David Mercer Essay - Critical Essays

Mercer, David

Mercer, David 1928–

A British writer for stage, screen, and television, Mercer is best known for his screenplay, Morgan. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[Looking] back now, it is possible to see the whole body of Mercer's work as depicting in various ways the birthpangs of a private man. His characters are all involved, one way or another, in the battle to assert their individual, unique natures within, or if necessary outside, the framework of normal everyday life, of social, political or psychological categories. To say that all are involved in this struggle does not necessarily mean that all of them consciously engage in it, and it certainly does not mean that they all win out in the end. Some seek comfort in anonymity, uniformity, some contrive to contract out of the struggle, some are shattered by it and destroyed. But behind the action of all Mercer's plays is a consciousness of individuality as something which is constantly under attack, and which has to be fought for with all one's strength if it is to be preserved.

This continuing theme in Mercer's work gives unity and direction to the expression of his various personal preoccupations. The principal preoccupations are political and psychological—or are usually categorized as such. But it seems to me that the attempts of various commentators to define Mercer's work in terms of a 'polarity' between politics and psychology, Marx and Freud, are finally quite beside the point, in that there is no appreciable tension between the two concepts, or two ways of looking at things, in the plays themselves. Instead, both are seen as essentially the same thing, or rather, one might say, both are interchangeable metaphors for the real subject: the relationship between the individual and the institution. (pp. 41-2)

John Russell Taylor, "David Mercer," in his The Second Wave: British Drama for the Seventies (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1971 by John Russell Taylor), Hill & Wang, 1971, pp. 36-58.

David Mercer has always had a tendency to fix us wedding guests in the eye and force us to look at the collection of albatrosses he carries tied round his neck and drooping down his shoulders; but he's rarely been so bald about it, so artless and interminable, as in Duck Song. In a recent interview he announced that the play was 'about confusion', which I believe. He added that 'the confusion is sort of lucid', which, without some enormous emphasis on that 'sort of', I find less easy to swallow. And he then declared that it concerned 'the terrible, awful, unforgivable, inexcusable ineptitude of our society and its values', which it simply isn't. It doesn't invite you to look objectively at society, and judge it, but subjectively to share Mercer's general bewilderment and ennui. It's an internal weather report, told by a meteorologist who prefers to free-associate behind his desk than to study the data in detail and depth: squalls, sleet, showers of blood, plagues of frogs, frost at night, fog for most of the day. But often, alas, only the fog is discernible….

In defiance of the laws of argument and of drama, the play inexorably dwindles into a melancholy monologue for several voices, all of which seem to be Mercer's own. Imagine if, instead of writing all those tragedies, Shakespeare had herded together Macbeth, Hamlet, Troilus and Timon to tell us, in plaintive half-sequiturs, that life's but a poor player, that outrageous fortune has a lot of slings and arrows, and so on; and you'll see how clogged and unmanageable are his musings on sex, love, colonialism, capitalism, cruelty, ignorance and death. And this from a writer whose precise wit we've so often admired in the past! (p. 232)

Benedict Nightingale, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 15, 1974.

David Mercer … has scarcely strayed from the well-known paths of naturalism. His latest play Duck Song (1974) suggests desperation: its first act is pure domestic comedy of the most banal kind, while its second act, refusing to meet any of the cheques drawn in the first, takes refuge in a series of unexplained and inexplicable (except in theatrical terms) events such as the disappearance of the scenery and the death of a character who later gets to her feet again. Perhaps Mercer is trying at last to turn and rend his dead language, or perhaps he is rather belatedly satirising absurdism, but the result certainly looks like a swansong in the feathers of a dead duck. (p. 65)

John Spurling, in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), January, 1975.