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].)
[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 Newspapers Limited 1965), September 22, 1965, p. 14.
[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.∗
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 a Salesman that self-confidence and a good shoe-shine guarantee success.
Lacking wit, character, or invention, the writing does little more than register basic events….
"Musical Hewn from Folk Tale," in The Times, London (© Times Newspapers Limited 1967), January 4, 1967, p. 6.
[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 the course of Bread and Butter. Initially, the four characters who make up the cast seem uninteresting. The two men, Morris and Alec, are too broadly, simply what they are: Morris the perennial political enthusiast, haring off now after one political panacea, now after another, and Alec, the soft, silly listener to what other people say. Their women, Sharon and Miriam, are even more colourless and the background of working-class Jewish life in Glasgow between the wars, unfamiliar in the theatre, sounds much more attractively exotic than it is. Big events in the outside world come and go, but to Morris and Alec they impinge only as subjects for conversation, the groundwork on which Morris can embroider dizzying patterns of Marxist theory. The development is deceptively slow, the play almost static up to the half-way mark, which brings us to the end of the war, with Morris's fortunes on the down-grade and Alec's slightly on the up. The author's technique may seem limited and repetitive: in virtually every scene he uses to excess the old 'new drama' ploy of conversations continued at odds, with neither participant listening to the other—signifying, of course, failure to communicate or, as Pinter has it, fear of communication. Which is all very well in small doses, but continued obsessively in scene after scene can become extremely tiresome. However, by this time the plot has established its insidious hold: it has become quite interesting, in the most naïve, old-fashioned way, to know how things will all turn out for the two households.
And the second half not only answers this query, but does so far more tellingly than the question was posed in the first half. For by the end of the war, it transpires, Miriam, Alec's wife, who always did have her calculating side, has become warped about money to an extent which makes the mild, amiable Alec begin to question seriously whether, after twenty-odd years of married life, he really likes his wife at all—and decide that, all things considered, he doesn't. Not only do these two characters grow in stature and complexity,...
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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...
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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...
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[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,...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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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....
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