Older dramatists such as G.B. Shaw, Sean O'Casey, James Barrie, John Galsworthy, J.B. Priestley, and Somerset Maugham kept writing plays up to the 1940's. But the language and the themes in drama are bound to change with the passing of time. Most plays depend on the spoken or colloquial language; and changes in this field are unpredictable.
The Attempt to Revive Poetic Drama:
"Murder in the Cathedral"
"Murder in the Cathedral"
Drama following the First World War made little headway until the 1930's. An attempt was made to revive poetic drama by T.S. Eliot (who was an American settled in England). Eliot wrote verse-plays between the thirties and the fifties of this century. His first full-length play was Murder in the Cathedral (1935). This was followed by The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1950), The Confidential Clerk (1954), and The Elder Statesman (1959). Murder in the Cathedral is the story of Thomas a Beckett, the poor 12th-century boy who rose to be Chancellor of England and Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas then rejected his King's, Henry II's, authority in favour of Rome. Underneath this story lies the image of a strong spirit seeking to resist the temptation to gain martyrdom's sainthood through pride and ambition.
"The Family Reunion"
Since 1922, when his long poem The Waste Land was published, Eliot had become the literary spokesman of a generation which had temporarily lost its way. In days of severe unemployment in Britain, Eliot had stated causes, as in The Rock (1934):
Men have left God and this has never happened before...what have we to do
But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards
In an age which advances progressively backwards?
All Eliot's plays are, at their core, religious and didactic. In The Family Reunion, Harry (Lord Monchensey) arrives home haunted by his suspicion that he has pushed his wife overboard on the voyage. He is pursued by the "Furies". His father has loved his mother's sister and had wished to murder Harry's mother. Now, when Harry's mother wishes Harry to accept the responsibility for the family estate, Harry sets out on travels again. It is rather difficult to see why a father's wish, which had not really been carried out, should have power to cause a son to imagine that he himself has committed a murder. Nor has the dramatist made it clear whether Harry has really murdered his wife.
"The Cocktail Party"
In The Cocktail Party, a nagging wife and her faithless husband await guests. The guests include a strange, priest-like psychiatrist and Celia, the husband's mistress. With the psychiatrist's help, the husband and the wife at the end of the play settle down to casual talk by the fire:
Two people who know they will never understand each other,
Breeding children whom they do not understand
And who will never understand them.
Breeding children whom they do not understand
And who will never understand them.
The mistress, Celia, becomes a missionary in order to atone for her guilt and is murdered by savages, and we are faced with the problem of the usefulness of Celia's atonement.
Between 1918 and 1940 W.B. Yeats's verse-plays became known chiefly to scholars. Among the plays of Christopher Fry are A Phoenix Too Frequent (1946) and The Lady's Not For Burning (1949). Fry's plays deal with themes of goodness in a scabrous world. His verse glitters and scintillates with ornamental words. It reminds us of John Lyly's Euphues or Shakespeare's euphuistic early comedies.
W.H. Auden's and Christopher Isherwood's The Ascent of F6 (1936) is a youthful, Freud-inspired play about the corroding need of a son to live up to the parental ambition for him. The plays of Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice are socialist and political. Norman Nicholson wrote The Old Man of the Mountains (1946), Prophecy to the Wind (1950), A Match for the Devil (1955), and Birth by Drowning (1960).
The Failure of the Revival
The attempt to revive verse-drama lapsed. After the death of Shaw and Synge, Sean O'Casey, the most considerable Western communist dramatist, continued to write plays in prose.
Among those who have served the British theatre with much skill and success is Terence Rattigan (born 1911). He began with a successful farce French Without Tears (1936), but his most reputable plays were studies of character and social situations such as The Browning Version (1948), The Deep Blue Sea (1952), and Separate Tables (1954). When he attempted a more ambitious play on the theme of Alexander the Great, he did not succeed. Probably he was at his best in Separate Tables where he analyses a group of characters, all clearly if some- what obviously drawn, in the life of an English boarding-house. Mention may also be made of The Winslow Boy which deals with the rights of an individual in a democratic society and which has been described as a serious comedy.
Beckett's, the First of the Newer Voices in Drama
Samuel Beckett's was the first of the newer voices in drama. He may be described as the last dramatist in the Gaelic dramatic revival of the close of the 19th century and the first dramatist in the 20th century. His best-known plays are Waiting for Godot (1952 in French, and 1956, translated into English), All That Fall (1957), Endgame (1957-58), and Krapp's Last Tape (1959). In Waiting For Godot, two tramps, Didi and Gogo, mutually incapable of leaving each other, wait at some undefined roadside for an unknown who has promised to come. Pozzo enters, a cruel master, pulling his slave, Lucky, on a rope. They, too, are tied to each other by more than a rope. On their next entry, Pozzo though still a tyrant has become blind. Little else happens—except that a small boy comes to tell Didi and Gogo that Godot is not coming. The play leaves Didi and Gogo at the end, still waiting.
The Meaning of "Waiting for Godot"
But whom or what are they waiting for? What is the meaning of this play? Only a guess can be made. The play seems to convey a sense of the 20th century man, bound, fettered, irrationally and still primitively cruel, ignorantly quarrelsome towards his fellows, his speech incapable of communicating, lost because he no longer feels sure about any end or purpose for himself on this earth. Perhaps the play seems to say that men have substituted their own too finite end for what once they had faith in. Perhaps the play tells us that men are only now beginning to perceive the savagery of their scientific affluence, or that men are growing aware of their dissatisfactions through threats of their own making. Some take Waiting for Godot, as all Beckett's plays, to contain a sense of the hilariously comic; while others regard this play as one of an unutterable hopeless hope.
Beckett's Contribution to the British Theatre
This mingling of comedy and tragedy is Beckett's way of meeting the challenge of the age's new science, violence, confusion, self-alienation, and sense of time as non-perfecting. The mind reels before all this in neurosis. Yet comedy and tragedy have always been equally part of daily life; and life has never lacked joy and fun and threat and agony. Beckett has interwoven all these in this play. The dialogue is clipped, staccato, threadbare, repetitive. This sparser and sparser rubric of lost certainties is Beckett's contribution to the British theatre and to his century's abandonment of the previous concept of steady "'progress". His plays have inspired younger dramatists.
The Portrayal of Jimmy Porter in "Look Back in Anger"
Another important event was the production of Look Back in Anger by John Osborne in 1956. This play provided the basis for the label "Angry Young Men" for Osborne's generation which included novelists like Kingsley Amis and Alan Sillitoe. The angry young men were voicing the resentment of the youth of the post-atom-bomb world. The hero, or non-hero, of Look Back in Anger is a man called Jimmy Porter who is a product of that world. His father—like so many others of his generation—had died in the war. Jimmy feels himself condemned to mediocrity. Justly or unjustly he feels himself better than, but helpless under the conditions he sees thrust at him in the rat-race conscious press and radio. He is nihilistically critical of self-righteous religion and of bland, non-comprehending moralism; and he sees all this around him. He talks, but he remains passive and inert. He cannot direct his relationship with his young wife Alison who has come from the liberal better-off class whom his frustration makes him regard as sententious and false. Unfaithful, he drives his wife to an abortion. On her return, ill and abjectly submissive, they are left playing with toys like the children we must suppose they still are. The ending of this powerful play leaves a queasiness which was no doubt intended by the author. The whole is a brilliant analysis of the postwar generations. More affluence, wider education, but no less crude industrial work, which means mental slavery for the millions, do not offer a satisfying life. At once threatened and materially indulged, the impulse of the young towards maturity is delayed. The play's problem revives in modern form that old crux visible in literature over the centuries—how to achieve true human maturity.
In 1961 Osborne's play Luther was produced. This play owes much to the great German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, and his play Galileo written in 1943. Both Luther and Galileo are re-assessments of past great men's characters. History often changes and distorts the character of a great man, as in the case of Richard III of England. Brecht showed Galileo as selfish, hypocritical, and sycophantic towards those who, he thought, could harm him; towards the end of his life he becomes a lonely glutton. We, however, would like to imagine Galileo as a brave thinker who stoutly defends his scientific discovery that the Earth went round the sun. Thus the historical picture of the man is at variance with his personal character. In the case of Luther, Osborne shows that chronic constipation, epilepsy, and sweat determined that man's bodily and also his mental condition. Two other plays by Osborne (The Entertainer and The World of Paul Slickey) contain slashing attacks on British social and political life.
Harold Pinter: "The Caretaker"
An important name in modern drama is that of Harold Pinter (born 1930). His best-known play is The Caretaker (1960) which reminds us of Waiting for Godot because very little happens in it. There are three characters: Mick who shares a junk-room with his brother Aston, the latter having received treatment in a mental hospital. Aston is "cured" but reduced as a human being. The third character is Davies, a tramp. Davies sees his chance of a roof over his head when Mick offers him a job of caretaker of the room and looking after Aston. The dialogue, their conversation, has a quality of the great Russian dramatist, Chekhov: the speakers do not answer each other so much as pursue their own track of thought. It has been suggested that this play is a study of schizophrenia, the brothers being the two halves of one person. Pinter denied that he had any such intention; and schizophrenia is not, in any case, a neat Jekyll-and-Hyde state of affairs. Certainly the play stands on the simplest level. Its chief irony, which is also the point of the play, is that the only character to show any sign of charity is Aston, the "mentally deranged" brother who has undergone shock treatment of the brain—an operation which has the effect of diminishing a man's will and ambition.
"The Birthday Party"
Pinter's first play was The Birthday Party (1958). It is a neurotic study of the pressure towards conformity brought to bear on a second-rate young artist, Stanley, who has opted out of material success and responsibility. Two mysterious visitors arrive to remove Stanley from the boarding house where he is sponging off a warm-hearted and motherly landlady. Together they use all the tactics of third-degree interrogation on the miserable Stanley until he breaks down. They then dress him in a respectable dark suit and take him away. Pinter seems to have been influenced by Ionesco and Beckett in the writing of this play.
Arnold Wesker: a Trilogy
Arnold Wesker (born 1932) is in many ways the exact opposite of John Osborne (born 1929). A remarkable feature of Wesker's highly controlled trilogy is the large quantity of direct moralizing which the three plays contain. Chicken Soup with Barley (1958), Roots (1959), I'm Talking about Jerusalem (1960) seem at first to make up a trilogy only in the very loose sense that each play in some way involves Ronnie Kahn. In Chicken Soup with Barley, Ronnie grows up in a family of English communists. The first scene is set in 1936, the last in 1956; and the play contains excellently the change from idealism to disillusionment, from the Spanish Civil War to the Hungarian Uprising, while the characters themselves change from young revolutionaries to middle-aged petty capitalists. In Roots, Ronnie takes part only as an influence; it is the story of a working class Norfolk girl who is in love with Ronnie who tries to educate her and fill her, with his own ideas. Ronnie, despite his idealistic talk of creating a new human being in her, suddenly drops her. But the play ends more hopefully than Wesker's others, for the shock jolts the girl, Beatie, into finding a voice of her own. In its own harsh and accidental way the "education" has worked. I'm Talking about Jerusalem shows Ronnie's sister and brother-in-law trying to earn their livelihood by producing handmade furniture in a ramshackle Norfolk house—the family as a socialist unit. They fail for two reasons: first, opting out of a modern industrial society is impracticable; and secondly there is a considerable gap between Dave Simmonds's ideals and his actual way of life. He loses his first job as a carpenter because he takes a bundle of old linoleum belonging to his employer and then denies having done so. This gap between idealism and practice is central to all these three plays, and the sense in which they can lay most claim to the title of trilogy is as three different and, in general, disillusioning experiments in practical socialism.
Wesker's first play, The Kitchen, dramatizes effectively the hot and noisy routine of work in the kitchen of a large restaurant. This kitchen provides an easy analogy for hectic modern life in an industrial community, but Wesker spoils his play by underlining the morale with literary insistence. One of the chefs tells an excellent story of a bus-driver and a peace-march. Its message about people's narrow-mindedness is unmistakable, but the chef goes on to point it out with such literary phrases as: "what makes me so sick with terror is". The Kitchen was based on Wesker's experiences as a pastry-cook, and the character of Ronnie Kahn seems directly autobiographical. Other important plays by Wesker are Roots and Chips with Everything. Roots is a movingly sympathetic play about the intense desire in most working families to acquire more knowledge, more culture, more being.
John Arden's Plays
John Arden (born 1931) is also fiercely committed. He is strongly critical of post 1945, post-Empire Britain. He is a socialist and an intellectual, and his plays—The Waters of Babylon (1957), Live Like Pigs (1958), Sergeant Musgrave's Dance (1959), and The Happy Haven (1960)—were all produced at the experimental
in Royal Court Theatre . Live Like Pigs is about a family of semi-gipsies who are moved into a council house on a new estate. Their colourfully amoral behaviour outrages the decent neighbours. The play can be regarded as an allegory of the rebel in society, but its real appeal comes from the picaresque characters and their richly vivid language. Sergeant Musgrave's Dance has a much more powerful theme. It attacks the horrors of war and industrial or colonial exploitation, but its deepest protest is against any totalitarian method of ending these injustices. It is a deeply thoughtful play, and the thought is fully dramatized. Arden's language, characters, and scenes burst with a harsh life which seems entirely spontaneous, but the play suffers from obscurity which was responsible for the failure on the London stage. The Happy Heaven is about a home for old people where the doctor incharge is inventing, secretly, an elixir to make them young again. But of course they do not want, and are not told how, to be young again. They discover what he is up to, and administer to him his own elixir as a result of which he is reduced to a foolish child. John Arden intended The Happy Heaven to be performed in masks, on an "open stage". He wants to open out the modern dramatic convention: perhaps to allow, as in Shakespeare's theatre, an audience to take more part. Masks, according to Arden, may have much use in the theatre. They bring to mind medieval morality and miracle plays. They also suggest present-day African masked plays where the audience participates in the performance. London
In 1951 John Whiting (1917-1963) won a prize for his play called Saint's Day which dealt, in a manner top-heavy with symbol and coincidence, with the subject of a man who disastrously puts his own sense of purpose before personal relationships. Three years later Whiting treated the same theme much more successfully in Marching Song (1954). But this play failed in London, and for several years Whiting seemed to have renounced play-writing till he broke his silence with The Devils (1961) which was an adaptation of Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudun. In it Whiting's use of the language took a large step forward. He now used words and images with the precision of a jeweller to define character and mood. However, the play has several faults. The comic and tragic elements tend to dissipate rather than to heighten each other, and much of the dialogue seems too carefully planned. But the chief faults derive directly from the historical story.
Brenden Behan: "The Quare Fellow"
From John Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in London, emerged two dramatists—Brenden Behan (born 1923) and Shelagh Delaney (born 1939). Behan's The Quare Fellow (1956) was a dark comedy in which a man is due to be hanged. We never see this "quare fellow" but his presence in the jail dominates the whole play. The scenes are sometimes gruesome and often funny, but they are always relevant to the central situation.
Behan's second play, The Hostage (1959), is admirable entertainment. Superficially it resembles the early O'Casey in its setting and in its farcical treatment of a tragic subject—the I.R.A. capture of a British soldier as a hostage for an Irish boy sentenced to death. But O'Casey's brilliance lay in the warm reality of his frightened characters caught up in dangerous times. By contrast, Behan's are mere comic ciphers. His bagpipe-playing patriot, his "camp" homosexual, and his Salvation Army women are mere figures of fun beside Joxer and the Paycock.
Shelagh Delaney: "A Taste of Honey"
Shelagh Delaney's first play, A Taste of Honey (1958) is the story of a devil-may-care young girl, the daughter of a brassy near-prostitute; she has a very brief affair with a negro sailor (Prince Ossini, in her memory afterwards), becomes pregnant, is protected by a young gentle homosexual, has frequent quarrels with her mother and her mother's bounder of a husband and so drifts on through several months of her life till the play ends. The play's merit is its vitality. It is a play in which every character exists only in terms of his or her emotional relationship with the heroine. It is perhaps this more than anything else which accounts for the tight consistency of texture.
"The Lion in Love"
Miss Delaney's second play was The Lion in Love (1960). Though it centres on an unhappy married couple and their family, there are also a prostitute and her pimp, two gossiping neighbours, and even a sandwich-board evangelist, who all drift through the action merely for comic effect. Even worse, random jokes are included which are completely out of context and character.
The Plays of Robert Bolt. Robert Bolt (born 1924) is the least individual of these new playwrights. His work is characterized by an obvious seriousness of intention and by an efficient use of symbol and imagery to achieve this intention: otherwise, there is little to suggest that The Flowering Cherry (1957), A Man for all Seasons (1960), and The Tiger and the Horse (also 1960) come from the same pen. The Flowering
Cherry is perhaps the most successful within its own limits. It is the story of a suburban commuter whose dream is of the strong, simple country life. He is convinced that he would become a new man if he could sell everything and grow an apple orchard, but when the opportunity comes he is afraid to take it. The Tiger and the Horse is a cold, intellectual play whose message, paradoxically, is the importance of emotion. Bolt's most widely esteemed play is A Man for all Seasons. Since its central character is Sir Thomas More and its subject integrity, it aims high. But it is a play with little modern relevance though it is skilfully written.