Where are the English playwrights of today? I asked at the conclusion of my article on the English theatre.* When I came to London 10 months ago I was already painfully familiar with the struggle of the Australian playwright to get adequate representation in a moribund commercial theatre and a repertory movement which, though live enough, was almost exclusively dedicated to ‘classics’—ancient and modern. I expected to find things very different in England where there is not only a flourishing commercial stage but a vigorous repertory movement throughout the country of a high technical standard and sufficiently enterprising to give the worthwhile newcomer to dramatic writing a chance.
Yet John Parker, summing up the situation in The Stage, found himself compelled to say: ‘The year which has just closed can hardly be said to have produced many plays of distinction. The number of really good plays may indeed be counted on the fingers.’
The triviality, banality and lack of substance of London theatrical fare is attributed by some critics to the fact that the actor-manager is at the moment dominating the stage. Charles Landstone said in the New Theatre (June, 1949): ‘In the theatre dominated by Olivier, as in the theatre dominated by Garrick and Irving, there can, quite logically, be little OJ no room for the creative dramatist’. And after I had seen Christopher Fry’s verbally-scintillating trifle Venus Observed, presented by Laurence Olivier Productions, produced by Laurence Olivier, with Laurence Olivier in the leading role, I thought there was a great deal of truth in Landstone’s criticism. But Olivier imported Streetcar Named Desire, presented Antigone and The Skin of Our Teeth, so he is not afraid of experiment with contemporary plays or parts.
It would seem, then, that if the English stage is failing to fulfil the high functions of drama the fault must lie in some measure with the playwrights. Yet the playwrights certainly are writing. A spate of n ew scripts pours into managements. In an article in The Author on playwrights and the contemporary theatre, Ted Willis, himself a playwright, says: ‘The Arts Theatre reports that it receives 1000 script a year, the Embassy 500, and “Q” 300, and provincial repertories report similar numbers. “We would like to do some new plays”, one manager writes, “but where are the new ones worth doing?” “At least nine out of ten plays haven’t a glimmer,” wrote another. ‘
I am not alone in my comment that the plays of quality which are produced are importations, revivals or adaptations. Leading critics constantly bemoan the fact. The English dramatist has seemingly taken refuge in an ivory tower where he trifles With ‘upper-class’ tea-party emotions in ‘upper class’ drawing-room atmosphere.
Ivor Brown, of the Observer says: ‘T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry have gone of[ into poetry, which is one way out.’ Defenders of the drama constantly point to one or other to prove that a renaissance is on the way. But the trouble about present-day verse-drama is that it inflates, by its verbal felicity, ideas which, in plain prose, would be seen clearly for the trivialities they are.
Even the playwrights themselves have been drawn into the controversy.
Terrence Rattigan, author of many London successes, defending his own frothy productions, makes the incredible statement: ‘The trouble with the theatre today is not that so few writers refuse to look the facts of the present world in the face, but that so many refuse to look at anything else.’ James Bridie, whose two recent plays, Daphne Laureola and Mr. Gillie have little of the brilliance or penetration of his earlier ones condemns (unconsciously, I imagine) the depressing situation today when he writes: ‘We are lucky to have been set in the Shaw Era. We are on the point of moving into the era of Christopher Fry.’
And with his poet’s insight, Christopher Fry diagnoses—unknowingly, I am sure—the weakness of English drama when he says: ‘A playwright’s view of the contemporary world theatre is one with his view of the contemporary world’, for the majority of English playwrights seem to have no realistic view whatever of the world of today or yesterday.
Which brings us back to my title. What is wrong with the English playwright? I think Christopher Fry is right to carry his statement to its logical conclusion. What is wrong with the English drama is that the English playwright has no intelligible coherent view of the contemporary world. ‘Let us hide our heads in the silver sands of fantasy’ (to quote Ivor Brown), they seem to be crying, and their work, in consequence, is invertebrate, banal, lacking in significance, and deplorably cut to a pattern.
It is escapist. I am not using the term to mean solely that it does not deal With themes of social significance. That is one of its weaknesses. But, still graver, it avoids the conflict of the human character, of man with man, of man with the universe. Its characterisation seeks diversity in the eccentric rather than in essential humanity. It not only fails to come to grips with the conflicts of contemporary life (and the theatre that goes on doing that is doomed to sterility) but it dodges the real problems of the human mind and spirit. In this it is only a reflection of the general cultural attitude in England, in literature and music as well as the theatre. I feel that the English creative mind has lost its way in the post-war confusion and despair. But confusion and even despair need not necessarily defeat the creative artist. It hasn’t done so in other countries; nor in other times. Similar periods produced the poetry of Shelley and Byron, the vigorous and authentic drama of the early ‘thirties in the United States, and closer home, the literary revolt of French writers like Malraux, Aragon, Sartre and Anouilh. Anouilh, whose delightful bubble, Ring Around the Moon, a musical charade (at present running here), has more ‘reality’ and bite in it than all the pedestrian pseudo-sociological dramas which limp across the English stage.
Shaw said in 1898: ‘The theatre is growing in importance as a social organ. Bad theatres are as mischievous as bad schools or bad churches, for modern civilisation is rapidly multiplying the class to which the theatre is both school and church.’ (How much truer this is 52 years later!) ‘If we want theatres which shall be to the drama what the National Gallery and the British Museum are to painting and literature we can get it by endowing it in the same way.’
I think the position is even graver today. The National Theatre is a hope but would such a theatre merely have to encourage dramatists or would it have to create them? A distinguished critic says: ‘It has always been something of a mystery to me that the Arts Council spends so much on subsidising companies and tours, and therefore actors, managers and producer, and yet does nothing about the third leg of the theatrical tripod, the dramatist.’
I feel that creative genius in this country is not fulfilling itself at the moment because it is afraid to grapple with reality. It is skating on the surface. Nowhere does the bewilderment of the average man (whether expressed in terms of modern society or in a recapitulation of modern themes) find expression. Nowhere is the essentially tragic position of the British world given its tragic expression. A disintegrating Empire, a once-proud country now subservient to another (the 49th state!); a people who in revolt against conditions which had made the world war possible, voted overwhelmingly for fundamental domestic change and now, disillusioned, are retreating into fantasy and, graver still, defeatism; a war-sick people, fed ceaselessly on propaganda for another war. Their position is truly tragic, yet the stage reflects neither the social nor individual dilemma; neither the blind courage of endurance nor the repercussions of Imperial decay. The theatre gives no expression to the hope for the future that raises itself out of these existing conditions; raises itself in strange and unexpected places; a hope that foresees a future that will blossom out of the best of the old. It may take a Shakespeare or a Shaw to do it. But somewhere in that spate of scripts that pours in every year there is talent. Is it being given a chance?
Dymphna Cusack (1902 – 1981) was an Australian author and playwright.
* Meanjin, Vol. 9, No.1.