The Peripatetic Reviewer

by Edward Weeks
When the Chancellor of the Exchequer presents Britain’s annual budget to the House of Commons, it is traditional to coat the pill, which has been a rather bitter one since the end of World War II, with just enough sugar to assist the public’s swallowing. Britain’s production has not kept pace with that of its European competitors, West Germany in particular, and what with the unsettling nationalization of steel, the severe depression in the shipyards on the Clyde, which have been increasingly outbid by Japan, and the unions’ lethargic dependence on overtime for even a half-decent work week, the Labor government has had no choice, if it was to reduce the huge national debt, but to maintain its freeze of wage and price increases and the virtual prohibition of strikes. Thus this year’s budget was described in the press as “a standstill budget,” and the Chancellor was hard put to devise any fresh measures which would suggest even a liny incentive. Such palliatives as there were he spelled out with minute care in the House: divorcees with a dependent were granted an increase in their allotment of from £75 to £110, and the purchasers of motorbikes, bicycles, and tricycles on the installment plan had their credit extended from twenty-four to twenty-seven months. These were two of the five major “reliefs,” and they resulted in the following colloquy in the lobby following the debate.
Conservative member to a Labor backbencher: “Well, you’ve heard it all, and a fat lot of relief it means to any of us!” Labor member: “If you were a divorcee riding a tricycle, you wouldn’t mind.”
There was, however, one measure which caught my eye, and with gratification: English authors are at last permitted to spread their royalties on a new book over a period of six years instead of being forced into a high tax bracket in the first two productive years, with their earnings written off in taxation. This reasonable leniency was long overdue; indeed, the need for it has been recognized ever since the test case of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Miss Mitchell suffered from a bad back, and she began working On her novel at night when she could not sleep; it came to absorb her day and night, and, in all, the research and writing took seven years. Naturally she was appalled when the soaring sale of the hard-cover edition, the sale to the Book-of-theMonth Club, and the sale to the movies, all in the first two years after publication, forced her up into a tax bracket where the government took 90 cents out of every dollar of her royalties. Her lawyers applied for relief, pleading that at the least she should be permitted to spread her earnings over a period comparable with the time it had taken her to do the writing. They were refused, but the injustice was so patent that a subsequent ruling cancelled the punishment and made it possible for American authors to spread their royalties and to be taxed each year on the amount they designate. The heightened irony in Miss Mitchell’s case was, of course, that she never wrote another book.
Professional athletes have a star expectancy of about a dozen years and must earn their stake in that span. Authors have a longer period of creativity, but they are subject to long gaps between books when they are researching and inviting the spirit, and they have no contract with the public that their new book will be as popular as their last. The freedom to take their royalties in the form of an annuity gives them a protection in fallow periods which they well deserve.

Children of the future

THE EIGHTH DAY, Thornton Wilder’s novel (Harper & Row, $6.95), his first in nineteen years, is a diverse, highly speculative story which begins in Coaltown, a small mining community in Illinois, at the turn of the century. At a New Year’s Eve party in 1899 one of the town characters, Dr. Gillies, is asked what the new century will be like. In his Darwinian response he says, “Nature never sleeps. The process of life never stands still. . . . The Bible says that God created man on the sixth day and rested, but each of those days was many millions of years long. ... We are at the beginning of the second week. We are children of the eighth day.” From this speech the novelist has drawn the title of his book and its allegorical form, for this is a modern day Pilgrim’s Progress, pitting against each other the two leading families in Coaltown to show the growth, through suffering, which men and women of the twentieth century might attain.
The Eighth Day is triggered by the murder of Breckenridge Lansing, the director of the local mine, and a glad-hander who has been a tyrant with his wife and children. Shooting at target practice one Sunday afternoon in company with his assistant and best friend, John Ashley, Breckenridge is felled with a bullet in his brain. Coaltown is convulsed by the rumor that Ashley has been carrying on an affair with Mrs. Lansing: he is convicted on circumstantial evidence, and the subsurface venom of the community is turned emotionally upon Mrs. Ashley and her children, who up to this moment have been the best-liked family in town.
Ashley himself is saved from the electric chair by a masked posse who free him before he ever reaches the death cell; there is a national hue and cry, and at this point the story moves into high gear. Unlike Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, this novel is not confined to an actual occurrence; it is a work of sheer imagination, and it is the better for it.
Because this book is an allegory, the reader is expected to accept happenings in repeated defiance of what seems plausible. John Ashley, for instance, is one of those naturals in any community, a mechanic who can make things work. As the maintenance engineer of an almost exhausted coal mine, he has kept the operation going and in small ways has been a source of relief to a hundred families. Thus it is hard to believe that a man so respected could be so quickly reviled by those he helped. But, says the novelist, this is what happens when emotions have been inflamed by the national press. For many chapters we follow the adventures of Ashley, as under an alias he moves beyond recapture to New Orleans, to Mexico, and finally to the mining towns of Chile. These are wholly fascinating escapades in which Ashley is helped by extraordinary characters and in which his capacity to make things work again and again affords a temporary refuge.
Meantime, his wife, with the assistance of the stalwart daughter Sophia, has converted their home into a boardinghouse, and the two more talented children, Roger and Lily, are seeking a way out. Both
are determined to make money in Chicago, and Roger in his Horatio Alger ascent in journalism and Lily as she slaves and scrimps to train her voice for the concert hall have in themselves stories to tell quite as remarkable as that of their renegade father.
The flaw in the book is in the last third, where the denouement, and especially the evolution within the Lansing family, is too obviously stage-managed by Mr. Wilder. He has chosen to write his story in a style reminiscent of the early 1900s, with the novelist intruding to drop ciues and indulge in apostrophes when the spirit moves him. This mannerism is not easy to take at the outset, but we forget it in the excitement of following John Ashley and his children through their ordeals. But the Lansing’s are never so plausible. At a tense moment in the book, Mr. Wilder cuts back to show us the family antecedents in Hoboken, and the scenes there are good and lively. But the Lansings in Coaltown, the long torture that goes on between husband and wife, father and son, are a strain on one’s credulity. In most of what he does, George, the son, is preposterous; allegorically I suppose we should label him “the Sins of the Father.” It seems to me a pity that the ending should he so contrived, so lacking in the compulsion which the novel has when we are watching the Ashleys.

Enter, laughing

The humiliations of being a fat man have been wittily described by G. K. Chesterton and Cyril Connolly (“Imprisoned in every fat man,” wrote Connolly, “a thin one is wildly signalling to be let out”); the mortifications of an actor who might euphemistically be called “stout” have been delightfully set forth by ROBERT MORLEY in A RELUCTANT AUTOBIOGRAPHY (Simon and Schuster, $6.95), in the composition of which Mr. Morley has had the assistance of his friend and fellow playwright Sewell Stokes.
Robert Morley had been fat from the word go; his awkwardness and pudginess invited the caning which drummed on him at Wellington, and when he was a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and had secured his first professional part, that of a pirate in Treasure Island, his avoirdupois was too much for the spotlight. “At the dress rehearsal,”he writes, “I invented some business whereby as I lay on the stage a dagger suddenly fell from my lifeless hand while Arthur Bourchier [the leading man] was reading a letter. His wife, who was sitting out front, was not having any part of it, however. ‘Arthur,’ she called out to him, ‘move that fat boy away from the gun, the one who dropped the knife. He spoils the picture.’ ” As a protection for the ego against such indignities, Mr. Morley has built up a bravura which made him in the part of Oscar Wilde as outrageously clever as the real thing. In what he writes as in what he says, he is defiant, perspicacious, and very funny, and we must be grateful to Mr. Stokes for having caught with such a true ear the full verbal play of this vastly entertaining man.
In every play in which I have seen him, in Chekhov, in the Oscar Wilde, in Edward, My Son, it is hard to look at anyone else when Robert Morley is on stage, and in reading him, there is an irresistible temptation to stop and quote the witticisms to anyone within earshot. Some of this book is in dialogue form, some of it written directly by Mr. Morley in the Colt House, his tiny workshop set at a discreet distance from his country house. I particularly enjoyed his account of New York in the year he scored his greatest success in the play Oscar Wilde, written by the brothers Leslie and Sewell Stokes. Sewell had come along to see it through rehearsals, and convinced that it would fail, had taken the cheapest possible bedroom, where he remained during the live months of his visit. “I suppose,” Morley remarked to him on one occasion, “that if the play runs a year you will finally take a bedroom with a window?” And again, “While I basked in the success of Wilde on Broadway, Sewell never seemed anxious to share the limelight. We resembled a pair of bears in a zoological enclosure, one forever parading, catching the buns and treacle tins and turning somersaults; the other only occasionally discernible in the shadows of the artificial lair provided by the authorities.”
In describing a somewhat airy teacher of his at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts lie writes: “She looked like an Edith Sitwell from whom the works had been removed.”
I enjoy Mr. Morley’s friendships with Peggy Ashcroft, Tyrone Guthrie, and Humphrey Bogart; I share in his unfortunate fever at the gaming tables; and I greatly relish the acumen, the affection with which he depicts his home life, first with his gay, improvident father, a kind of English W. C. Fields, and then when lie himself, imperious and self-aware, is master of the manor. As laughable and intelligent a book about the theater as we have had since Sacha Guitry.

The new executive

Clarence Randall speaks as a cultivated and resourceful American, and wonder among wonders, as a businessman who not only does his homework but writes his own copy. In THE EXECUTIVE IN TRANSITION
(McGraw-Hill, $5.95) Mr. Randall is addressing himself to industrialists in that crucial age bracket between forty and sixty-five, crucial because it is in this span that the younger men move up from department head to president of the company, or as some think it, into that polite decline from the presidency to the chairman of the board, and beyond. Because Randall has made all these turns, from corporation lawyer to being president of Inland Steel and turning again from the presidency into a new career, his words have the bite of experience and the vivacity of one who was never too old to learn. He is right when he speaks of the Executive as being constantly in transition: a man marked for high place in American industry has first to assimilate the knowledge of the whole; in effect, learn how to play every instrument in the band; and then, when promotion has come his way, he has to learn the equally hard lesson of how to delegate. These are matters which Mr. Randall discusses with authority in chapters 1, 2, and 6 of his penetrating little book.

What lies beyond the horizon of age sixty-five forms the substance of his last three chapters. This arbitrary date is no longer a time for decrepit departure, and as he discusses the Executive and the new horizons, the Executive and his conscience, the Executive and his private life, Randall points up opportunities such as those which beckoned him into the Eisenhower Administration, and such as those that will invite any eager man into his second career.