Jackie Kay’s ‘The Lamplighter’: Tuning into History

Elspeth Walker

Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo

Illustration by Elspeth Walker

Jackie Kay’s The Lamplighter is a poetic radio play that explores the British role in the transatlantic slave trade, honing in on the lost voices and experiences endured by female slaves.

I had never been exposed to this side of slavery until I was studying contemporary literature in English at an institution in Italy. Given that the syllabus classified the play as a British text, showing and exposing British history, I began to question why I had never been taught this perspective in Britain. Before studying this text, I knew about the slave trade and Britain’s role in it, but until I heard the way The Lamplighter gives voice to the experiences of the women victimised by it, I realised that I had only experienced this history as abstract, something that had happened long ago, far away. Not as something that shaped and defined my nation to this day.

Kay’s piece comes from a place of negotiation and frustration as a black, British female writer. Looking in British so-called history books, why was part of our collective history erased? Where was the voice of so many who built this country? This theme is explored and exposed through the collective communication of the women within the play. Each speaks from a perspective that has been historically silenced and overlooked. Within the text, the lamplighter guides women, including the protagonist, towards rediscovering their ‘selves’; furthermore, Kay presents this character as a symbol who illuminates the present and calls for recognition and remembrance.  

The radio play functions on many levels. Not only do the poetic and striking narratives from the play’s female narrators expose the unique, yet collective experiences of women in slavery, the radio format forces one to physically listen to their voices. The reduction and dehumanisation of these women is a key theme in Kay’s work, and by listening to their words, we become participants in this history. 

This reclaiming of the self is emphasised throughout the text, especially in conjunction with the British urban landscape. In Scene 13:British Cities, the connection between contemporary Britain and slavery becomes evident. We also see Kay play with the English language. Through the exploration of the word ‘ship’, a key location and aspect of diaspora, Kay highlights the transitions within each woman’s life, by highlighting the suffix ‘ship’. When Constance says ‘HardSHIP, WorkmanSHIP, WorSHIP, relationSHIP, authorSHIP!’ (Kay, p72), we see her rediscover her autonomy through the active process of talking. Despite the dislocating and dehumanising presence of the ship, each of the characters regains authorship over their history through active process of speaking. The movement from a physical location that was detrimental, such as the ship, to a location of a personal story power and strength, like ‘authorship’, shows the tie between geographical and the personal. Kay exposes how the landscapes the women find themselves in, such as the cities, removes their ability to have an individuality, and that in order to have autonomy they must undergo this verbal process of reclaiming space. 

This is furthered in Scene 4: Herself Talking, when the women list off British cities, emphasising particular syllables such as ‘PortsMOUTH, PlyMOUTH’ and ‘CHESTer’ (Kay, p16). The emphasis on parts of the words that sound like body parts dramatises how each location took a physical piece of these women; this is made even more explicit when Mary and the Lamplighter state: ‘There is not a brick in this city/ But what is cemented with the blood of a slave’ (Kay, p79). This highlights how the city as a whole effectively participated in the slave trade, so that even today the profits of slavery are present on every corner. In every city, the expression of one part of society was built on the physical oppression of another. 

However, it is not only the women’s voices we hear. The play’s ‘shipping news’ is narrated flatly by a male voice. This factual delivery of atrocious conditions and treatments of slaves on the ships furthers the dehumanisation of the characters. This voice is comparable to that of our history books. The matter-of-fact style removes the emotional tie to Britain’s role in the slave trade, thus enabling the memory that still lingers in the cities and societies we live in to be swept aside. It suggests that this violence happened and ended. However, Kay’s work exposes how, by choosing to ignore the British role in slavery, and especially the female perspective, we are denying the continued influence of this past on our present society. This denial is explored through the theme of trauma in the narrative. In the play, the trauma of slavery causes a dissociation in each of the women, away from who they were before and who they became after the experience. By ignoring the process that caused personal change, they have had their history silenced. Although it is a painful period to remember, the women’s navigation of their subjugation enables them to recognise what experiences shaped the person they are now. The same goes for the audience, as they learn ugly truths about the history of Britain. Within the play, the characters live in between the need to remember, to come to terms with trauma, and the desire to forget. However, as each character rediscovers their story or voice, especially the Lamplighter herself, Kay allows them to finally have a story and thus a history. By putting the experience into words, they are able to create a history. This is where the radio element is vital as the audience has the opportunity to physically listen to each person. They are given an actual voice, becoming a being rather than solely a character in a story. Kay invites each person to actively listen to the women – we just have to be willing to do so. 

The Lamplighter is a key text as it shifts it from just an American historical perspective, as it is often presented by media and history books, and illuminates the British role. Often in literature, art and especially film or TV, it easy for some to believe that the issues of slavery are purely American issues. There are few works of art that make it to the mainstream that record the British role. Yet, Kay reminds us that despite being part of the abolitionist movement before the USA, that doesn’t erase the role Britain played in the slave trade. The experiences endured by many during this period are still as prevalent in our society and infrastructures today as they are in North America. The play throws a spotlight on the personal histories and perspectives that many in Britain live in the shadows of, and demands that the history of one country not be allowed to be discarded because another participated in the atrocities for longer. In order to understand our present, we must be taught the truth about how the society we see today and the cities we live in came to be. 

The Lamplighter is valuable for how it takes Britain to task not only for the part is played in the slave trade, but for its continued wilful ignorance and erasure of the violence in which it is complicit and from which it continues to profit. It is vital that texts like Jackie Kay’s The Lamplighter be on curriculums, so that voices like these are not only brought to light in literature, but in mainstream history education today.

Elspeth is a recent graduate from the University of Warwick where she studied English Literature and Creative Writing. She has always had a keen interest in the sociological and political perspective of texts, which she explored in her studies and her freelance writing post-university. With a strong passion for writing and the arts, she aims to improve the inclusivity of the arts sector.

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