Centralia: Tales from a Small-Town Apocalypse

Some personal recollections

I first discovered Centralia a long time ago. I was reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, which may be my favorite of his many travel books – it is, at least, the one which has stayed with me the most. Centralia, the abandoned Pennsylvania town with an unending coal fire burning beneath its earthen skin, is part of the reason why. Beneath Bryson’s typically amiable tone and often hilarious anecdotes, there seemed a vein of melancholy always threatening to break through to the surface.  I found this deeply disconcerting at the time (I can’t have been older that 14 or 15), and back then I would have told you I much preferred Notes from a Small Island, or maybe Down Under.[1] But, for the life of me, I couldn’t dredge from my memory a single incident from either of those books. I remembered A Walk in the Woods though, and Bryson’s quixotic attempt to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail. And though I’d long forgotten the name, I remembered the story of Centralia.

An invitation

It turns out that I am far from the only person to have found the story of Centralia fascinating. On Friday, I received a text from my brother, asking if I wanted to see his friend Simon’s play. Look up Centralia by Superbolt Theatre, I was told. It’s happening at the George Tavern, near Shadwell. Having little else to do that evening, and less the following morning, I figured there was no good reason to decline. And, looking at the website, the memory of reading Bryson’s account slowly returned, and my curiosity was piqued. So I went.

A brief aside about The George Tavern: going inside is like walking into history. Not the dry, ordered history of a museum, or the choreographed pageantry of reenactment, but a living history. The building as it stands dates from the 17th Century, but the structure contains brickwork seven centuries old. Under its former name, The Halfway House, it was supposedly mentioned by Chaucer, and later by Samuel Pepys and Charles Dickens. More recently, it has become a renowned performance venue. Three years ago, an attempt to build a block of flats next to the Tavern was defeated by a popular campaign supported by such cultural luminaries as Sir Ian McKellen, Kate Moss and the late Amy Winehouse.

The play’s the thing

So I met up with Richard and a few of his other friends at the Tavern, and soon we ascended the narrow, crooked stairs  behind the bar to the Tavern’s performance venue. I was reminded of a school trip to a similar backroom stage, where we saw a surprisingly good gender-swapped version of The Tempest.[2] But that had managed to fit our entire class with room to spare. The George Tavern’s venue would struggle to do the same.

The small scale, however, was all part of the charm of the performance. And it was certainly charming. Superbolt Theatre’s fictionalised depiction of Centralia centers around four people who refused to leave, and each has their own quirky, distinctive voice.[3] There is Patrick, the town’s priest, proud of his untarnished church – and even more proud of his shoes. There is Jennyfer, who recalls the games her mother used to play with her, before she died  of carbon monoxide poisoning. There is Norman, whose wife left him rather than stay in Centralia. And there is Alister (played by Simon, my brother’s friend), who might be not so certain he wants to stay in Centralia.

Synecdoche, Pennsylvania

Quite ingeniously, the premise of the play is that these characters have all come to London to put on a show about their town. The more absurd elements of the production are, therefore, presented as an extension of these character’s eccentricities, rather than some sort of artistic expression the audience is just supposed to accept on its own terms – though the soundless sequence at the end of the play is something of an exception.

Nevertheless, this is metafiction done right: meeting the audience halfway and aiding their enjoyment of the performance, rather than being too sly and alienating. It asks us to accept the backroom venue of an old tavern as nothing other than the backroom venue of an old tavern, and while that might suggest a limited scope, or a lack of faith in the audience’s imagination, in truth it opens the way for the joyfully bizarre sequences which add to the play’s originality and sheer sense of fun. Never would I have thought that a man making car engine noises in the dark, with two torches serving for headlights, could have been so entertaining.

Tilting at coal fires

But for all the madcap silliness and zany musical numbers (oh yes, there’s a zany musical number or two), the play never forgets the essential tragedy of Centralia. It’s there when the characters cheerfully describe their daily routine of checking the town’s threat level. It’s there in the relationships that have been lost. And it’s there in the essential human failure to grasp the inevitable.



[1] Published in the U.S. under the title In a Sunburned Country.

[2] Prospera had an impressive stage presence. Mirundo (yes, really) was just too pathetic to sympathise with. I’m tempted to go on a rant about Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books here, but I’ll leave that for another day. Just … don’t watch it.

[3] According to the 2010 census, the actual population is 10. In 2000, it was 21, and in 1990, it was 63. Back at the height of the town’s coal mining days, it was populated by more than 2,000 people.


One response to “Centralia: Tales from a Small-Town Apocalypse

  1. Pingback: Sociolinguistics and Applied Paintball Tactics: ‘Community’ Season One « I'll Explain Later

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