Image source: The Wellcome Library

The Curious Plate – an 80’s Synth Story (the 1780’s…)

The Curious Plate tells the story of James Tilly Matthews and John Haslam. Inspired by Halsam’s book Illustrations of Madness and the life of Matthews in the 1780s and 90s, the piece is an exploration of the mind as a storyteller. The plate in question is an image that Matthews sketched whilst in Haslam’s charge. It shows, in great detail, the workings of a device called The Air Loom (an influencing machine) and those that operate it.

The piece uses synthesized instrumentation and sampling to create the musical world of this story of spies, politics and the meaning of madness. Although the subject is serious the piece employs humour, movement and theatricality to tell the story. The piece is for two performers who interact with keyboards, programme sequencers and mic/sound desks while sharing the story of two men locked in a battle of wills and a search for the truth in a story. The story is also an examination of our attitudes to mental health and how in some ways they haven’t really evolved in the last 250 years.

The show is currently in development.

The Story

James Tilly Matthews is been placed in Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam) in the care of the apothecary Mr John Haslam (Overture/The Meaning of Madness) following publicly accusing Lord Liverpool of treason in parliament. Haslam looks back at Matthews’s past, turning first to his move to London to become a tea merchant and his friendship with fellow Welshman David Williams (Tea & Liberty). We discover that Williams takes Matthews with him to France to support the new French government in the creation of their constitution (Revolutionary Suite). At the same time the pair are negotiating a secret peace plan between British and French ministers (Peace Plans). When Williams give up on the plan, Matthews carries on the quest but gets trapped in France during the darkest days of the revolution (Whisper Together & The Terror). After years in prison Matthews tries to endear himself to the French by offering ideas of how to feed the starving city of Paris (A Cabbage Lullaby). He also encounters the idea of Memerism (Mesmerized) and the strange concepts of magnetic influence and talking with brains!

Once he is released from French custody and returns to Britain he becomes obsessed with Lord Liverpool, who he blames for the failed peace plan. He writes Liverpool letters (Parliamentary Matters) that go unanswered and within months he is shouting treason in the House of Commons. Once he is placed in Haslam’s ‘care’ it is evident that the two men are both strong willed and Haslam tries to use Matthews to make a name for himself amongst the ‘mad doctoring’ community (Ballad of John Haslam).

Soon Matthews begins to show real signs of a broken mind and starts to edit his own story. He introduces a cast of strange characters that have forced him into spying (The Influencing Suite). He explains how he is affected by these characters (The Situation) how this gang speak to him through magnetic forces (The Gang) and manipulate him via an ‘Air-Loom’ (The Machine). He retells the story of his accusation of Lord Liverpool (The Mission) this time as a plot ripped from the pages of science-fiction.

Years in prison and institution finally took their toll on Matthews and he was never to be released from care (The Reason of Madness). We’ll never know if he was a schizophrenic as is claimed, or if he was simply a victim of circumstance pushed over the edge.

Words & Music by Simon Arrowsmith

Inspired by the true story of James Tilly Matthews and Illustrations of Madness by John Haslam

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