Beginning The Tribe’s  new focus on student writers in St Andrews, Joanna Alpern discusses what brought her to write her new play A Rattle of Keys, and provides a sample of the script.


‘Over the summer I watched a documentary called The Invisible War. Hundreds of US female soldiers and simultaneous rape victims had been interviewed about their experiences. The effects of rape were threefold:


  • The post-traumatic stress as caused by the physical violation of the act itself.


  • The fact that this violation was conducted by a ‘comrade’ in the institution held most dear to these women.


  • The way in which these cases were dealt with at a legal level. The complaints were most often ignored, and hardly ever made it to court. Then, on the rare occasion that they did make it to court, the victims were told that it was simply an ‘occupational hazard’.


Although certainly hard-hitting and enlightening, it seemed that an important side to the story was missing. A side to the story which seemed vital in understanding how each atrocity took place. For perhaps obvious reasons, the perpetrators of rape had not been questioned.

Were they just inherently bad people, or opportunists abusing their positions of power? Did they feel threatened by the appearance of female soldiers in the army? Were they like this before joining the army, or did they become this way as a result?

I wanted to find out more about why people sign up in the first place. I asked friends joining the army, friends who have been in the army, and a group of soldiers who I happened to meet at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. An overwhelming response was that it gave them a sense of purpose.

Many of them had loyal, devoted personalities, and clearly got a kick out of serving and obeying an institution they felt to be great and full of integrity. It gave them a role and they filled it. I then started seeing links between this self-fulfillment of a designated role with a mother’s love for her son, or a woman’s love for her husband.

Gender stereotyping, of course, assigns roles to those who resent them, but also to those who fully indulge in them. Individuals can feel a misled pressure to, or a misled joy in, obeying them. I wanted to explore how this obedience to assigned roles, (either soldier or mother or man or woman,) could help or hinder a person’s wellbeing. I also wanted to imagine what would happen if certain individuals were betrayed by the roles they were so attached to.

A Rattle of Keys is thus a psychological exploration of the things people will do for others, at the expense of hurting or corrupting themselves, for the sake of self-definition. It does not look at army life as a separate entity, but rather as in conjunction with human relationships that we encounter on a day-to-day basis.’






Excerpt from script:


Alice tells Florence, a therapist who treats returning soldiers, about a friend in her ranks. 


Alice: He was a funny one, the kind of guy who runs to put a shirt on if you walk in on him in his vest. Sweet. And not just sweet either, don’t get me wrong, he was intelligent.  He lent me books. No one had ever really lent me books before, and I read them quickly. His books and his – notes in the margin… He had a lot of intelligent things to say, you know? Which you appreciate out there, when all the rest of them are fucking morons… But not too much to say that he didn’t listen.


Florence: Oh yeah?


Alice: Yeah. I always felt like he was listening to me anyway. Not like when people just nod at you and go off inside their head. But really listen like he respected whatever it was you were saying.


Florence: That’s – very important in a friend.


Alice: Yeah, it is. But it – got to the point where we’d be in his room and he’d hear a noise, and I mean any kind of noise, like a mouse or a scratch or something, and his hands would start shaking.  And he hated it when his hands did that because-


Florence: Because what?


[Alice realises she was about to say too much.]


Alice: Well, it’s not nice having your hands shake is it.


Florence: No I guess not.


Alice: He was – he became – disturbed. I don’t know why he was there.


Florence: What do you mean?


Alice: I mean, I don’t know what he was doing there.


Florence: Surely everyone has their reasons.


Alice: Yeah, you’re right Florence, everyone has their reasons and I don’t know what his were. They weren’t good ones though that’s for sure. I spoke with him every night. Sometimes we just played cards or chess and pissed about. [Pause.] But sometimes he was bad, and I’d sit and listen. Sometimes I had to do more than that.


[Florence looks up, questioningly.]


Alice: I’d – sort of cradle him. He wanted me to. And if I’d get up, to go to the toilet, or get a drink or something, he’d ask where I was going. He’d say, ‘Oh Alice, are you going? Can’t you stay a bit longer?’ A grown man. I’d sort of – rock him, stroke his hair. In his bunker, me cradling him, him – churning out words. Don’t know if it really helped or not, talking about it all like that, but he did. To me. And I still don’t know what his reasons were.


Florence: What were yours?


Alice: [Impatiently.] Wanted to get out of here like I said-


Florence: No, your reasons for – cradling, as you say.


Alice: My reasons? You know what Florence, looking back on it, I honestly couldn’t say why I did it.


Florence: Are you still – friends with him?




Alice: The thing is that I never trusted anyone, so when I saw people do disgusting – reprehensible things, it didn’t- well, not that it didn’t bother me, it didn’t surprise me. So it was just him-


Florence: Who you trusted?


Alice: Yeah. Yeah I guess you could say that.


Florence: And he let you down.




Florence: Were you in love with him?


[Alice looks up strangely.]


Alice: What?


Florence: Were you-… never mind, go on. Sorry.