Peter Arnott’s brilliant vignettes about a 1879 railway bridge disaster imagine the lives and hopes of passengers stalked by death
Peter Arnott has written enough plays to know you’re not supposed to structure them like this. The conventional way to tell the story of the rail bridge disaster of 1879, when 75 people lost their lives on the crossing from Wormit to Dundee, would be to dramatise the facts of the case: engineer Sir Thomas Bouch, the grieving relatives, the public enquiry and the compellingly terrible poem by William McGonagall. (“It must have been an awful sight / To witness in the dusky moonlight.”) Arnott has none of that. Instead, he imagines a kind of ghost-train-in-waiting and presents a sequence of vignettes about passengers who have nothing in common but their fate. By rights, such a theatrical collage could come across as fragmentary, but he pulls it off brilliantly thanks to vivid writing, political nous and thematic unity.
As is the nature of journeys, the passengers are in transition, changing jobs, beginning new lives, reinventing themselves, and yet already they seem stalked by death. They’re like a congregation reflecting on the journey of life, with Dundee as heaven and the Tay as a watery purgatory.Continue reading...