Christopher Fry is well known for his many translations of plays into English verse, which have had successful productions both for the stage and, in some cases, for the cinema. His first published translation was of Jean Anouilh’s L’Invitation au Château as Ring Round the Moon (pr., pb. 1950), Fry’s only effort in prose. He followed it with several translations, including The Lark (pr., pb. 1955; of Anouilh’s L’Alouette), Tiger at the Gates (pr., pb. 1955; of Jean Giraudoux’s La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu), Duel of Angels (pr., pb. 1958; of Giraudoux’s Pour Lucrèce), Judith (pr., pb. 1962; of Giraudoux’s Judith), and Cyrano de Bergerac (pr., pb. 1975; of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac). Fry also published critical prose, including An Experience of Critics (1952) and several important essays on the use of verse in drama. He worked on television productions and screenplays, and his work for the British Broadcasting Corporation, The Brontës of Haworth, was published in 1975. His screenplay credits include Ben Hur (1959) and The Bible: In the Beginning (1966). A family history, Can You Find Me, was published in 1978.
Christopher Fry was one of the most popular and prolific of twentieth century English verse playwrights; only T. S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats exercised a greater influence on the development of twentieth century verse drama. Fry differed from Eliot and Yeats, however, in that he did not establish a reputation as a poet before turning to the stage. Fry began with an early and practical interest in the theater as an actor and director.
With the exception of his translation of Anouilh’s L’Invitation au Château, all of Fry’s plays are in verse in a century that has provided primarily a theater of realistic prose—a prose that Fry claimed had lost all contact with anything other than surface reality. Fry insisted that his use of verse was in the service of reality, that verse provided a medium for his attempt to shake the world alert again to the deeper reality of every human being’s ability to experience afresh the eternal miracle of life—a reality at present obscured and staled by custom. In Fry’s view, humankind has domesticated the enormous miracle of life and become deadened to the wonder that is everywhere available. Fry attempted to give voice to his sense of the miracle of life with the language of poetry. He derisively identified prose on the stage with the tinkle of breakfast cups. In a 1951 article in Saturday Review, Fry makes it clear that “poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement.”
This worldview probably accounts for much of the adverse criticism Fry’s plays have received, for his work sometimes rings false or hollow, irresponsibly separated from the world the theatergoer accepts as real. Sometimes the reader or viewer senses that Fry protests too much for a man firmly grounded in the “enormous miracle” of the world, and the atmosphere of his plays often has the unfortunate effect of sheer fantasy. The use of distant times and scenes adds to a sense of unreality, and it would seem particularly unfortunate that, if Fry’s aim is to reestablish wonder in modern man, he should feel the necessity for setting his dramas in a world removed from the present by time and distance. A Sleep of Prisoners and A Yard of Sun are exceptions, and Venus Observed and even The Dark Is Light Enough can be viewed as fairly direct comments on the contemporary dilemma, but Fry’s plays are never “modern” in the same sense as are those of Eliot, W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Stephen Spender.
Fry seldom sought to come to grips with the modern world by taking it as the arena of his explorations. Rather, he worked by indirection, indicating in the world of his plays the importance of the individual, the meaning of humanity, the futility and needless cruelty of wars, and the possibilities for redeeming life through love. Having demonstrated the vitality latent in the world, Fry believed that he made sufficient comment on the modern situation. This approach is misleading in view of...
Fry, Phyl. A Sprinkle of Nutmeg: Letters to Christopher Fry, 1943-1945. Foreword by Christopher Fry. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour Editions, 1992. A selection of letters from Fry’s wife, Phyl, to her husband during the last three years of the period that he was away on war service. They give a glimpse of life in rural Oxfordshire during the war and the relationship between the playwright and his wife.
Leeming, Glenda. Christopher Fry. Boston: Twayne, 1990. After a brief chapter on Fry’s life, the work offers a play-per-chapter discussion of the canon. It is much more a literary study of the drama than a performance study of the pieces as theater. Contains the first discussion of One Thing More: Or, Caedmon Construed, commissioned in 1986 by Chelmsford Cathedral and the BBC. Supplemented by a select bibliography, a chronology, and a brief index.
Leeming, Glenda. Poetic Drama. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Includes a long chapter on Fry’s poetic drama, “in conventional setting.” The work traces the language from early dramas (“assertive manifestation of the characters’ thought”) to later work (“the positive assertiveness of his language provokes critics to regard his work as like plum cake, too rich and too sweet”). Complemented by an index.