D.H. Lawrence: Dramatist
During his lifetime Lawrence published three plays: The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd (1914), Touch and Go (1920), and David (1926). The 1933 Seeker edition of The Plays contained only these three. In the same year The Fight for Barbara was published as Keeping Barbara in Argosy (December, 1933), and A Collier's Friday Night the following year. The fragment Noah's Flood was included in Phoenix (1936), and another fragment, Altitude, in The Laughing Horse, No. 20 (Summer, 1938). The Virginia Quarterly Review published The Married Man (Autumn, 1940) and The Merry-Go-Round (Winter, 1941). The Heinemann Complete Plays of 1965 contained all these together with the previously unpublished The Daughter-in-Law. In his Soho bibliography of Lawrence, Warren Roberts records that a play called My Son's My Son, completed by Walter Greenwood from an unfinished Lawrence manuscript, was performed in London in 1936. This seems to have been the total extent of Lawrence's work in the drama.1
Only two of these plays, The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd and David, were produced in Lawrence's lifetime, neither creating very much interest. From his death until the late fifties, his dramatic work seems to have been in complete eclipse. In 1958 there was a sensitive production on Independent Television of The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, adapted by Ken Taylor, who was later to adapt many of Lawrence's short stories for television. The theatre was slow to follow. In 1965 the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre gave a single performance of A Collier's Friday Night. The success of this experiment led to a full-scale production of The Daughter-in-Law which opened at the Royal Court on March 19, 1967, and which in turn generated the season of three Lawrence plays in repertory (The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd joining the other two) which opened on February 29, 1968. The first production of The Fight for Barbara, directed by Robin Midgley, opened at the Mermaid Theatre on August 9, 1967.
It was Peter Gill's sensitive and painstaking productions at the Royal Court which really opened our eyes to the power of Lawrence the dramatist. Both theatre goers and critics were shaken to find themselves confronted by what was so clearly the work of a major English twentieth century dramatist, and to see so forcibly demonstrated that naturalism is dead only in those naturalistic plays which never were alive.
These three plays, A Collier's Friday Night, The Daughter-in-Law, and The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, have now passed into the repertories of countless companies, professional and amateur, throughout the British Isles, presumably to stay. It is upon them that Lawrence's status as a dramatist depends and upon them that I wish to concentrate in the account which follows, with brief references to the other plays to fill in the picture.2
Lawrence's first play, A Collier's Friday Night, was written in November 1906.3 At the time Lawrence had written nothing but a handful of poems and a few chapters of Laetitia, an early version of The White Peacock. A note on the ms. says: "Written when I was twenty-one, almost before I'd done anything, it is most horribly green."
As the title implies, with its ironic allusion to Burns' sentimental The Cotter's Saturday Night, this is a naturalistic play, a "slice of life"; as such, it makes the other naturalistic plays of the period look like something else again. Never before had working-class family life in all its vital or stifling intimacy been presented with such immediacy and authenticity. In a sense "nothing happens"; yet the continual play of love and hate, the living process of young lives being moulded by the domestic and social and economic environment and asserting themselves against the pressures, controls the movement of the play and holds the attention of the audience far better than any plot could do. The immediacy and authenticity are such that, if we are aware of the play as having been "written" at all, we feel it must have been written on the Saturday morning. Such closeness to the material might well have undermined a novel. It was four years before Lawrence felt ready to tackle the same themes in fiction. Yet here is nothing but gain.
The mother, Mrs. Lambert, loves her son Ernest with a deep possessive love against which he is beginning to strain, though he loves her deeply. Mother and children all reject and despise the father, who struggles pathetically to maintain an authority and dignity only he believes in. These conflicts, just under the surface, set all their lives on edge. Any triviality can trigger an explosion. Again and again there is an adjustment, a reconciliation, a crisis averted, but the conflict is only shifting its ground around its real, unacknowledged centre.
The Friday night is any Friday night and many Friday nights. Friday is itself a significant night. Ernest comes home from college for the weekend. He needs yet more books his mother can ill afford to buy him. His girlfriend Maggie, whom his family dislikes and his mother is intensely jealous of, visits him. It is baking night for the weekend, and shopping night, for Mrs. Lambert has just received her week's housekeeping money, so Ernest must mind the baking bread. Preoccupied with Maggie, he lets it burn. Mr. Lambert is chief butty, and every Friday must meet the other butties to do the weekly reckoning, first putting aside the wages of their daymen, then sharing what remains. Afterwards they all retire to the pub. Mr. Lambert will be tipsy when he returns, and aggressive. Ernest's sister, Nellie, has finished a week's drudgery school-teaching and must see her boyfriend, who works late on a Friday. She will be late home, to the annoyance of her mother. This combination of circumstances is always critical: this Friday, perhaps, it brings the family a little closer to open crisis than usual.
The whole play takes place in one room, the hot living-room / kitchen where all the life of the family is concentrated. Here the mother cooks, the family eats, the father conducts his pit business, the daughter gossips with her friends, the son studies or reads Baudelaire to his girl. Yet we know the rest of the house: there are sounds of washing and washing-up from the draughty scullery, of a piano from the little-used front room; the father's clean trousers, brought down from upstairs, steam when he holds them to the fire.
The life of the family is continuous with the life of the neighbourhood and the whole mining community. All the meticulous naturalistic detail is not there to fool an audience into believing that it is watching real life. It is there to bring real life onto the stage. The props are there to be used, and used in such a way that every routine household task implies a culture, a whole way of life, yields its testimony to the infinite adjustments these people have evolved to the exigencies of life in this community: for example, to the poverty and life-sapping labour of the mother, for whom the burning of a loaf is a major catastrophe; to the indomitable human spirit which has created, out of suffering and conflict, a family life which gives us no sense of deprivation for the young-the tensions frequently give way to both hope and gaiety. The routine becomes a ritual; the action grows out of it and drops back into it.
I have not yet mentioned the play's greatest strength, and Lawrence's greatest strength as a dramatist: the quality of the dialogue, and of the silences. The spontaneous family silence which greets the father on his return from work conveys as much as a page of Sons and Lovers. The mother says little, but her presence and character is strongly felt. Her stillness centres on her suffering. Every terse understatement implies a personal history, meanings both speaker and hearer are too familiar with to labour or even fully articulate. And beneath the surface lies the history of the whole community, the patterns of speech corresponding to patterns of life, of survival and dignity, generated by the conditions of mining life. The dialect and rhythm of their speech functions with poetic force, with potent unfamiliar words like "sluthering," salty regional proverbs, and all the characteristics of a living, rooted speech. Beyond this, each character has his own distinctive speech habits and rhythms which can be raised, at the crises, to the level of poetry. When Mrs. Lambert finds the scorched loaf she says to herself:
After the confrontation of father and son, which has almost led to blows, the father speaks out of the depths of his humiliation:
A page of such dialogue has more life in it than all the volumes of Galsworthy.
Lawrence's first novel, The White Peacock, not only does not face the problems of relationships within his own family, which we know to have been uppermost in his consciousness at the time; it conspicuously avoids even the mining and working-class background he knew so well, transposing the characters to a rural and middle-class society. These characteristics are linked to the literary derivativeness of the novel, owing much to the early George Eliot and the early Hardy. Not until he began Sons and Lovers in 1910 did Lawrence return to the theme of A Collier's Friday Night, and even there we may doubt whether he entirely recaptured the amazing objectivity and insight of the play in relation to the central problem. Sympathy is not here deliberately withheld from the father. We see that his coarseness is his only defence against the denial and exclusion of him by his children who have been set against him by his wife. How warmly he responds when someone treats him with ordinary decency, as a human being:
His aggression towards Ernest is clearly to a large extent frustrated love.
It would be possible to play the ending as a happy reconciliation of mother and son. The stage directions, however, make clear that this is not intended, that, indeed, we are to see in their embrace a "moment of abnormal emotion and proximity" and in their tones "a dangerous gentleness so much gentleness that the safe reserve of their souls is broken" (p. 530). There is no such stress on the danger and abnormality in Sons and Lovers. One of the central motivations behind Sons and Lovers is the vindication of the mother. After completing it he told Frieda, "I would write a different `Sons and Lovers' now; my mother was wrong, and I thought she was absolutely right."4 A Collier's Friday Night was not written to vindicate anybody. Its discipline is that imposed by the medium. The author is not required to explain and excuse and blame. He is required by the exigencies of writing a naturalistic play to present these people, these relationships, this world, in such a way that it yields its own moral significance, which an honest author must let stand. It seems that, at this particular point in his career, such a discipline was particularly valuable to Lawrence. It is a great pity that he did not submit himself to it again for five years.
Lawrence's second play, The Merry-Go-Round, was probably written in 1910. It is, in intention, an Eastwood As You Like It. "It's `As You Lump It' " says the play's last line, and that might have been a better title. But the absence of any real wit, subtlety in characterisation, or even appropriateness in the eventual marital pairings makes it little more than a romp for the local amateur dramatic society. It has never, to my knowledge, been performed.
Lawrence sent his third play, The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, to Grace Crawford on 17 November 1910.5 She forwarded it to Violet Hunt, who liked it. Heuffer then sent it to Harley Granville-Barker, who returned it saying that he had read it with interest but did not want it. Lawrence then sent the play to Edward Garnett, who in turn showed it to Iden Payne and led Lawrence to believe that Payne would put it on:
The project fell through. Garnett kept the ms, for "nearly two years." Lawrence sent for it in August 1913 in order to revise it for publication. He wrote to the publisher, Mitchell Kennerley:
Lawrence was satisfied with his revised version: "What a jolly fine play it is, too, when I have pulled it together" (CL 218). Lawrence, anxious to see the play staged, made unsuccessful approaches to theatre people in 1914, 1915, and again in 1919. There were two productions in his lifetime, neither of which he saw, by a group of amateurs in Altringham in February 1920, and by the amalgamated Stage Society and 300 Club in December 1926, produced by Esme Percy. At Lawrence's request, Catherine Carswell attended the 1920 production, which she reviewed for The Times. She felt that the closing scene, where the dead miner's body is washed by his women, was "theatrically unacceptable" unless the whole production could be
Several of Lawrence's friends saw the 1926 production. On December 13, 1926, Rolf Gardiner wrote:
Lawrence wrote to Esme Percy on December 19:
In his review of the 1968 Royal Court production Ronald Bryden called Lawrence
The wife, in true womanliness, cannot but despise dirt, drunkenness, and brutality; and Holroyd, in his manhood, knowing himself despised, cannot but retreat into still more coarseness, drunkenness, and brutality. Underneath there is the vulnerability of Holroyd, the real helplessness which is only evident when he is drunk or dead, and the gulf between any man and any woman which neither, here, can find the courage to cross. The Daughter-in-Law is to be about that, too, about the terrible courage arid patience a woman needs if she is to elicit love from a man without destroying his manhood. Minnie Gascoigne has that courage and faith; Lizzie Holroyd has not. It seems hard to her, but easier, to give her children and herself to a man already gentle and understanding. In The Daughter-in-Law Mrs. Gascoigne warns Minnie that
This is what Charlie Holroyd does to pay his wife out for despising him and preferring Blackmore.
Simon Gray rightly testifies to the power of the tragic ending which Lawrence himself came to doubt. Of the role of the mother Gray says:
But the daughter cannot blame hard luck or a hard God. Yet neither is she consumed by guilt; for her whole being is given over to compassion for this man she had never known, this man with a body whiter than her own under the pit dirt, in his pain and helplessness:
A great deal depends on the actress. But this can be one of the great moments of modern drama. Simon Gray writes:
In 1912, Lawrence wrote two "impromptus," The Married Man and The Fight for Barbara. The Married Man was suggested by the story of a Don Juanish friend whose extra-marital adventures finally brought him low. It is a short play, but its four acts of flirting, arch conversations, leaden wit, and callow moralising are more than enough. It represents a phase of Lawrence's development which he quickly grew out of. The Fight for Barbara is largely of biographical interest. It dramatises the early difficulties of the eloped Lawrence and Frieda, hounded by Frieda's outraged parents and distracted husband, adding to the difficult enough problems of adjustment to each other. It was no doubt of great therapeutic value to Lawrence to present the events of this painful period as comedy and amenable to resolution.
In January 1913 Lawrence wrote to Garnett:
The new play was The Daughter-in-Law.
Three weeks later he wrote to Garnett again:
Certainly there is nothing bloodless about The Daughter-in-Law. Its strengths are those of A Collier's Friday Night and The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd The first line of the play establishes a tone which never falters: "MRS. GASCOIGNE: Well, I s'd ha' thought thy belly 'ud a browt thee whoam afore this" (p. 207). Mrs. Gascoigne's speech throughout has the strength of proverbs substantiated by experience: "Marriage is like a mouse-trap, for either man or woman. You've soon come to the end o' th' cheese" (p. 210). The main theme is the effort of Minnie Gascoigne, a young woman of great character and some refinement, to "wriggle a place out for hersen," to give back to her husband, Luther, the manhood lost at his mother's apron-strings, from which he will be able to give her the love she needs. Minnie brings a hundred and twenty pounds to her wedding but comes to realize that the independence this gives her undermines her husband's self-esteem. In desperation she goes to Manchester and spends it all on a ring and two prints. She wins the grudging admiration of her mother-in-law; but her husband takes the prints, which are, of course, an investment, as a further sneer at his lack of refinement, and thrusts them in the fire. This ending of Act III is masterly:
Joe, the younger brother still at home, has nothing to say here, but his mother's refrain: "Let's go, Joe" invests him with a dramatic importance as great as the other three. Mrs. Gascoigne has lost Luther and lost her battle with Minnie:
Whether Minnie can make a man of Luther remains doubtful. The ending, with Luther weeping in his wife's arms, is open. Minnie has done all that a woman, with courage and tenderness, can do. But it may be that Luther will simply transfer his dependence from his mother to her. Meanwhile, Joe remains with his mother, talking idly of Australia, flirting with Minnie. He is in a worse case than his brother and knows it.
Minnie cries. And Joe says:
In Twilight in Italy Lawrence records how, when he went to the theatre on the Lago di Garda in 1912 to see I Spettri (Ibsen's Ghosts) and Amleto, the real drama took place, for him, in the auditorium, where the villagers played their habitual parts, where all the diversity and all the tensions of village life were brought together under one roof, where the delicate balance of this life was shifted by something new, extraordinary, releasing passion and excitement. This is the kind of drama Lawrence strove, in these early plays, to put on the stage.
He wanted to create a dramatic form which would embody, in the words of Raymond Williams, "the detail and closeness of fiction . . . the flow of experience and the sympathy with ordinary life and speech." What he came up against was
Fifteen years later Lawrence was to write:
In 1913 he saw no reason why the drama, properly handled, could not also perform this "cleansing and refreshing" function. For the ebb and flow of sympathy, both between the characters on stage, and between them and their audience, is surely the essence of all drama.
In 1919, Lawrence thought he had found his man to "whip 'em in." Douglas Goldring offered to publish Touch and Go, written the previous year, in a series called Plays for a People's Theatre. Lawrence's play would be first in the series, and would be produced. On this understanding, Lawrence let Goldring have the play and its preface free. In the event, Goldring published his own play The Fight for Freedom (which Lawrence despised) first in the series, and there was no production of Touch and Go.
In his preface, Lawrence tries to define the phrase: A People's Theatre. His first point is that the seats are cheap; his second that "the plays of A People's Theatre are plays about people":
If there are still a few "living individuals" among the miners and among the masters
In theory, this sounds exciting. But Touch and Go does not quite ring true. It has the feel of having been written to a programme. The characters and situation are lifted from Women in Love. The movement of the play is a working up to a confrontation, with the threat of violence, between Gerald Barlow, the mine owner (who is Gerald Crich again), and his striking men. Each side thinks it wants more money, a larger slice of the cake. Each side thinks that bullying in one form or another is the way to get it. The point of it all is to bring forward at the end Oliver Turton, the Birkin / Lawrence figure, to preach his simple solution:
We do not open our hearts when we are told to; we open them when we see on the stage living individuals going through with their fates as we saw them in The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd and The Daughter-in-Law. There is nothing of comparable authenticity in Touch and Go.
On the strength of the text alone, David is Lawrence's most difficult play to discuss. Written in 1925, it is quite unlike any of his other plays. Lawrence sticks closely to the Old Testament story, which obviously fascinates him in its own right. His only significant addition is the prophecy of Saul that David is the first of a new kind of leader of men, that his seed shall thicken upon the earth, cover it with houses and iron and, ultimately, destroy it:
The characters are strong and living, the story essentially dramatic; with the conflict of Saul and David at its centre. I cannot share George Panichas' interpretation of this conflict as "the eternal quarrel between purity and innocence on the one side, and treachery and debasement on the other."15 David is self-sufficient. He is God's annointed, but he does not need God. When God departs from Saul, Saul collapses upon himself like a burnt-out fire. David brings down two giants, Goliath and Saul, but is not himself a giant. Saul's prophecy is confirmed at the end by Jonathan:
Saul, at the beginning, is like a father to David. Another David, hero in exile, had lived through a bitter conflict with his father, who had debased the life that was in him. Now, towards the end of his life (and of his father's, who died the year David was published), Lawrence regretted that he had never fully recognized and respected the quality of life which had been there to be debased, the bright flame of life, fed straight from the source without consciousness, or not fed at all, guttering in drunkenness and brutality in the father, in brutality and treachery in Saul.
This theme, like those of brotherhood and leadership already central to the original story, is close to Lawrence's heart. The language of the play has a few lapses, but is for the most part adequate and occasionally distinguished. Why, then, should one feel dissatisfied? Perhaps we have been too much deadened by the Hollywood epics and by the adaptations of Bible stories for children's television to respond as fully as Lawrence clearly expects. Perhaps, in a fine production, the play could live. Lawrence said in 1925: "It is a good play, and for the theatre. Someone ought to do it" (CL 845). His agent did not agree:
In 1927 someone did do it the Teutons of the Stage Society at the Regent Theatre, London, on May 22nd and 23rd. It was not well received. Someone sent Lawrence the press cuttings, which roused him to anger:
Five months later the fight seems to have gone out of Lawrence. There is a weary acceptance of his own inadequacy, with a last petulant snipe at the public:
It is quite untrue, as must already be evident, that Lawrence did not care about the production of his plays in the theatre. He never saw a play of his staged. He was abroad on all three occasions that his plays were performed in his lifetime; but the difficulties of getting home could have been overcome had there not been also the more fundamental difficulty of Lawrence's fear, since the war, of the theatre world, which was very much part of the England he had chosen to cut himself off from. As Michael Marland suggests, 16 "exile" and "dramatist" are almost mutually exclusive terms. There was also a distaste for the whole business of negotiating with impresarios, of putting his works, which were always like children to him, into the hands of producers and actors, whom he felt were not his kind of people, and of exposing himself to theatre audiences he knew would be unsympathetic. Publishing books was less intimate, less nerve-racking, more like casting bread upon the waters.
After David Lawrence did not again expose himself to the impudence of the public and the reviewers. At the Royal Court Theatre in 1968, producer, actors, public, and reviewers repaid a little of the debt.
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