Zadie Smith’s first play is a brash, triumphant celebration of one woman’s voice and freedom, but it exists because its author found herself backed into writing it. “My beloved Brent,” her London borough, was campaigning to be chosen as London’s 2020 Borough of Culture, and Smith casually agreed to let her name be used. A year later Brent won its bid, and the organizer began pestering Smith to write something about “The Ends,” a name that Smith defines as “another term for your neighbourhood, wherever your neighbourhood may be.” Being told to write something is different from choosing to write it: “Everything I write is more or less about Brent, yet being explicitly asked to write about Brent sent me into a spiral of selfconsciousness from which no writing seemed likely to emerge.”

As the organizer’s e-mails got more frequent, Smith noticed on her shelf a copy of The Canterbury Tales and, “at a loss for what else to tell her,” proposed writing a monologue based on a few lines from The Wife of Bath, perhaps to be printed in a local magazine or performed on a local stage. A month later, after some e-mail miscommunications in a London airport, Smith flew to Australia, where, on landing, she learned that the organizer had issued a press release that online gossip, and Smith’s agent, had interpreted as an announcement that she had written her first play:

I sat for a while in Sydney Airport and looked deep into the gaping void in myself where a play was meant to be. I went through my options: break own leg, contract short but serious illness, remain in Australia, explain to Twitter it was mistaken, or try to translate a fourteenth-century medieval text written in rhyming couplets into a contemporary piece about Kilburn…

Left with no other practical choice, with “no idea it would end up being one of the more delightful writing experiences of my life,” she wrote a play about a woman with “a startling indifference to the opinions of others and a passionate compulsion to live her own life as she pleases.” The maxim “freedom is the knowledge of necessity,” a common paraphrase of a much longer sentence by Engels, for once proved almost true.

Smith’s play transfigures Chaucer’s Alyson into Alvita, “a Jamaican-born British woman in her mid-fifties” living in Willesden, the part of Brent where Smith set much of three of her novels, White Teeth (2000), NW (2012), and Swing Time (2016). A cascade of mock-archaic subtitles in the book version describes the play as “Told in verse couplets/Translated from the Chaucerian into North Weezian”—Alvita’s Northwest London dialect, from the rap place-name North Weezy. Other subtitles explain that the play incorporates “‘The Wife of Willesden’s Tale’/which tale is preceded by/‘The General Lock-In,’” and so on. Almost every line in the play is, as Smith writes in her introduction, “a direct transposition of the Wife of Bath’s prologue and tale.” Alvita says many things about sex that sound as if they became sayable only in the enlightened present, though they were first in Chaucer.

Smith gives Alvita most of the lines that Chaucer wrote for Alyson, but because she is writing for the stage she transfers some lines to Alvita’s aunt, niece, friends, and five husbands (four of them voluble though dead). Where Alyson cites the Bible and classical worthies, Smith’s play has updated maxims spoken by God, Saint Paul, Black Jesus, Nelson Mandela, and a slippery minister from a local megachurch. Chaucer’s pilgrims set out from the Tabard Inn in Southwark. Alvita tells her story at an open mic night at the Sir Colin Campbell pub on the Kilburn High Road—“a common route for medieval pilgrims.” The play omits the “Sir” in the pub’s name, though the full name appears in Swing Time; Smith makes a point of noting Alyson’s “contempt for class privilege.”

Alyson begins her prologue with a rhyme that sets “authority” in opposition to “me”:

Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynogh for me
To speak of wo that is in marriage.

Alvita’s less exact rhymes make the same point:

Let me tell you something: I do not need
Any permission or college degrees
To speak on how marriage is stress…

Smith wrote her play for the Kiln Theatre on the Kilburn High Road, for her “a sacred space.” Indhu Rubasingham’s original 2021 production, which I saw at BAM’s small-scale Harvey Theater last April, was a feast for the senses, with joyful outbursts of music and dance and nuanced moments of folktale. Clare Perkins as Alvita, a lithe, forceful presence in a red dress, spoke in a dozen different voices, filling the space around her even when struck down by a blow from a soon-repentant and submissive husband. As embodied in Perkins, Alvita derives much of her force from remaining emphatically and athletically herself while the shape-shifting cast members around her perform different roles from one moment to the next. Alvita’s third husband appears as Black Jesus when someone holds the pub’s gold-colored serving tray behind his head like a glowing aureole in a Renaissance fresco.


The printed version produces a different experience from that produced by the same text spoken in the theater. Smith’s introduction and stage directions say things that Alvita and everyone around her cannot know about themselves. The book includes the full text of Chaucer’s prologue and tale—reprinted from The Riverside Chaucer, complete with glosses—and emphasizes, as a production cannot, the dialogue that the play conducts with its medieval original. Stage-Alvita draws every eye to herself and makes everyone else seem evanescent. Book-Alvita is always half-shadowed, half-illuminated by her fourteenth-century double. In an ideal production, Chaucer’s words would scroll across an electronic panel above the stage in Middle English supertitles.

The play, like all plays, takes place in a continuous present. Alvita’s dead husbands are alive when she dramatizes her disputes with them. After her long prologue, when she tells a tale set in a semimythical eighteenth-century Jamaica, her friends and husbands put on costumes and act out the tale. In the book, with its seventy-plus pages of Chaucer, the past speaks in its own voice, and Smith’s introduction and stage directions give it its due. The book makes clear, as the stage version cannot, Smith’s impatience with the common self-congratulatory fantasy that our sophisticated present has outgrown the delusions of the past. Chaucer’s Alyson has a brief exchange with another pilgrim, the Pardoner, who sells documents absolving the buyer from sin. Smith notes in her introduction that she has updated the Pardoner into a “charity chugger” (charity mugger) who, accosting you in the street to demand money for worthy causes, offers exactly what the Pardoner offered: the reassurance that you need not change your life in order to relieve your burden of guilt; your cash can do it for you.

The tale told by Chaucer’s Alyson after her lengthy prologue is a story of sexual violence and educative justice set in King Arthur’s court. Alvita’s tale replaces Arthur with Queen Nanny, heroic leader of Jamaican rebel slaves and like Arthur the subject of proliferating legend. The parallels between the two tales make a witty point about the ways a story’s inner structure can matter more than its local detail, and about how a story associated with ancient British glories can be used to glorify a nation that freed itself from British colonialism.

The play’s comic and transhistorical virtuosity arises in part from a half-concealed argument—which Smith makes everywhere in her work—about the moral significance of a personal voice. “From the moment Alyson opens her mouth” in The Canterbury Tales, Smith recalls in her introduction,

I knew that she was speaking to me, and that she was a Kilburn girl at heart…. Alyson’s voice—brash, honest, cheeky, salacious, outrageous, unapologetic—is one I’ve heard and loved all my life: in the flats, at school, in the playgrounds of my childhood and then the pubs of my maturity, at bus stops, in shops, and of course up and down the Kilburn High Road, any day of the week. The words may be different but the spirit is the same.

Like everyone in the modern world, Alvita constructs her voice by amalgamating scraps and fragments of other voices into something uniquely her own. A stage direction reports: “Her accent is North Weezy with moments of deliberate poshness as well as frequent lapses into Jamaican patois and cockney for comic effect.” In one of the paradoxes of personhood, Alvita becomes herself by containing multitudes, which is what makes possible her connection across the centuries with the unique voice and spirit of Chaucer’s Alyson.

“Voice,” for Smith, is a word of power, something like a secular analogue of the sacred logos, the word that created the world. A voice can be true or false, and one person can speak with many voices. A true voice, in Smith’s world, speaks in the first person and can’t be mistaken for anyone else. A false voice speaks impersonally and sounds like anyone. Almost everything Smith writes makes a contrast between someone’s personal voice and the impersonality of all collective voices. Virginia Woolf, reviewing Hemingway in 1927, described people who speak in a fashionable slang—people “of an unreal type”—as seeming “much at their ease, and yet if we look at them a little from the shadow not at their ease at all, and, indeed, terribly afraid of being themselves, or they would say things simply in their natural voices.”


Repeatedly, the decisive moments in Smith’s novels occur when her characters become brave enough to speak in their natural voices. A stage direction in The Wife of Willesden describes personal voices and dictions bringing together self, speech, and truth:

We are surprised to find the women with the deepest thoughts are people we’ve hardly noticed up to now…. They all now stand to speak, and with an intensity that changes the atmosphere in the pub. They speak in their natural accents…but the words themselves seem to come from a transnational sacred text of rights and duties. These women are bearing witness to a truth.

The human being is, in Aristotle’s phrase, a social animal. Smith’s play, like much of her fiction, celebrates the collectivity that emerges among human beings who share a sense of place. In “The General Lock-In,” the framing scene at the start of the play that substitutes for Chaucer’s “General Prologue,” a character identified in the dramatis personae as the Author (“a brown woman in a headwrap”) sits in a quiet corner with her laptop and recalls:

We had all types of people in that night,
Young and old, rich and poor, black, brown and white—
But local: students, merchants, a bailiff,
People from church, temple, mosque, shul.

“But local.” The shared experience of something local has the effect of nurturing individual voices. Most of the play rewrites Chaucer, but Smith’s voice is what it speaks with throughout, and as in all her work a voice can bear witness to something “transnational” only by speaking in its local accent.

In a 2019 essay in these pages, “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction,” Smith quoted Whitman: “Reexamine all you have been told, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul.” She responded emphatically:

Full disclosure: what insults my soul is the idea—popular in the culture just now, and presented in widely variant degrees of complexity—that we can and should write only about people who are fundamentally “like” us.

One expression of that idea is the supposed offense of “cultural appropriation,” which, Smith observes, sounds very different if you call it something like “profound-other-fascination.” The whole idea of cultural identity is built on caricature:

What does it mean, after all, to say “A Bengali woman would never say that!” or “A gay man would never feel that!” or “A black woman would never do that!”? How can such things possibly be claimed absolutely, unless we already have some form of fixed caricature in our minds?

Smith’s essay dates from her years as a professor of creative writing, when her prose sometimes took its tone from the classrooms where students confronted her with such fantasies as “a belief that fiction can or should be the product of an absolute form of ‘correctness.’” These fantasies, she wrote, were driven by a “hubris of containment,” an authoritarian sense that you can impose constraining limits on your fictional characters because, in your pride, you believe you know all about the limits of real people who look like them. In Smith’s words, the fiction she admires is “the product of compassion” and speaks (in Auden’s phrase) with an “unconstraining voice.” Her Alvita is the product of a complex empathy with an Alyson who is simultaneously remote in Chaucer’s fourteenth century and local in the twenty-first, “a Kilburn girl at heart.”

The Canterbury Tales ends with “Chaucer’s Retraction,” his ironic plea* to be forgiven for his “worldly vanitees,” the unreligious poems and books that he names in an extended catalog of almost all his works: in effect, a recommended reading list for anyone seeking worldly vanitees in verse and prose. The Wife of Willesden ends with “A Retraction” in which the recessive character called the Author comes downstage to make her ironic “apologia to Brent, as a whole” for the offenses of her novels:

So: sorry for all the swearing and cultural appropriation in my first book [White Teeth]…And a bit more cultural appropriation and heresy in the second [The Autograph Man]…and the dodgy sex in the third [On Beauty]; um…the existential bleakness of the fourth [NW]…er…I could go on—

Alvita cuts this off with, “Hush up! Dance!” and, as the stage direction says, “The Author joins Alvita in a how-low-can-you-go dance-off as the lights fade.” In the theater, Clare Perkins drew the Author (played with sly wit by Jessica Murrain) and everyone else into the vortex of her energy. This brief exchange between Author and Alvita is one of many dialogues with herself that Smith conducts throughout her work, and the only one that ends happily.

Smith’s retraction lasts a few seconds onstage, and in the printed text seems little more than a send-up of the ritualized self-abasing apologies that current fashion demands from anyone who violates the latest cultural dogma. But, as she writes in a stage direction earlier, “we sense a more serious subtext beneath.” Everything that goes right for Alvita in the play goes wrong for the characters in the novels that Smith pretends to apologize for. Her retraction, like Chaucer’s, ironically affirms the truth of all it retracts. It sets her play’s comic celebratory vision against its more truthful obverse: the tragic satiric vision of her novels. What she pretends to call the “existential bleakness” of NW, for example, is in fact her clear-sighted sense of a moral universe where good and evil matter even if, as in the real world, they do not get the rewards and punishments they would get in a fairy tale.

Alvita wholeheartedly enjoys her freedom to be herself, a freedom that almost no one in Smith’s novels can imagine with enough clarity even to want it, and that the central characters in her later novels try desperately to avoid. In the comic universe of The Wife of Willesden, Alvita knows all about herself, and all her conflicts are with the world outside—where she always triumphs—not with herself. In Smith’s novels, as in the real world, all inwardness is more or less in conflict with its own self-doubt and with an outside world that is mostly indifferent and unconquerable. For Alvita, conflict ends when a husband submits to the truth that she knows already. “What’s best for you is clearly best for me,” as her current husband says. “Yes, my wife, I know now that you know best,” concludes the young man in her Jamaican tale.

In her introduction Smith writes in patois about Alvita: “She nah easy and she talk her mind.” In “Fascinated to Presume,” Smith writes of herself: “I do believe a writer’s task is to think for herself, although this task, to me, signifies not a fixed state but a continual process: thinking things afresh, each time, in each new situation.” Alvita is a fantasy figure partly because she never needs to rethink. She gets older, but she never changes, because no moral or emotional suffering provokes her to seek relief through change. In her world, even as four husbands die, no one gets seriously hurt and no one is cruel to her for more than one quickly regretted moment.

When Smith began to write novels, she reports, she asked herself, “Could I make the reader believe in the imaginary people I placed in these fictional situations?” She could only do so, she wrote, by presuming that “some of the feelings of these imaginary people…had some passing relation to feelings I have had or could imagine. That our griefs were not entirely unrelated.” The “intimate space of fiction” was for her a realm that made visible the “invisible griefs we might share, over and above our many manifest and significant differences.”

Those shared griefs are what make the world of her novels vivid and convincing. No matter how contrived some of the plots and incidents that shape that world can seem, its griefs are real. In the world of her play, grief is magically absent: even long-dead husbands join in the dance. Smith’s fiction invites a reader’s belief in the moral reality of her stories; her play insists that its story is unreal, that its triumphant Alvita is an invention jointly devised by Chaucer and Smith for their pleasure and ours. At the performance I attended, as the lights came up after the concluding dance, many in the audience (myself among them) burst into tears of joy. Those tears were mixed, I think, with tears of shared grief over a truth half-hidden in a play that its author only half-intended to write—that its dream of triumph can never come true.