Swans Commentary » swans.com July 18, 2005  



An Appreciation Of Christopher Fry: 1907-2005


by Charles Marowitz






(Swans - July 18, 2005)   In the early nineteen sixties when I was a callow youth enrolled in the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Christopher Fry was brought in to direct a group of students in a production of his play The Firstborn.

He was a slight, mild-mannered chap, always sucking on a curved pipe which never seemed to be lit, and thoroughly unobtrusive as a director. His system seemed to consist of constant repetitions of scenes followed by complete run-throughs of the entire play. One could see him delighting in the sound of his language as it cantered by. Rehearsal, to him, seemed to mean simply "practice." I once asked him if, in a particular scene, he could motivate an impulse from a fellow actor which would help me realize a moment of strong resistance I couldn't otherwise muster up. Even without that stimulus, he pointed out, I would be obliged to come up with the requisite emotion as "that was what acting was all about -- feeling things that weren't really there." Somehow the organic nature of rehearsals, the engendering of palpable feelings organically arrived at, was alien to his idea of theatre. I learned later that most of his directing had been with amateur and church groups and that neither Stanislavsky nor Strasberg, Brecht, or Artaud figured in his artistic calculations.

Another time, I asked him if he had visited France or Germany or any other European capitol. Sucking on the unlit pipe, he replied: "I'm more of what you might call a mental tourist." I didn't realize at the time that he suffered from vertigo and was terrified of air travel. When, during World War II, he was contemplating becoming a member of the Pioneer Corps fighting fires and bomb damage, he confessed to T.S. Eliot that he had "a horror of high places." Eliot's advice was "Specialize in basements!" I don't think the advice was ever taken.

Fry shot to prominence during that period in England when "poetic drama" was a passionate cri de coeur. Fronted by T.S. Eliot and less so by W.H. Auden, the call was for a return to "poetry in the theatre" -- but with a contemporary flourish. It was a movement that flared, fulminated, and then rapidly faded. Eliot was unquestionably its front-runner, but after Murder In The Cathedral and The Cocktail Party, the subsequent verse plays (i.e., A Family Reunion, The Confidential Clerk, etc.) seemed like wan, academic exercises in a language being artificially manufactured that lacked all the gusto and directness which we associated with the Elizabethans or Jacobean playwrights. It became clear that unless there was a snap, pop and crackle in poetic diction, "poetry in the theatre" was a little like "ballet in the public library" -- a whimsical expression of an antique art form that seemed somehow out of place in the venue in which it was being foisted.

One's attitude to contemporary verse drama remained skeptical until Fry's own The Lady's Not For Burning appeared in 1948 revealing a drive and eloquence that made the diction of neo-naturalistic (later kitchen sink) drama seem dry and pallid. A capering, muscular, playfully-complex kind of poetry set in a medieval period but nourished by disturbing memories of The Great War could, and did, re-fertilize the drama and remind us there was an intrinsic theatricality in juiced-up similes and metaphors that illuminated serious themes worth exploring.

In later works such as The Dark Is Light Enough and A Sleep of Prisoners, Fry's intoxication with Christianity and "things spiritual" dried up the jocosity which had capered through The Lady's Not For Burning and one sensed that the frustrations of not turning to the cloth (an early ambition of Fry's) had usurped his sense of secular joie de vivre. The later plays assumed the kind of sobriety we associate with Sunday sermons in poorly-heated English chapels.

After his notoriety in the early 1950s, Fry was swept off the stage by the so-called "new wave" and writers like John Osborne, Harold Pinter, and Arnold Wesker became the flavor of the next two decades. Fry more or less retired to his summer house near Chichester where he lovingly cultivated his garden and surfaced only when actively bidden to do so. Irving Wardle, the drama critic for The Times and The Independent, who was a close friend of Fry's for some fifteen years, recalls that the most revealing thing Fry ever told him was that he was only able to write when commissioned to do so. His last work, in 1999, was conjured up when the head of his old school in Bedford jokingly asked for a millennium play and Fry turned out A Ringing Of Bells about John Bunyan. After its production at the school it was done at the Royal National Theatre. His American reputation, apart from The Lady's Not For Burning, which is regularly revived, appears to be have been based only on the fact that he worked on the screenplay of Ben Hur.

When I was directing an updated version of A Lady's Not For Burning in Malibu about three years ago, I asked him to contribute some answers to a few questions which would be run as a program note. As they turned out to be some of the last words he wrote for public consumption, I include them here as part of what amounts to his last testament.

CM - I believe that the character of Thomas Mendip, the central male character in The Lady's Not For Burning, is based on certain observations of ex-servicemen you encountered in England after the First and Second World Wars.

CF - Yes, my boyhood memories of the Great War together with my 1904-44 memories of the Second World War are at the back of Mendip (and after the First World War, the tramps in their army greatcoats.) The horror that he has at mankind is real, not romantically assumed. There is a real battle between his love for Jennet (the alleged witch) and his reluctance to return to life.

CM - Was the character of "The Lady" in your play based on anyone in particular?

CF - Jennet was written for Pamela Brown, who had been in the company when I was directing at the Oxford Playhouse in 1940 and sprang from her, both as a person and an actress.

CM - I read recently that you attributed your interest in verse drama to Sir John Gielgud. Is that so?

CF - It was Gielgud's wonderful delivery of Richard II's great speech in his prison in Pomfrey Castle at the Old Vic in 1929 "I have been studying how I may compare/This prison where I live unto the world...." which seemed to give a path to my mind as I listened. The precision yet music of the way he moved through the speech, creating a world, which seemed to lift, for me, some of the fogs of my twenty-two year old mind.

CM - The great poetic revival of the '40s and '50s spearheaded by T. S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and yourself seems to have lapsed permanently. Do you think verse drama has any kind of future in the theatre?

CF - The future can't be predicted. It depends on who turns up. (There has been Tony Harrison more recently.) As poetry and prose make up the body of literature, the theatre has only a part of life without the two.

CM - When you contemplate "The Lady" today, some sixty years after its inception, what are your feelings?

CF - I don't know that I have any particularly.

I think Fry's last reply may have been a bit evasive. Irving Wardle reports that in his many talks with the poet-playwright: "Sooner or later the conversation would come back to some upcoming revival of "The Lady" -- (as he always referred to it) in Serbo-Croatian or some other spin-off from his heydays." I think he took great pride in the play whose wit and charm was constantly being rediscovered by one generation after another. If he had written nothing but The Lady's Not For Burning, Fry's place in the history of British theatre would be secure, and it is quite possible as time goes on and more and more spirituality seems to pervade our consciousness, there will be some unexpected reappraisals of many of the later plays, which now appear to be languishing in the archive.

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published July 18, 2005