A Dangerous Thing by John Sessions

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BBC Radio 4, 2 December 2009
To me this play was designed to work on two levels. On the one hand it was a star vehicle for the multi-talented Sessions to display his vocal skill as Pope, the diminutive poet who died at the age of fifty-six, yet established himself during his lifetime as a keen social commentator as well as a great artist. Competing for our attention was Timothy Spall's Dean Swift, a giant bear of a man with an overpowering personality who failed to achieve recognition on both sides of the Irish Sea despite his undoubted talent. Partly this was due to circumstance, and partly due to his character: according to this play he had a penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Spall had great fun portraying the character, his rough-hewn voice contrasting with Sessions' genteel Scottish tones.
At another level, A Dangerous Thing was about the act of writing, which was not only dangerous at a time when censorship restrictions were quite severe (authors could often expect reprisals, both physical and financial, if they were to be over-critical of the authorities), but also dangerous for the mind. The sheer effort of putting words on to a page caused Pope considerable strain; as he confessed to his partner Martha Blunt (Amanda Rooy), this was probably one of the reasons for his early demise. The only way in which both Pope and Swift could survive was by involving themselves in a predominantly male community of fellow-writers, who not only provided moral support but also empathized with their satiric purposes. While Martha could offer physical succour, she had neither the intellect nor the strength to nourish Pope's intellecr. Perhaps this was historically true, but it did mean that Martha was somewhat marginalized in this play.
The play ended on an elegaic note; while both Pope's and Swift's poetry has proved enduringly popular over the last two centuries, neither of them were happy men. They both missed that "dangerous thing" which could transform their lives, and had to put up instead with more mundane pleasures. Sessions did not define exactly what it was, but then perhaps he didn't have to: maybe it was a quality only known and understood by artists.