Books March 2001

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The Clothes They Stood Up In

In this miniature portrait of a marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Ransome are forced to face the emptiness of their well-established lives when they return from the opera to find that all their furnishings, right down to the "lavatory brush," have been stolen. Sheltered Mrs. Ransome feels liberated to be suddenly relieved of the "paraphernalia"—cake stands and fish forks and guest towels—that "they had transported ... with them across thirty-two years of marriage to no purpose at all," and she discovers the delights of Indian grocery stores, bean-bag chairs, and TV. Mr. Ransome, unresilient and exacting, can't bend so easily to welcome the accoutrements of modern Britain. The playwright Alan Bennett's attention to concrete detail, and his depiction of contemporary life through Mrs. Ransome's unworldly eyes, make his scenes hilarious, but his vision, in which an empty marriage is replaced by talk-show sentiment, is hard. Bennett's wry take on long-enduring marriage and his satiric juxtaposition of society old and new, conservative and liberal, is a sweet tanged with moral judgment.

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