BBC Radio 7, 2 May 2009
This drama documentary recounted the experiences of a group of families crossing America in the late 1840s, focusing particularly on the women. For the most part their followed their husbands' bidding, even if it meant exposing themselves to various forms of privation. They endured their plight with a mixture of stoicism and cheerfulness.
The play took the form of a series of testimonies - each woman recounted their experiences and described their feelings at specific moments. Mostly they drew their strength from female solidarity - this helped them to cope with even the most extreme situations (hunger, the pain of childbirth). By comparison the menfolk seemed isolated - despite being the leaders of the group, they had no one to turn to in adversity. Dryden addressed contemporary concerns; if women challenge the status quo, they can achieve far better results if they form themselves into groups rather than striking out on their own.
Nonetheless Westward Journey posited a conservative view of gender: the males were dominant yet complacent, perceiving the journey as an excuse for heroics (as if they were acting out their colonialist fantasies). The women accepted their roles as subordinates, yet demonstrated the kind of practicality that held their families together. To buoy themselves up, they relied on their religious faith, coupled with an unshakeable optimism that light would emerge at the end of the tunnel. Sadly this was not to be. Seduced by the dream of unlimited wealth and prosperity, the men took the families to California in search of gold. Nothing came of this; and to make things even worse, the wagons which had served as temporary homes throughout the journey were destroyed. The women had nothing, sustained only by "restless spirit" and "hungry curiosity."
However Ned Chaillet suggested it was these qualities that helped these woman established a small community in the middle of the California desert, laying the foundations for the small town ethic that persists to this day. America only became great by the efforts of people like this, who selflessly dedicated themselves to progress without concern for personal comfort. Their story might have been painful, but we were left with the belief that dreams can be realized, even in the most adverse circumstances.
Dating from the mid-1990s, Westward Journey was inspiringly performed by a cast including Carolyn Jones, Tracy Ann Oberman and Marcia Warren (as a maternal Englishwoman caught up in the spirit of the occasion).