—a great dramatist whom England neglects
The Sulky Fire. Five plays by Jean-Jacques Bernard. Translated from the French by J. Leslie Frith. (Cape. 7e. 6d.) Reviewed by ROBERT SPEAIGHT
SOMEBODY remarked to me the other day apropos of Synge's Playboy of the Western World. what a vast difference there was between plays which were masterpieces and plays which were not. Perhaps it is just this difference which makes Bernard such an exciting dramatist. At least a majority of his plays are masterpieces—not major masterpieces like fledda Gabler or The Cherry Orchard, but masterpieces none the less.
All of the plays in this volume have been performed at some time or another in the smaller London theatres—the Gate, the Westminster, or the Everyman —or by the Stage Society, and their distinction has been acclaimed by connoisseurs of playgoing. For my part, I cannot think of any single play by an English dramatist written during the last twenty years which rivals The Springtime of Others or Invitation to a Voyage. 13ut I hardly expect this opinion to be shared by the Great British Public.
The G.B.P. are far more willing than the French to be entertained at the expense of reality; they want a play to be faithfully photographic, like Journey's End, or even unfaithfully photographic, like Call it a Day, or uproariously funny, like Banana Ridge, or sentimental, like Quality Street. I am not denying the qualities of these plays; I am only saying that none of them probes as deeply as M. Bernard into the realities which lie behind the
uneventful surface, the quiet curriculum of our lives.
k A BERNARD has been called the IIVI• supreme " quietist " of modern drama, but I think the description is only justified if it implies the absence of violent action. It hardly does justice to the sense of almost intolerable emotional strain which pervades all these plays. That is what makes them
so exciting to see and to read. M. Bernard can invest the most commonplace words and actions with a desperate significance—a mother asking her little boy to repeat the names of all the South American Republics, a railway official entering a hotel lounge and turning over the illustrated papers—and he shares this power with the greatest dramatists. One has only to think of Desdemona's handkerchief.
But if his plays remind one of Ibsen and the Greeks because the chief events often happen off-stage, and of Tchekov because of an apparent inconsequence which is far more purposeful and artfully contrived than the creaking mechanics of Bernstein, Sardou and Scribe, yet they carry the signature of true originality. If one dropped in to a performance of Martine, one would, I think, guess its authorship immediately.
ONLY one—The Unquiet Spirit, in which the great American actress Clare Eames gave a wonderful performance—seems to be a little strained in its thesis, although the working out of
Continued at foot of next column.