Taylor, C(ecil) P(hillip)
C(ecil) P(hillip) Taylor 1929–1981
Scottish dramatist and scriptwriter.
Taylor, a prolific author, for many years worked with and contributed plays to several theater groups in Scotland, helping to strengthen the Scottish theater while developing his style and craft. His use of local color, Scottish-Jewish socialist protagonists, and loose structure made his early plays seem exotic when staged outside Scotland. But by isolating and examining particulars of an individual or small group of people, Taylor hoped to reveal universal traits in humankind, a philosophy of drama that won modest success.
Taylor's early plays typically featured characters who thought of themselves as liberal, enlightened, and good. Taylor drew humor and drama from them as they tried to adjust to events in their lives that conflicted with their liberal ideals. For these realistic social dramas Taylor created a character type that recurs in his plays, one who displays self-deception, often comic, while trapped in a conflict between ideals and the limitations of life.
With his two recently produced plays, Good (1982) and Bring Me Sunshine, Bring Me Smiles (1982), Taylor won wider recognition. Good, which is viewed as his triumph, examines how a good, intelligent, young German named Halder, could gradually succumb and find rationale for the evils of Nazism. Good has drawn both sharp praise and disapproval from critics, who have debated the merit of Taylor's presentation of Halder's subtle, unprovoked descent.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed., Vol. 105 [obituary].)
THE TIMES, london
[Happy Days Are Here Again] asks to be taken on two levels: as an exciting exploration of guilt and as a piece of Marxist allegory. On neither does it succeed. If the suspense of the former had been more conscientiously maintained, the allegorical interpretation might have emerged more convincingly.
In form, the play strongly resembles Hugh Leonard's The Poker Session. A young prostitute, accidentally pregnant, having been despatched for an abortion, her Jewish uncle holds a party for the men responsible for her downfall. Himself apart, a lecherous cleric, a glib biology student, a wealthy capitalist, and a balding poet are all guilty parties. But the begetter of the child and the convenient scapegoat is a bovine electrical engineer. Accepting his major share of the guilt without question, he allows himself to be hanged by the remaining quintet. Their sense of release following the deed turns sour when they realise the moral consequence of their action.On the realistic plane, the play is manifestly implausible. No man readily accepts execution as a means of expiating his sins. Unacceptable realistically, the same character cannot then be seriously regarded as the proletarian victim of a ruthless cap-italist society. Mr. Taylor has made the mistake of building his allegory on an unsure foundation.
"Marxist Allegory Built on Unsure Foundation," in The Times, London (© Times...
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THE TIMES, london
[Fable] is a Marxist object lesson on a Christian theme. A newly converted lion and a polemical jackal discuss the pros and cons of slaying an antelope. Since the Bible teaches that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the third and fourth generations, the hungry lion feels free to stalk his prey. He promptly gets a spear in the chest and learns that while his grandchildren may pay for his sins he is squaring accounts run up by his forefathers. The play takes the form of a twee demonstration, and the moral is too over-simplified for its intellectual content to be taken seriously. It is fiendishly over-played and over-pointed, which only accentuates its slimness.
"Three Novelties in New Studio Theatre," in The Times, London (© Times Newspapers Limited 1965), October 1, 1965, p. 15 A.∗
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THE TIMES, london
Cecil P. Taylor, who ranks almost as the house dramatist of the Traverse Theatre Company, has won admiration as the comic laureate of Glasgow-Jewish Marxism; a limited field, but his own. [With Who's Pinkus, Where's Chelm? he] has now deserted it in favour of straight Jewish folklore with a resultant loss of wit, technique, and sense.
Chelm, in Jewish legend, is the town which God accidentally peopled entirely with fools—a smug community with no idea of how they compare with the world outside. Mr. Taylor's hero is one of its lowest citizens; an unemployed salesman who goes off to seek his fortune in the next town, but loses his way and finds himself back in Chelm. However, he has had a change of heart on the road and is, moreover, wearing a new suit; so the town that spurned him now puts all its business into his hands and makes him president of the synagogue.
The possibilities of this fable are ruined in the telling. Mr. Taylor gives it neither a fairy tale nor a socially realistic setting; all he provides is a standard stage Jewish framework (crafty Rabbi, garrulously possessive wife, &c.), which omits the allimportant element of general idiocy: without this preparation, the turning point of the tale—where Pinkus and his home-town confront one another as if they had never met before—is impossible to swallow. And all that emerges from it is a restatement of Willie Loman's simple faith in Death of...
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John Russell Taylor
[Though Cecil P. Taylor] has reversed the pattern of [John] Hopkins's and [Alan] Plater's careers by starting on the stage and taking up television, extensively though not exclusively, afterwards, in other respects he seems to belong very much in a group with them. Partly it is his journalistic background …, partly the genres in which he has worked—realistic social drama, musical documentary à la Plater. His most immediately distinctive contribution is his personal background, which is Glasgow-Jewish. But there is also his talent, which is variable, but at its best can produce drama which, in its own quiet way, stands comparison with the best the decade has had to offer.
He is at his best, I think, in Bread and Butter (1966), a slow-burning but finally very gripping piece. 'Gripping' sounds a curiously old-fashioned term of praise, but it is apt, for Bread and Butter gets full value from an element in general rather misprized by the newer dramatists (dedicated comedians apart): plot. There is, after all, something very comforting about a plot. However uninteresting we may find the characters and situations of a play initially, if we have perforce to spend a whole evening with them, it is practically inevitable that sooner or later we shall begin to feel at least a faint stirring of interest in how things will turn out, what will become of character A or B.
This is very much what happens in...
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Like Terence Rattigan's Cause Célèbre, C P Taylor's Bandits is based on a real murder case and attempts to reveal the moral background to the crime in a way which explains its cause and its effect. Taylor's chosen crime filled the front pages of the northern editions in the mid-60's and inspired the Michael Caine movie, Get Carter. A petty but pushy crook is found dead on the beach outside Newcastle, one of 26 witnesses and participants in a case presided over by a super-cynical detective who cares more about the man cutting down trees outside his weekend caravan than the fate of just another 'bandit'.
Taylor's point of view is crystal clear: in the never-had-it-so-good era of the 60s we may have had the World Cup, Wilsonian government and the Beatles, but we also had Poulson, T Dan Smith and the Krays. While dreams were being spun, money was being made, in the dirty (and left-wing) book shops, the discos and in the clubs, of which the North East provided a bright glittering array filled with punters and pin-ball machines, easy fortunes and loose women. (p. 26)
The tale is indeed a bleak one: a pair of trigger-happy tearaways, a policeman with a doubting school teacher wife, a Tolstoy-spouting, philosophically cynical club tycoon, two sexually untuned lesbian school teachers, a few 'tarts', a recalcitrant fisherman peeved at finding the body, a babysitting schoolgirl high on sexual fear and...
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The best thing about [the] sentimental comedy [And a Nightingale Sang …] by C P Taylor is the love affair it delineates between Helen, a lame girl who has been almost reconciled to the idea that love must pass her by, and Norman, a rather simple but quietly emotional bloke who is sensitive to the fact that Helen's nature has more beauty to it than one might glean from the outward show. This somewhat fraught relationship is sentimental, as I say, but it isn't sloppy…. [Even] when the agony is piled on with the revelation that Norman has a wife and child, the plucking of heartstrings is still carried out with the most delicate finesse….
Higher, however, than the eye of Hammerstein's elephant is 0the corn that grows elsewhere in the play. And a Nightingale Sang … is a thick slice of life on the domestic front in Newcastle-upon-Tyne during the years of the Second World War. To my mind it would have been shrewder of Taylor to throw the predicament of Helen and Norman into relief against a mere background of other characters, but as things stand we have five more figures cluttering the landscape quite prominently; and while I can see that they are intended to be lovable, as the evening wore on I came very near to hating them.
The real trials of the piece are Helen's father, mother and grandfather, all of them thoroughly credible and just as thoroughly dull…. The mother's role is most in need of...
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John Russell Taylor
[In And a Nightingale Sang …] at least C. P. Taylor is seraphically free from any kind of message. Up to now he has frequently seemed to be a talent in search of just the right register: there has always been something likeable and warm and ideosyncratically human about his plays, but also something a bit muddly and lacking in focus. And a Nightingale Sang … has dispensed with the tentativeness: it strikes straight into its central matter and scarcely puts a foot wrong after. Mind you, it is not immediately apparent that it does so: at the outset it seems to be just a loosely connected series of sketches of life in Newcastle during the early days of the war and the Blitz. It has a narrator, a plain, slightly crippled girl,… who addresses us from stage in easily confiding tones, slipping smoothly in and out of the action—a bit like Forget-Me-Not-Lane, but less intricately organised. (p. 70)
[Before] we know it we are laughing…. But gradually things emerge. The father plays his piano and sings his silly songs and does a bit of light air-raid wardening; the mother babbles about her only half understood religion; the younger daughter vacillates for ever about whether she should marry her suitor before he goes off to the war (what if he doesn't come back? what, worse, if he does?); the grandfather shuffles from daughter to daughter and lodging to lodging, but always comes back with his horrible cat in a...
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It is a long time, probably not within living memory, since the farming community has had a reasonable representation in dramatic form. Dung slinging straw-in-the-hair folk groups have become representative of country culture. In Taylor's play [To Be a Farmer's Boy] the poetry of everyday speech comes to life with vitality and force; dispelling forever (I hope) the taciturn, crude and graceless yokel of popular legend. The main character, a farmer eager for land, is cantankerous, crafty and ruthless, even within his own family; but displays a love of wild life, relishes the passing of the seasons, plays Bach on the violin and reads avidly. These people are not saints or sinners; not particularly bright or traditionally dim. Their black humour, apparent callousness and capacity for enjoying simple pleasures, their lust for land and pride in their isolation, arises naturally from their environment, and drew grunts of recognition from the audience.
Unfortunately, there are weaknesses in the play, which are entirely to do with the construction. Eleven short scenes, which dodge about in no particular chronological order, and a spare functional set, which, even for touring, lacks any warmth. Another fault is Taylor's method of using one character as a narrator, giving him all the best lines as asides. This fault is not so serious as in Taylor's Not By Love Alone, but still irritating. With the material at his disposal Taylor...
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What did the British theatre prematurely lose in Cecil Taylor last December?
Well, it may not be relevant to say so in a critical column; but it lost a very nice, very good man….
He began his career in 1962 with Aa Went te Blaydon Races, a play he later admitted ingenuously expecting to provoke revolutionary incidents in the centre of Newcastle-on-Tyne. He was always a committed socialist, but one who increasingly came to annoy the ideologically straight and narrow, because he couldn't help seeing the flaws in the human material from which socialism would have to be built. His characters like to think of themselves as enlightened, progressive, or simply good. The drama, and usually the comedy, comes from their attempts to deflect, suppress or ignore whatever tends to contradict their illusions and undermine their self-esteem. Good itself is the extreme case. In it, a young intellectual actually ends up as one of the powers-that-be at Auschwitz, the victim of a moral erosion so subtle, so gradual, so invisible, that even then he seems only dimly aware of the hollowness of his self-professed humanity. And Taylor, always too observant, acute and (I suspect) self-knowing a writer to indulge in blacks and whites, tacitly presses the attack still further. How many of us, thrust into the same circumstances and subjected to the same pressures, can be absolutely confident of sustaining an integrity much...
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Not long before his death last December, C. P. Taylor told the director of Bring Me Sunshine that he wanted to 'show working people exploring their own feelings, philosophies and relationships with the same concern and sensitivity that had usually been the province of plays of middle-class origin'. Insecurity and anxiety, marital ennui, parental unease, sexual envy, menopausal angst and other such commodities could afflict the families of unemployed Newcastle shipwrights as well as bank-managers from Eastbourne, Sittingbourne, or that well-known centre of genteel despair, Ayckbourn. That is what Sunshine points out, and points out with all Taylor's much-missed generosity of spirit and wry, forgiving humour, that tolerance of human failing which could (be it admitted) sometimes go too far. The play lacks the toughmindedness which Good, because of its theme, so amply displayed. Since none of the characters of Sunshine was going to end up wearing an SS uniform, burning books, or organising the 'humane' slaughter of the mentally crippled or racially uncongenial, Taylor could afford simply to enjoy the sight and sound of them being idiosyncratically, amusingly themselves; and enjoy it he evidently did, occasionally more than we can.
Yet even the more prolix episodes, such as an endless, enervating wrangle over the characters' convoluted sleeping arrangements, are observed with marvellous accuracy; and several of...
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Uneasy on occasion about C P Taylor's work, I can happily commend Bring Me Sunshine as a summing-up of his special perceptiveness and pity. Teddy, on whose cuddly middle-aged shoulders a whole Newcastle community sobs out its problems, is an inspired device for showing us the sorrows and misunderstandings of ordinary people's relationships—and Taylor's own affectionate frustration as he watches human folly and finds he must forgive it. Not many playwrights can send you out of the theatre a better person, but he was one of them.
Into Teddy's kitchen come the seekers for cocoa and sympathy, moaning that Teddy never understands but telling him just the same. His son Peter … gets his punk girlfriend Wendy pregnant, loses his supermarket job for playing custard pies with a strawberry gateau and eats a local mushroom so wild it sends him streaking up the road in his underpants. Wendy … can't decide whether to have his baby or stay as majorette in the kids' jazz band. Even Ted's own wife Carol … has an autumnal fling with a staff-sergeant who has ears like mug handles, and details to Ted every lovesick moment and every shared cup of coffee.
Such scenes leave Ted, and his author, between laughter and tears. Peter is ludicrously seduced in a strange bathroom by a girl so dirty he's tempted to make washing her neck part of the foreplay. Wendy wallops him and decides to marry him. How hopeless and how forgivable....
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[Mortimer had been acquainted with Taylor as a publisher, theater critic, and friend. He saw nearly all of Taylor's seventy-odd plays performed in Scotland.]
The British prefer their literary heroes to be dead, so it's not surprising that Taylor's true talents are only now being appreciated….
One of the greatest tragedies about Taylor is that his death came at the moment of a major development in his work…. Good, with its subject matter of the well-intentioned young German slowly seduced by the Nazi machine …, marks a radical departure, a deadly serious play spiced throughout with an impish, almost daredevil humour.
Watching it, I remember similar sensations as when watching his study of small-time North-East crooks and the gambling world, Bandits!; that here was a kind of theatre not many people could write. (p. 16)
Fashion is a notorious servant in art. Many 'regional' dramatists go down to London and become parodies of themselves, or else use their working class roots to hammer home some well-battered political philosophy; the politics grabs more attention than the drama, and a lot of bosh is overpraised. This was one reason why Cecil was underappreciated: he rarely sat down with the intention of "saying" one set thing. He was alive, antennae wriggling all over the place.
His characters didn't merely represent points of view, or...
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When we first meet Halder …, the protagonist of C. P. Taylor's "Good," he is a model of the urbane university professor. A novelist and literary critic, Halder is devoted to his wife and children, as well as to his one close friend, a Jewish psychiatrist named Maurice. But the place is Frankfurt, the year is 1933, and men can change without warning. It isn't too long before Halder has not only become a member of the Nazi party but has also played a direct role in SS book burnings and euthanasia "experiments" in the Jew-bashing Night of the Long Knives, and, finally, in Eichmann's genocide at Auschwitz.
Mr. Taylor's "play with music" … is an attempt to understand how all this could happen. The question raised is fascinating, because Halder is no cliché Nazi, no fire-breathing thug. He's more of an Albert Speer type, and yet, unlike Speer, he doesn't settle for practicing evil from a bureaucratic distance—Halder gets right into the bloody trenches of the Holocaust. Who wouldn't be eager to see how such a "good" man could turn totally rancid so fast?
The answer, however, never really comes. "Good" is an undeniably provocative work, and Mr. Taylor … has written it with an intelligent, light touch in a most imaginative form. But for all the author's efforts to break through our received ideas about the origins of Nazism and to avoid black and white moral imperatives, his play doesn't add anything to the...
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Concerning what may have been the late Cecil P. Taylor's best effort, Bread and Butter, the English critic Harold Hobson wrote that "if the play is about the sadness of time's destruction of our ideals," it is a very grave point that the two principal characters "never really had any ideals at all." In [Good] … the same problem obtains; this tale of how John Halder, a "good" German, gets sucked and suckered into the Nazi party fails right off the bat by not persuading us that we are dealing with a man of parts and ideals….
Good makes no literal sense. No novelist-professors of literature became S.S. officers—the last thing the S.S. wanted or needed; indeed, writers of the elitist or rightist persuasion did not even make it, or want to make it, into the party on any level—vide George, Jünger, Benn, et al. In no case would the Nazis have picked such a marginal and irrelevant figure to confer prestige on their final solution: but if such prestige was the aim, why is Halder kept out of the limelight and not put to publicity use? Anyway, as written, the character of Halder could not have liquidated even the roaches in a small apartment, and could hardly have passed the physical examination required to get into the S.S.
And the play makes no literary sense, either. The relationship between Halder and the women in his life is insufficiently developed, and does not appear to be of the kind...
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["Good"] is superb theatre—a classic mingling of strong subject matter, entertaining presentation, and flawless acting…. [One] isn't likely to encounter a more satisfying experience on Broadway throughout the rest of the season….
"Good" describes the rise of Hitlerism in the thirties as it affects the lives of two characteristic Germans, Halder and Maurice—the former a Christian, the latter a Jew. They are cultivated members of the upper middle class and are intimate friends. As the play begins, they agree that Hitler's attacks upon the Jews—still largely verbal in nature—are a temporary political aberration; once he has achieved sufficient power, he will abandon the attacks, for how is Germany to do without its Jews, who have provided so much of the country's artistic and scientific glory? Years pass, and Maurice is obliged to change his mind; he has become the victim of a formal program of anti-Semitism whose purpose is to exterminate him and all his kind. Halder, a much admired professor and novelist, can afford to continue his lifelong bent for accommodation. Hasn't he spent many years accommodating to a slatternly wife and a senile mother? Hasn't he manifested a discipline in regard to his career so rigid that his only weakness may be said to be his fondness for popular band music? He is convinced that he is an essentially good person, and that if he is ever confronted by authentic evil he will know how to deal with...
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T. E. Kalem
History is a nightmare into which the antihero of Good sleepwalks. John Halder … is a decent enough human being. He is kind to his wife Helen …, though she is an execrably sloppy homemaker. Even if he has to cook the meal, he sees to it that his three children are properly fed. With his mother …, who is blind, senile and bitter. Halder is agonizingly solicitous….
By vocation, Halder is a professor of German classics who also writes novels. He is the sort of man who is appalled by the fact that Goethe refused to send Beethoven money when the composer was in desperate need…. At Good's end, this decent, liberal-minded scholar has become Eichmann's right-hand man at Auschwitz.
How did it happen? Paradoxically, the late British playwright C. P. Taylor does not, initially, seem to be the best possible man to ask. He poses the question engrossingly, but most of the answers he provides seem either tantalizingly elusive or logically implausible. Halder is a congenital daydreamer. Not only the taste of reality but the feel of it eludes him. This fact is incorporated in the structure of the play by the presence on-stage of a six-man band. The musicians punctuate Halder's crises, conflicts and decisive indecision with marching songs, waltzes, jazz tunes and snatches of opera. These are the intravenous tranquilizers with which Halder suppresses the torment of truth. Good is a trip through the inner...
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The difficulty with [Good] … is that it poses an all-too-familiar question and then completely fails to grapple with it.
The question is how generally ordinary and relatively decent people could have participated in or even tolerated Nazism, and I wonder if it needs to be asked again. Hannah Arendt first brought it up in her book on Eichmann; that perfectly normal family man, Rudolph Hess, who was also commandant of Auschwitz, provided some answers in his memoirs; Hochuth's The Deputy carried the question to the stage and Styron's Sophie's Choice to the novel; it was even mentioned in Bent, Martin Sherman's play about homosexual prisoners in the concentration camp. Mr. Taylor writes as if we were totally innocent of any previous work on the subject, as if he had stumbled on it anew.
Taylor … wrote Good, he said, in response to a deeply felt trauma; but his characters react to atrocities with all the passion of people in lounge chairs discussing the test match scores. It may be that Taylor, an assimilated English Jew, was incapable of imagining absolute evil; or it may be that the language of the educated English upper classes is incapable of expressing outrage. I mean, how hateful can people be when they are identified as "Nahzis." Taylor, at all events, hasn't found much evil in these "Nahzis." Describing the origins of Good, he admits it was impossible for him to see...
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