruits please.” “Strongbow Dark Fruits. Really?” “Don’t judge me.”) I thought it’d be good to talk a bit around the story, to weave some of these bits of tid into the script; to show how the show matches up with the true-life story as much as I know it.
I might be wrong, you might think this a very tiresome thing to do, but anyway I’ve done it now. And you can buy it here.”
– Seiriol Davies, Woolwich, Friday 6th Jan 2017
Oberon have published both the annotated script edition, and the musical score in the songbook edition. The annotated script contains many footnotes (feenote) from Seiriol’s research, while the song book contains the fully-transcribed piano and vocal arrangements for all fourteen songs from the show, so you can have a sherry and sing any of the glamorous roles.