Fry, Christopher (Vol. 14)
J. A. Collins
Unfortunately (and unjustly as well) the name of Christopher Fry has been linked with that nebulous monster, The Establishment. And since the mid-fifties responsible theatre in England, as elsewhere, has been out to get the Establishment. Fry, in my opinion, deserves more than a summary dismissal, a dismissal (for some) decided on by applying the criterion of guilt-by-association….
Christopher Fry has defined comedy as 'an escape, not from truth but from despair: a narrow escape into faith', a definition which suggests an attitude towards—rather than a solution for—the central paradox: the mystery of existence itself. And in Fry's plays the attitude of faith is always love—romantic love, brotherly love, love of God and the universe; but even in love (the acceptance of faith) spirit and flesh refuse to harmonize and the old battle continues. Fry's dramas usually end on this absurd note of discord, however muted.
The absurdity however has its point: Fry advocates a theatre of 'purpose' over a theatre of 'behaviour', which is to say that he is more interested in what man is than in what he does—or when he does it…. (p. 63)
And the human being, Fry constantly reminds us, is paradoxical; and the heroes and heroines of his comedies (as well as many of the minor characters) have that touch of absurdity which makes men sane. They fly in the face of convention, as did the mad poets of life in the novels of G. K. Chesterton. Their actions are outrageous—and highly entertaining—but behind their actions lies the mystery of a conflict as ancient as the seasons: Dynamene (A Phoenix Too Frequent), preposterous in her husband's tomb, dies into life through her love for Tegeus Chromis; Thomas Mendip (The Lady's Not for Burning), tired of killing, yearns for death but falls into life through his love for Jennet Jourdemayne, yet tells her, 'Girl, you haven't changed the world'; the Duke of Alstair (Venus Observed), mouldering in autumn, praises 'A sudden illumination of lumbago' and the solitude of late love, but his enthusiasm for love and existence is tempered by the reminder of death in Reedbeck's snore….
Fry's characters are usually the poles of paradox and their mutual attractions and repulsions the actions of dramas which do not 'conclude' but suggest, rather, a perilous means for continuance; but it is the quality of the thought which gives the plays texture and fibre and this quality finds expression in the verse idiom of the character.
Paradox is not only a mode of thought, it is also a way of verbalizing that thought. Its frequent manifestations are within Fry's case often a metaphysical wit, verbal irony, puns, exaggeration for the sake of rhetorical inflation (rhodomontade), humorous invective, and conceits. These, as would be expected, often overlap, and an exchange between characters will sometimes exhibit them all—and at the same time state the play's theme and advance action as well as incident. (p. 64)
[Combination] of incident and verse, the outer and the inner lives of the characters, is both the action of [a Fry] play and the unfolding of its theme.
Fry relies strongly on incident, not only in his comedies but in all of his plays, and in that respect he is a conventional realist. Incident, however, in Fry's dramas is not primarily 'to advance plot' or 'to reveal character'; it is present, more importantly, to illustrate paradox. It is the gesture which complements the words, and the result is the play's action. In the comedies incident is fantastic—as fantastic as an allegory—but so is the verse, in its obvious poetic effects, fantastic.
But Fry is aware of the need to keep his fantasies under control and he does this, as did Ben Johnson, by turning lyric effect into satiric. Thomas Mendip's 'faintly festive' hiccups do occur in spite of his eloquent denials of them; and their counterparts in language and/or incident and gesture are continually turning song to satire. Doto, for example, the promiscuous maid of A Phoenix Too Frequent (another of Fry's...
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[Phoenix] is a secular drama whose final statement is essentially religious. This statement results from a highly integrated structure that fuses the ancient tale with pagan myths and a Christian sub-structure—all subsumed within a vital, entertaining piece of dramatic craftsmanship. (p. 4)
Phoenix embraces all three levels [of myth classification: Legends, based on historical fact, Folk or Fairy Tales, and Religious Myths]…. At the level of Fairy Tale, the title indicates the traditional pattern Fry wishes to evoke of the fabulous bird, the symbol of love, which is consumed in flames only to emerge from its ashes with renewed youth to live out a further cycle. Also in the Fairy Tale tradition, Dynamene is a Sleeping Beauty awakened by her Prince. On the level of Religious Myth, Phoenix is a comic analogue for the Christian pattern of atonement and resurrection. (pp. 4-5)
The effect of [the numerous] mythic associations is to suggest that beneath the surface comic action lies a pattern of meaning which has a timeless significance. The Christian cycle is not isolated, but is a recurring phoenix-like pattern with modern relevance. (p. 7)
A great deal of the success of Phoenix lies in Fry's creation of [well-motivated, vital] characters, whose internal changes and external relationships capture the imagination of the audience. (pp. 7-8)
Whereas the first method by which Phoenix is made relevant to a modern audience is through its vital characters, the second method is through the use of a universal mythological pattern of death and resurrection which also incorporates Christian rituals. The relationship between the characters indicates a pattern of atonement. Dynamene and Tegeus attain a reconciliation through the sacrifice of Virilius in reparation for Tegeus' sin of losing the body and for Dynamene's sin of choosing to die…. The atonement brings resurrection after death, but not before a series of rituals has been enacted signifying the process. Four of the Seven Sacraments are performed during the play…. These rituals form part of our modern consciousness, and their effect is to suggest a deeper content in the play's action.
The interfusion of death, life and love forms the central concern of the play…. Phoenix and The Firstborn have a similar death-and-resurrection pattern, but an essential difference in Phoenix, in addition to the comic rather than the tragic direction, is the emphasis on love. The regenerative power of...
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Can you find me is precisely what its subtitle states, a family history…. In this case, although Christopher Fry has distinct recollections of the first eleven years of his life …, there is no question of our being given his own version of them. This is no child among you taking notes; there are no ruthless revelations. Neither is there any self-deception, which can be so much more alienating than any amount of ruthlessness. The "I" is almost purely formal.
Not entirely formal, of course; for the fact that the writer is Christopher Fry, the successful man who was once the child, accounts for the pleasantly authoritative tone, and indeed for the circumstance that the story was written at all, for nobody but a famous man would devote a book to very ordinary ancestors and only an experienced writer could make them interesting if he did….
Mr Fry makes them memorable by portraying them precisely as they were, with no descent to the picturesque….
Christopher Fry's organization of what mounts up to a considerable body of material is ingenious and inventive. The method is more cinematographic than historical, and sometimes the continuity goes astray but not often.
Patricia Beer, "Life Before Birth," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3994, October 20, 1978, p. 1197.
Christopher Fry was the first dramatist after the war to bring to the English theatre not merely a national, but also an international, fame. It is difficult to exaggerate the sense of freshness and excitement that swept through the theatrical world when The Lady's Not for Burning, with the extraordinary brilliance of the fancies, the conceits, and the imagination of its dialogue, the originality of its verse-form, and the joyous mediaeval paradox of its story seemed to shatter the by then somnolent reign of naturalism on the British stage. (p. 13)
[Can You Find Me] is a book of unique character. It is the autobiography of an outstanding international dramatist of our time, who has...
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Christopher Fry, has fashioned a chronicle of his family—a mini "Roots" if you will. While some of the more colorful relatives draw one's interest, the greater part of [Can You Find Me] is just plain dull. (p. 54)
A biography of Christopher Fry might have been far more interesting, and much of the material in this book could have been boiled down to a very interesting introductory prologue, rather than an, at times, pointless family history. (p. 55)
Andrew Aros, "Non-Fiction: 'Can You Find Me: A Family History'," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1979 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 39, No. 2, May, 1979, pp. 54-5....
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