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NA209712 - WILLIAMS, H.: Sacred Elephant (Unabridged)
‘Nature’s great masterpiece, an Elephant...’
John Donne, Progress of the Soul XXIX
In 1967 actor/writer Heathcote Williams spent three months touring in India. While he was in Rajasthan, he was able to observe, at close quarters, the local elephants and their trainers. At this time, he also had a close
association with a circus elephant called Rani, and was able to watch her daily routine and behavior in captivity. Many years later, these observations were to prove useful in the writing of his first environmental poem, Sacred Elephant.
It was in 1987 that the work first appeared. It had been published by Williams himself, but in a rather unusual form. Three thousand copies of a newspaper were printed on elephant-sized paper and with print ‘large enough for elephants to read’. These newspapers were not sold in public, but given away by the author to friends and associates. In the same year, Heathcote Williams performed the poem in a radio production. This program drew the first of many favorable reviews including one from playwright Harold Pinter who described it as ‘a marvelous poem.’
Before the book could be published, however, Williams had already started work on Whale Nation, the publication that eventually appeared before Sacred Elephant and set the pattern for the books to follow. Sacred Elephant was eventually released in 1989, published by Jonathan Cape but in a considerably revised form. Williams had earlier been working on a script for a film version of the book Elephant Bill by J.H. Williams. This book, set in Burma, describes the life of J.H. Williams and his relationship with the elephants that worked on teak plantations. The observations and scenes in this book enabled Heathcote Williams to extend and improve his earlier version to become the work we know today. Indeed, the second part of Sacred Elephant, ‘On the Nature of Elephants’, contains many extracts from J.H. Williams’ book, as well as various insightful and moving tributes to the elephant such as this one, from Elephant Memories by Cynthia Moss:
“Elephants are very special animals: intelligent, complicated, intense, tender, powerful and funny. I consider myself immensely fortunate to have spent so much time with them. I have always said that watching elephants is like reading an engrossing, convoluted novel that I cannot put down but I also do not want to end”.
After it was published, the book received many more favorable notices including one from author and journalist Bernard Levin — ‘a strange and beautiful book.’
Despite its enormous success, however, Sacred Elephant has not received the same environmental publicity that greeted Whale Nation. I asked Heathcote Williams why he thought this was.
“The sea is the last great unexplored wilderness. Whales seem much more mysterious to us as a species, less readily observable. Somehow, the desire to preserve the more ‘familiar’ elephant is less pure. As long as the elephant encroaches on human land and impedes the development of housing and farming it will almost always seem more acceptable to destroy it.”
The text of Sacred Elephant, often stark and uncompromising, is also hauntingly beautiful and highly emotive. To all those who are concerned with the destruction of a species, Sacred Elephant is a fitting tribute to all the animals that have been, and will be, sacrificed to satisfy man’s greed.
Notes by Sarah Butcher
About the Readers
As poet, playwright and actor, Heathcote Williams has made a significant contribution to many fields. He is best known for his extended poems on environmental subjects, Whale Nation (1988); Falling for a Dolphin (1988); Sacred Elephant (1989) and Autogeddon (1991). But his plays have also won acclaim, notably AC/DC produced at London’s Royal Court, and Hancock’s Last Half Hour. As an actor he has been equally versatile — among his most memorable roles was Prospero in Derek Jarman’s film of The Tempest.
Harry Burton is a highly versatile actor. A familiar figure in British theater, in London’s West End and the Fringe, he has become equally known for taking leading operatic roles including Mozart (Figaro and Leporello) and Rossini (Dandini) at the South Bank, the Vienna Festival and on TV. He is also
regularly seen on TV in programs as varied as Soldier Soldier and Pinter’s Party Time.
Caroline Webster works extensively in UK television, radio and theater. She has appeared in no fewer than four Alan Ayckbourn plays — three of them directed by the playwright — both in Scarborough and the Royal National Theatre, London.
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