Page 3, 2nd December 1949

2nd December 1949
Page 3
Page 3, 2nd December 1949 — Theatre
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DEATH OF A THEATRE?

INTO the current controversy about the number of American plays occupying London stages and the displacement of British writers, Mr. Alec Clunes has wheeled exhibit A, an English play, Hindle Wakes, by Stanley Houghton (ARTS THEATRE). Set in foreign parts, Lancashire, its characters are a mill-owner and his workers, their friends and families.

American plays are successful in England because they are better plays than the English arc writing. Two factors explain the vitality of American stage writing; it is American: it draws its themes from the provinces and is preoccupied with subjects that are significant.

The modern English theatre is provincial; it finds its perennial idea in central London, where the natives are to be seen only on excursion or visiting a tailor. A strand of social comedy, satire of the fashionable in morals and manners in London society, runs through our dramatic Literature from the Restoration, on to Sheridan, down to yesterday and today with Mr. Maugham and Mr. Coward. In the fingers of the masters, and those I mention are, in their limited way, master-craftsmen, it has salutary value. In the thumbs of the vast factories of mechanics who imitate them, it dissolves into facetious drivel. It and the old creaking door, dank passage and screaming debutante mystery are the stock-in-trade of the tradesmen who write roost of our plays. England is debarred as a subject. London has its effect on our players. also. The apprentice actor and actress must have all local colour drained from their voices. The high-pitched whine of Whitehall Must be substituted for the English voice which is not "nice." Vocal chords must be sterilised. Hotspur may have come from the North but if you would play him, talk South, young man, talk South. The English actor must eschew the accents of the soil of England. The boys who take their ten per cent. are

arbiters. In the interests of art you must submit. It is not so in America.1

The frivolous fringe of Metropolitan society is the persistent solitary theme of our townee theatre; the writer who injects a bromide into it, the player who makes a compact filling for evening wear, whose voice betrays not England. are its

heirs. Yorkshire, Somerset. Newcastle, all other parts export comics to the suburbs. New York is the centre of the American theatre but its wares are nationally flavoured, outlandishly spiced. They represent America. Even Streetcar, theatrical trash, rotten as it is, has the validity of a Freudian case-history. The Death of a Salesman is set in Brooklyn; imagine, if you can, a British writer who would attempt a tragedy about a commercial traveller who lives in Clapham. or try to illuminate the effect on natural man of a civilisation planned to dissipate, not create. This is Arthur Miller's conception. In Mary Chase's Harvey, what lachrymose Europeans call man's " tragic isolation " becomes a thread. etaborated with delicate mystical comedy. Mr. Fry is the only young English writer who might conceive such an idea. Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun! record-breaking successes in England, are drawn from the story of America's imperial conquests. Do British writers of musicals ever consider subjects like Botany Bay, and East India and Hudson's Bay Companies the great Imperial themes of Canada, Aus

tralia, Africa and India? Here is matter for rousing popular entertain ment. What we get is Ruritania, kept running by Mr. Novello's genius, or trotted out to drop dead by his imitators.

Apart from Mr. Christopher Fry, none of our young playwrights is writing consistently original work. Mr. Douglas Home, at his best. is promising; at his worst he gives us pot-boilers. Our writers do not look inside themselves or at their countrymen 'when seeking subjects; they look up a list of past " successes" at a decayed box-office. Mr. Priestley is an older exception; but his work, because it is English and original, shocks certain critics into writing nonsense and too often fails for this

very reason. He loses money, his own money. Characteristically of the times, the controversy gets back to this devalued subject.

The author of Hindle Wakes died when he was 32, and now it does not matter: to anyone, apart from him and his Maker, how he died, well-fed or starving. He was no genius but an honest English writer. His play has rude comedy. lusty drama. His mill-folk have mud on their clogs. He illustrates a moral problem of his day and if his treatment is immoral, his conception was good. He exposed the double-standard that claimed a certain sin was permissible (Continued at foot of next column)

in men, boys being boys, and was unforgivable in a woman. His folk have the hard jagged edge on their characters which is of Northern England. His mill-lass who will not accept the easy way out of her dilemma is a human being, too consistently wrong to be consistently believable. yet real. Mr. Herbert Lomas, that magnificent English actor, is delightful to watch building so firmly, so gently a good part into a superb performance; the stage becomes a place when he appears.

W. J. I.




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