As he brings his new play to three London venues, playwright Tom Green tells us about the African-American bare-knuckle boxer Tom Molineaux and the London-born journalist who inspired the piece:
“Although Tom Molineaux is a play about boxing, my initial inspiration was a writer.
“Pierce Egan was a prolific journalist in the first half of the 19th century and the man who more or less invented sports writing. Reading his accounts of prizefights in the 1800s is to be transported ringside.
“The characters spring from the page. So do the violence, skill and brutality that went with a sport where bouts could last 90 minutes or more.
“I’ve long been interested in the history of sport in this country. It’s a huge part of our popular culture that is often unexplored. And when you investigate boxing in the 1800s, Tom Molineaux is a man whose achievements push him to the fore.
“Egan wrote accounts of all Molineaux’s fights. My new play tells the story of a friendship between these two outsiders who both excelled in their very different careers.
“Molineaux was a slave in Virginia who won his freedom in a fight for his owner before heading first for New York and then London. He wasn’t the first black boxer in England – already the sport was an avenue for those denied other opportunities – but he still faced huge difficulties and prejudice.
“His talent was unquestionable. After just a few explosive fights he was able to challenge the great English champion Tom Cribb. Their two epic battles, both in the English countryside beyond the reach of the law, in front of crowds estimated in the tens of thousands, are among the greatest bouts ever fought.
“Egan brings the action vividly to life. He was clearly in love with language and his descriptions of boxers’ actions and attitudes are up there with the best writing about sport in any era.
“My play is set 200 years ago, but the themes remain very relevant today. When I started developing the piece with Kate Bannister at the Jack Studio we were keen to pick out those resonances for a modern audience.
“The fundamentals of boxing haven’t changed, of course. Two people face each other with nothing but their fists. In the ring there is nowhere to hide, and that’s part of what makes the sport such a natural fit with theatre. The conflict could not be clearer. The stakes are high. To the winner, total triumph. To the loser, complete humiliation.
“In addition, it soon became clear to me that the history of boxing is the history of migration. When people arrive with little or nothing to their name, one thing they can do is step into a ring and fight. And to a large extent that continues to be the case. Boxing clubs exist across the country in diverse areas of towns and cities. Language doesn’t matter. Money counts for nothing. It’s all about what you can do in a three-minute round.
“In researching the play I spent time at boxing clubs, learning something about what it means to fight. The physicality, the intensity, the fear of defeat, are all things we wanted to bring to the stage.
“I’ve also been doing creative work with young people in boxing clubs, considering some of the themes of the play and introducing them to Tom Molineaux’s story. It’s always important for theatre to reach new communities. With this play we knew that we needed to have boxers among the audience.
“As we prepare for our first performances of the play in venues across London, as well as in Gravesend and Darwen, I’ve learnt how deeply rooted boxing is in our national culture.
“So many people have a connection to the sport and everywhere we go, at every boxing club, there are inspiring stories about how boxing has changed people’s lives.
“It’s also clear that boxing produces great stories. And the story of Tom Molineaux, the first black boxer to fight for a world title, is surely among the very best.”
Tom Molineaux runs on:
17-18 May: Wandsworth Arts Fringe, Putney
19 May: Library Theatre, Darwen
23 May: Woodville Studio Theatre, Gravesend
24 May-3 June (Wed-Sat only): Jack Studio Theatre, London SE4
30 May: The Tramshed, Woolwich