"THINGS," diagnosed my
friend, the learned AngloEuropean philosopher, Mr. Paul Jennings, some 15 years ago, "resist man". Taking an old-fashioned look at M. JeanPaul Sartre, he then went on to develop the philosophy of Resistentialism (See: Oddly Enough: Max Reinhart, 1952). Some dozen years later, Mr. Henry Livings and the Royal Shakespeare Company have caught up with Mr. Jennings: the former has written Eh? (Aidwych) and the latter have staged it. It is not a work as succint as Mr. Jennings' thesis, nor is it so funny, But somewhere enmeshed in Mr. Livings' time spinning verbiage there is an idea that is perhaps the most important, socially speaking, of our era, An interrogative Eh? is a reasonable comment on the technological society. The principal character in the play is not a thing: it is a conspiracy of things-a machine put together by a scientist or engineer, a mindless thinker. Or, if you like, an "intellectual", which too often nowadays means, in effect, a manipulator of abstract ideas. This machine is made and sold, like a slave, to people who use it for "production"and because it is a goodmachine it needs little help from human beings. That little consists of having its buttons, switches etc. pushed and pulled, and an occasional feed of oil. For such brainless attentions it does "the work" and leaves men free to read the popular newspapers. watch TV, eat and drink "instant" food and coffee and nonproductively copulate. The machine society was seriously treated some 40 years ago by the Czech dramatist, Carl Capek, nowadays we have progressed (the mot Piste, come to think of it) so far into the tech nological age that it is material for farce. And there's the rub, Farce, like technology, is unaware of fully developed human beings moving within complex social situations. A farceur's "characters" are, to borrow a term from Mr. E. M. Forster, "flat", or one-dimensional. He juggles them in and out of socially embarrassing (clergymen without trousers, etc.) occasions. In farce, action is all. dialogue next to nothing. The best farce speech in the language was Mr, Robertson Hare's "Oh! Calamity!" Mr. Livings' characters talk too much for farce purposes. The most important are Valentine Brose, sort of elongated Beetle (sans song) played with eerie charm by Mr. David Warner, and Mr. Price, a representative of the boss-class played with masochistically orchestrated ferocity by Mr. Donald Sinden. Throughout the play Mr. Sinden works so hard and with such comic impact that he merits and may need a blood transfusion after every exit. He also merits a knighthood. Brute is the new man: he has come to terms with things. Blandly existing within a mass-produced world of fantasy, he knows enough about the Welfare State to get by. Price's job is to keep the factory going and so he must hire Brose as "machine-minder" is, I suppose, the word. Brose has a girl friend who becomes his wife during the action. They spend their honeymoon and settle down to tnarried life in the machine room; on seperate but equal bunk beds, the groom's attitude of philosophic detachment not only from human beings but from the lordly machine leads to trouble—the sort of trquble Mr. Chaplin treated in Modern Times (the poetry of antics probably is the only way to deal with this subject) and for which the ideal actor is Mr. Buster Keaton. One enjoyed Eli? in snatches. 1 he actors are good, Mr. Sinden and Mr. Warner beautifully halance.the two types. With agonising precision the former is the idiot puritanically dedicated to "production" of unnamed things, a sort or brainless inquisitor (not grand, because in our society inquisitors have proliferated, and they have forgotten God) whose idea of heresy is not to stamp a time card. Never have I seen an actor work harder to create the illusion of a whole play out of a character that is a mere device.
Mr. Warner's wanly self-confident non-delinquent moves gently, in clothes that have a touch of genius, suggesting in his garb both the contemporary proletarian daarf-philosopher and the past devil-may-care; there are hints of Cruikshanks. Dickensian caricatures and of a Regency buck. He is a gentle tough: the "negative" life has been forced upon him. He knows nothing but survival and is dedicated to survival on the easiest terms available. He feels the whole business is damn silly but is disconcerted when he is expected to argue about it: he cannot think. feeling it all. Mr. Warner's awkward wandering stillness and Mr. Sinden's apoplectically puritanical cost clerk whose god is a steam engine, almost make Eh? work. But Mr. Livings' play is a oneacter, and should have been cut. One waits for things to happen and too often they don't. There is a dichotomy between the action and the words—a gap in which, like Brose, we wait for the next switch to be pulled. Miss Brenda Bruce, as a secretary who seems to have been educated on New Statesman criticlues of popular works on psychology, is prettily nippy—speaking up and posturing like a refugee from Ben Travers, Miss Patsy Byrne. as Brose's sweetheart and wife, has just the right touch of working class self-righteousness and visibly warping dedication to her "man" in all his dottier reactions to -society". Both arc true . . . to classical farce, Mr. Nicholas Selby attempts to make sense of the Rev. Mora a clergyman used (I think) by the author to try to say something about the Christian churches. No doubt Mr. Livings had something pertinent in mind but it did not emerge. I counted at least four quite different, each one-dimensional, characters, struggling to get out from under Mr. Selby's clerical grey. But the actor did very nicely as captain of the team he was trying to contain. And there was a touchingly comic performance by Mr. David David as an Indian amazed by a country where so few people can pray. Mr. Livings had the right idea: he just, on the evidence, did not know quite what to do with it, Maybe, he secretly languishes for a machine?
A wave of revivals is battering the West End today. It is difficult to decide whether the plays return as "classics" or merely to close the gap in the rather empty ranks of today's playwrights. One suspects either way the authors don't care, and judging by the warm reception these plays have received, neither do the audience question the reason when they are given the opportunity to enjoy good theatre. In the case of Noel Coward's Hay Fever, the treatment is worthy of the National Theatre Company and the classic revival which it enjoys at what was the Old Vic Theatre. Edith Evans is magnificent as Judith Bliss, hut she is closely shadowed by the brilliant performance of Maggie Smith as one of the apparently unwelcome guests to the Bliss household.