Theater: The London Show

Americans might justifiably have presumed that the English would by now have tired of cheeky, schoolboy assaults on their moribund Establishment. Quite the contrary: nothing succeeds so much as attacking the very practices and conventions which had been tackled by Wilde and Shaw more than two generations ago. Equating the British Empire with original sin still seems refreshing in 1969. It would almost appear as if viciously condemning and mocking the meager remnants of Empire could provide a means of cleansing the present or even fortifying the future.
Hugh Leonard’s The Au Pair Man seems exactly such an irrelevant attack on the symbolism of long jaded glory. The setting is a large, crumbling mansion where a grand old lady named Elizabeth Rogers (Read E.R.: Elizabeth Regina) manages to preserve some relics of Edwardian splendor. As the door chimes play “God Save the Queen” it seems clear that this house stands for decaying Britain. E. R. is reputed to be exceptionally rich, but she steadily refuses to settle her accounts or even to pay the rent. Her creditors dispatch a young Irish bill collector to make her pay up. However, he quickly finds himself being taken on by E. R. as a majordomo. The Irish apparently are most willing to be taught the conventional graces. Obviously, the embrace of the privileged-class system is preferable to dreary, Wilsonian socialism.
Forty Years On, starring John Gielgud and his boys, brings back seventy years of British glory. It is a dirge to Old England. The author, Alan Bennett, waxes sentimental about the disappearance of the Victorian shadows, the passing of the literary renaissance at Bloomsbury, the endless dances of La Belle Epoque. Bennett presents these memories as a series of sketches built around the annual dramatic performance at a public school rather tritely called Albion House. Some of his skits are as crude as funny:
It was not to the family’s fancy
When Lord de Vere became a nancy
And so in order to protect him
They had tattoed upon his rectum:
The working, class must travel steerage
This passage is reserved for peerage.
With Parliament bogged down much of this spring in an endless debate on the reform of the House of Lords, Peter Barnes hoped that his The Ruling Class might deliver the coup de grace. There is no denying that this comedy is a brilliant sequence of gibes at the Establishment. One would have to search far afield for anyone who could flog an old horse better than Mr. Barnes—but then the British are renowned as flagellists. In the program note to The Ruling Class Barnes condemns “the deadly servitude of naturalism.” What he strives for is a dramatic reality of “opposites where everything is simultaneously tragic and ridiculous.”
The Ruling Class opens as the thirteenth Earl of Gurney, a hanging judge, is taking his evening exercise dressed in a tutu. He climbs a stepladder over his ancestral bed and puts the hangman’s noose around his neck. Usually this bit of eroticism is followed by a whiskey and soda. This time, however, he slips, and his butler finds him swiveling for real. He is succeeded by Jack, the fourteenth Earl of Gurney (superbly played by Derek Godfrey) . Jack is a certified lunatic who proclaims that he’s the Trinity. When asked why he thinks he is God, Gurney answers: “When I pray to Him I find I am talking to myself.” Indeed, while the cardtarrying Communist butler pours tea, his nibs raves happily from a wooden cross preaching love, sex, and tolerance. The ruling class, according to Barnes, rejects Gurney’s beatitudes as a cold, mean, greedy, and thoroughly self-absorbed group.
When confronted by another madman, a Scot who also believes himself to be God, the fourteenth Earl really goes mad. He remembers that there is also a God of wrath and transforms himself into Jack the Ripper, slashing away at the aristocratic Establishment. This time, however, he is regarded as eminently sane by society. Gurney, addressing the crutchand earphone-filled debating chamber of a decrepit House of Lords, denounces fornication and homosexuality. Eulogizing the hangman, Gurney is applauded by the honorable assemblage.
But what is Barnes really saying? The cornerstone of English society is certainly not the public hangman. And contrary to his derogatory satire, the Lords have been in the very forefront of reform: abolishing the death penalty and liberalizing the laws on homosexuality which the popularly elected chamber of Parliament was loath to discuss. The implication is that conservatism, or the safeguarding of the traditions of the past, is madness. If this is indeed Barnes’s message, then it is a grave oversimplification.
The critics hailed The Ruling Class as “uproariously funny.” They hardly seemed perturbed by the savagery of its neo-Jacobean ridicule. However, if Barnes had been attacking only a heraldic Britain which exists solely in tourist brochures, would the audiences have found it so funny? It seems anomalous that the upper-class attendance at the theater should titter so nervously about its social standing when darts have been thrown at it for so many decades. The welfare state is now a generation old, the Times is no longer the stuffy representative of a wooden culture. And yet Peter Barnes writes as if nothing had happened.
The Edward Bond festival at the Royal Court Theater on Sloane Square presented a more modern dramatic formulation of the same grievances. Bond is being lauded as the most important British playwright to emerge in the sixties. Bond is too sophisticated merely to harp on the Establishment’s greed or its hold on illusory privilege. But history, the glorification of England’s past and its tradition, is clearly one of his principal bogeys.
In Early Morning Bond unites a vulpine, lecherous Queen Victoria with a lesbian Florence Nightingale. “Call me Victor,” says the Queen. (To many, the curiosity value or attractiveness of this drama rests in the fact that it was the last play to be officially banned by the Lord Chamberlain.) Gladstone is transformed into a trade-union leader who teaches party members how to deliver below-the-belt punches. Disraeli plots with Prince Albert to kill the Queen. And Disraeli and Gladstone lead rival forces in a seemingly interminable civil war which rages until both sides (and the audience) collapse.
Early Morning is not a play about Victorian England. How then to reconcile these fanciful events with the playbill, in which the author proposes that “the events of this play are true”? Some critics have interpolated that Bond was simply satirizing the teaching of history as practiced in English grammar schools; that to the average boy or girl history is nothing but a parade of ridiculous clichés of which they can have no understanding. Bond’s history thus becomes as much of an obfuscation for the audience as the usual descriptions of civil war, for example, are for ten-year-olds. Bond would have the audience assume that his half-digested fairy tales are “truths” about the unreality of events. Like those two angels, Victoria and Albert, whom he portrays as cannibals in heaven, the public is assumed to be so carnivorous it will swallow anything.
Not only is Bond’s sense of the meaning of history off-balance, his sense of proportion seems seriously distorted. In the introduction to Saved, another of the plays presented at the Royal Court, Bond writes:
Clearly the stoning to death of a baby in a London park is typical English understatement. Compared to the “strategic” bombing of German towns it is a negligible atrocity, compared to the cultural and emotional deprivation of most of our children, its consequences are insignificant.
Perhaps the murder of an innocent baby is a good mechanism to convey a message to the public, but when Bond begins to make such moralistic evaluations, he is on dangerous ground.
In the Narrow Road to the Deep North, Bond continues to mix his historical metaphors to an even more disheartening degree. He coagulates cockney linguistics with Japanese condescension. Says Bond, who wrote this play in all of two and a half days (if one is to believe his sense of time) : “It’s set in Japan . . . about the 17th, 18th, or 19th Century.” Bond cheaply snatches the famed haiku poet Matsuo Bashō from the skeleton closet of history and proceeds to capitalize on his fame. He then manufactures two cliche figures, a British commodore and his “sister,” a prim evangelical matron. The first is used to caricature British Imperialism, the second to mock Christianity by means of outlandish hyperbole. Dramatically they are but weak, degenerate descendants of Lady Brit and Undershaft in Major Barbara.
Is Bond’s message that our attitude toward the past is a total distortion as well as an inappropriate way to approach the future? He apparently still sees modern England burdened by the tarnished robes of Victorianism, so he sets about ripping all the fig leaves off the national monuments. But then, stripping men and women of their clothes, real or symbolic, seems to be the essence of modern theater.
Documentary theater, on the other hand, seems both positive and full of genuine innovation. The only new genre to be developed on the English stage in over a decade, the documentaries grew out of Joan Littlewood’s 1963 production of Oh! What a Lovely War. The combination of song, slides, ballads, mime, film clips, historical readings, dialogue, and dance “is not like the consistent voice of the playwright,” explains Peter Cheeseman, the director of the Stoke-on-Trent theater. “It feels like life, it feels like history,” he says.
These documentaries are akin to community music-hall shows with a strong historical penchant. Often their structure is merely episodic. But the running themes attract the local miners and factory workers because they deal with their own, immediate past. The audiences really seem to identify, to be involved. Such a grass-roots approach appears infinitely more successful than the impressionist, if not surrealist, exploitation of historical material on the West End. The Knotty examines the way of life on the North Staffordshire Railroad. The Stirrings develops the strife-torn struggle for existence of the saw grinders in the 1860s. And Close the Coalhouse Door examines the rise of unionism in the Newcastle coal mines.
Alan Plater admits that Close the Coalhouse Door clearly shows the hundredweight of inherited prejudice. Plater started to write this documentary with the express aim of creating “an unqualified hymn of praise to the miners who created a revolutionary weapon without having a revolutionary intention.”Plater’s approach seems almost naïvely left-wing. His dialogue is earthy and full of local slang. And yet the message has impact:
Close the coalhouse door, lad,
There’s bones inside.
Mangled, splintered piles of bones
Buried ‘neath a mile of stones
And not a soul to hear the groans. . . .
Directors like Colin George and writers such as Plater may yet succeed in creating a new form for a genuinely popular theater. The documentary format has now spread to cover such events as the birth of the Yorkshire woolen and worsted industry, a history of British printing, Methodism and Wesley in the West Country—all staged in cities where the population closely identifies with these movements. References to local figures, pubs, houses, and other landmarks all engage community interest. The documentary playwrights are striving to give the public a sense of its own history. This format thus represents another aspect of the mood of retrospection which continues to rack the English stage. Rather than being heavy with drawing-room wit, the documentaries are filled with genuine concern. They are written out of a compulsion to explain the past so that ordinary working people can better understand their present predicament. The playwrights on the West End, however, regard any serious, straightforward examination of the past with disdain. They seem to believe that they must intentionally distort history as a provocation for their presumably upper-class audiences. However, the fault of this dramatic approach is currently revealed by the increasing weakness of the theatrical product.