Commentary Magazine

Staging England's Decline

The English theater’s formula for success seems to be a combination of modest plays and superb acting. It takes relatively little dramatizing to bring a subject to the London stage: history, autobiography, memoirs, and letters serve quite as well as formal plays do, thanks to the actors. During a week spent going to the theater in London this past winter, for example, it was possible to see dramatized versions of Sarah Bernhardt’s life, Groucho Marx’s letters, Robert Lowell’s poems, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, two Agatha Christie mystery novels (in addition to the famous Mousetrap), and a dramatic version of a recent London strike. Together with revivals, which are also carried mainly by the skill of the actors, such dramatizations make up the staple of the London theater.

But if British plays lack the ambition to be great, they do have a way of reflecting the social and intellectual currents of the day—and from the choice of plays being revived out of the past, together with the talk of characters in contemporary plays, we may learn a good deal about how life looks to the highly educated Englishman at present.

A few years ago, the university setting offered playwrights a vantage point for exploring the disillusion that followed the upheavals of the 60’s. Newly prosperous academics shared with the rich, who had previously dominated the comedy of manners, both limitless freedom to cultivate the self and a certain accompanying feeling of idleness and unfulfillment. Simon Gray’s Butley caught the early 70’s mood perfectly. The unfocused bitterness of the main character may have been traceable to a bad case of middle-aged disappointment, but it showed up British society, the object of all his bitterness, as rather middle-aged and scruffy itself. Gray’s new play, Otherwise Engaged, which opened in New York this year, takes matters a step further, and in the process captures an element of the new mood. The hero of Otherwise Engaged would rather not hear just now about the problems of private life or of society.

Gray’s fellow playwrights seem to share with him the sense that there is no longer anything much to be done about the way things are going in England. This is felt, I believe, even by the “protest” playwrights in the theater of the Left. They have staked out for themselves a very clearly defined position in British cultural life as celebrators of the strike, the prison, and the Third World. Even though their advocacy apparently represents the very opposite of Gray’s quietism, it too betrays a certain helplessness before history. Like London protest meetings these days, which are chiefly preoccupied with injustices far from home—“Repression in Ethiopia,” “Medical Aid for Victims of War in Zimbabwe and Namibia,” “Solidarity With the Metal Workers Strike in Turkey”—the theater of the Left does little more than bathe itself in pity for the downtrodden.



Indeed, such social criticism as exists in the British theater is likely to be found outside the realm of politics, narrowly defined, and to carry with it considerably more affection for England’s weaknesses than for its strengths. In Julian Mitchell’s Half Life, for example, John Gielgud plays a seventy-six-year-old, independently wealthy, former Oxford don and archeologist. He is brutally direct and insulting to guests, and unremittingly iconoclastic about science, society, and the future. He is, in short (except for his despair over the future), the conventional stage hero of Shavian comedy, and his ideas are essentially no different from those of the protagonist, John Tanner, in the production of Shaw’s Man and Superman playing just across the Thames. Both characters are dedicated to exposing the hypocrisies of English society, especially its shallow view of women and its delusion that the upper classes control the lower.

In Man and Superman, John Tanner protests to all who will listen that he is not the master but the slave of his driver-mechanic, who may leave him at any moment for other work; the driver, unlike his master, has been fitted for the technological future by a polytechnic education. In Half Life, the Gielgud character is similarly dependent on his manservant, whom he met during the war, and he too shows up his own class as less wise and less competent than its servants. At the end, in fact, we learn that rather than leaving his money to Oxford, he has willed it all to the servant.

This last note represents something of a departure from literary tradition. For Shaw, amusing talk about class was one thing; failure to perpetuate one’s own social class was quite another. However much they railed against British society, Shaw and his wealthy fellow radicals sensed the country’s vigor, which at that time derived from its military power and its industrial capacity. These made possible a leisured class which could afford to be critical of society, and insured that at its most caustic this class would remain identified with the country it attacked. Thus, it is John Tanner who tells the shocked old conservative in Man and Superman that England will survive very well despite his disapproval. In the contemporary theater, such confidence has quite disappeared. England, it has come to seem, may not get along so well after all; the don’s bequest to his servant in Half Life wearily recognizes, and wearily acquiesces in, England’s coming egalitarianism.

If the dramatic resuscitation of the able-servant/dependent-master theme suggests the sense of resignation with which Englishmen today regard their classless future, it also suggests a genuine fondness for the past. In Wild Oats, an 18th-century play now being revived in London, the master shouts at his man for sitting down in front of him, and gets a saucy reply. In Man and Superman, John Tanner amusedly calls attention to the independence of his driver, who displays his impudence by leaning against the car in the presence of ladies. In Half Life, the master and servant sit cozily side by side as the master apologizes for a last-minute change in the number of dinner guests. One sees in these instances the ongoing transformation of class relations in England and, in the nostalgia that is evoked, a real affection for the arrangements of the past.

And yet the nostalgia is not simply for the old arrangements. It is rather, I would say, a nostalgia for England itself as it once was. If the old social arrangements were unfair, they were, these plays seem to be saying, basically tolerant and humane. In the past one could poke fun at the conventions of society, secure in the knowledge that they were stable and enduring. Now, one does so as a wan gesture of hope that somehow the basic decency of English society may survive.

In another respect, too, the present English nostalgia goes deeper than a political wish. How deep, is evident in the way audiences positively revel in the triumph of breeding that is always part of the master-servant relationship. Jack Rover, the impecunious, itinerant actor in Wild Oats, delights us by succeeding, through wit and intrepidity, in winning the beautiful and wealthy maiden intended for the son of a lord. But we take additional satisfaction when it turns out that he himself possesses noble birth to go with his good looks and charm. He is, we learn, a natural son of the very same Sir George Thunder whose legitimate son has been the girl’s other suitor. That Sir George is an overbearing, brutal snob (albeit one with good qualities as well) in no way undermines the Tightness of the outcome. True aristocracy is sullied only in part by its social defects.

Freud pointed out that we all, as children, have dreamed or fantasized that we came from a different set of natural parents—parents of more distinguished birth than our real ones. The heroes and heroines of fairy tales are thus like ourselves in living, unrecognized and in obscure circumstances, for the magic moment when—as with the hero of Wild Oats—their true nobility is suddenly revealed. The pleasure we take in this development, each time it is repeated in literature, is too profound, somehow, to be ascribed to simple snobbery, though it does certainly imply some deep-seated instinct of conservatism. Perhaps this is why the fusty old conservatives in these English plays start out as objects of satire yet end up as tolerable and even lovable types. England may not need their opinions, but it remains charmed by their persons.



The Old Country, by Alan Bennett, reverses these conservative stage conventions, and so it too at first appears to depart from the prevailing mood. The hero, played by Alec Guinness, has been a radical, indeed the ultimate radical—a spy for the Russians who has defected from England and gone to live in the USSR. When the play opens, the hero’s sister and brother-in-law are visiting him at his dacha in an effort to persuade him to return to England, where token punishment and a pardon await him. The brother-in-law’s position as a representative of the Establishment is further enhanced by his having recently been knighted, a circumstance which makes him the initial target of the play’s humor (rather like the old don in Half Life, who has also just been knighted).

As the argument proceeds, however, the upper-class brother-in-law and his wife, who have come to praise England, almost succeed in burying it. The most the new knight can say in England’s defense is that it is now possible to get a decent meal in London, since there are finally a few good (foreign) restaurants there. The wife, in turn, tells of having witnessed a man urinating in Jermyn Street, from which event she adduces the end of Western civilization. And she has a few racist quips to offer as well: the zoos are frequented by people who come from the same countries as the animals, etc.

It remains for the character played by Guinness, the stage descendant of the radical John Tanner, to serve as sentimental champion of the old English verities. He works for the Soviet state, yet he spends his time listening to Elgar on the phonograph and apprehensively searching the London Times for signs of change in his homeland. He objects (in an ironical-serious mode) to liberalizations in the Anglican service, carries on over the imminent closing of the Lyons tea-house chain, and nostalgically describes how he fell in love with the tacky houses and shops of the London suburbs while in the course of handing over government secrets on his espionage assignments in those precincts.

The play treats Soviet society rather mildly (though the characters are shown to be under constant surveillance), yet the author is clearly suggesting that something similar to Russian totalitarianism awaits England in its socialist future. The Guinness character spends his weekends in a people’s forest, a vacation area set aside by the state, where the trees have been planted in perfectly parallel rows with every trunk equidistant from every other. A day’s walk is not long enough to bring one to the end of this man-made forest, itself an illustration of the sort of society for which, presumably out of idealism, the spy-hero has betrayed England and which, presumably, England will one day resemble also.



By now, to judge from the current British theater (not to mention newspaper articles, television programs, and private conversations), a future of the kind foreshadowed in The Old Country appears as an inevitability to many Englishmen—and a surprising number of them, to judge from the same evidence, anticipate it with dread. The plays on the London stage do not treat this state of affairs directly. But it is the real subject of the typically long conversations about art and other abstruse matters that dominate these plays.

Thus, much of Half Life is taken up with disquisitions on archeology in which the antiquity of Stonehenge is disproved by the evidence of Carbon 14 dating methods. The point, really, is that England, the great imperial power, may, like ancient Mycenae and the culture that built Stonehenge, prove to have been no more than a sport of history. England, too, may as easily disappear as it rose up. Certainly nothing occurs on stage that might suggest an alteration from its present drift. In London, as a result, the characters in the latest comedies of ideas sit as if in one great Cherry Orchard, where they are discovered talking endlessly, mostly about the past.

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