David Storey Essay - Critical Essays

David Storey Drama Analysis

Although David Storey considers himself primarily a novelist whose plays are offshoots of his fiction, it now appears certain, at least on the American side of the Atlantic, that he will be known and remembered more as a dramatist. If his novels are in the vein of D. H. Lawrence—with their attention to human beings’ physical and spiritual disharmony and their criticism of modern humankind’s separation from the elemental processes of nature—his plays qualify him as the principal disciple of Anton Chekhov in postwar British theater. Like the Russian master before him, Storey writes dramas in the mode of symbolic naturalism that, while they are firmly rooted in a specific social milieu, touch on the most universal of themes at the same time that they become swan songs for a dying civilization. Storey admits to finishing his plays very quickly, sometimes within a few days during periods when he is blocked in his novel writing, claiming that they “compose themselves” after a first sentence flashes into his mind. Several of the plays, in fact, reveal a close connection to one or another of the novels; The Changing Room, for example, takes a situation from This Sporting Life and expands on it, as The Contractor does from Radcliffe (1963) and Life Class from A Temporary Life (1973). Storey finds the writing of drama therapeutic, since work in the theater removes him from the solitary, inner process of creating a novel and transplants him into the outer, communal world of theatrical production.

Not that such a split is at all an unusual experience for this man of letters who was simultaneously both rugby player and art student. Such dichotomies are the wellspring of his creativity, and if they converge fortuitously with the central disharmonies of twentieth century life, so much the better. If the twentieth century is the century of the disintegration of society, of the dissociation of sensibility, and of schizophrenic humankind, fragmented and alienated, then Storey perfectly captures this widespread sense of vulnerability and mortality within both his fiction and his drama. Several of his works (especially This Sporting Life and The Changing Room) focus on the split between flesh and spirit, body and soul, the physical and the mental; others (such as Life Class), on the pull between life and art, reality and illusion, form and feeling; still others (including This Sporting Life, Radcliffe, and The Farm), on the conflict between the masculine and feminine sensibilities, discipline and intuition, activity and passivity. Further polarities that Storey explores include those between past fact and present memory (Home and Early Days), between nature and progress (The Contractor), between the word and the sword as well as between existence and essence (Cromwell), and between commitment and betrayal and dreams and practicality (Sisters). Furthermore, throughout Storey’s plays there is a wealth of imagery of the sterile wasteland, of what one of his characters terms the “computerized, mechanized, de-humanized, antiseptic society” that is modern industrial culture. As his characters search for meaning and order and some means to achieve integration, they look to the values of work, of communal spirit and support, and of an art whose essence is faithfully to record life so that human beings can see not only the literary reality but also the way in which moments in that reality, especially daily rituals, can achieve a transcendent, sacramental effect that allow people to reclaim some purpose and value—at least temporarily.

In nearly all of his plays, Storey practices an almost documentary realism, an absolute fidelity to the facts, even to the minutiae, of daily existence; yet in his best dramas he transcends this level of realism so that the events become, as they do for Chekhov, symbolic of much larger concerns, even allegories of human beings in the modern age. In 1973, Storey himself distinguished between the three types of plays that he writes: the decidedly literary plays, those written in the mode of poetic naturalism, and the overtly stylized works. Among the first group, he included The Restoration of Arnold Middleton, which focuses on one man’s use of elaborate pretense to escape confronting reality; In Celebration, which is set, like Storey’s own early life, in a coal-mining town in the North Country; and The Farm, which, while revolving like Arnold Wesker’s Roots (pr., pb. 1959) around an engagement that does not come to pass, explores a mother’s attachment to the poet-son and a father’s anger over his daughters’ failures to regenerate life. To these must be added Mother’s Day, an unsuccessful farce in the manner of Joe Orton, and Sisters, which, like Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (pr., pb. 1947), sees a woman’s arrival threaten the arrangement between her sister and brother-in-law, until the woman’s retreat into insanity saves them all. These works, all of which are family problem plays, are literary in that their dialogue and handling of character are novelistic, their plots are linear and generally well made, and their settings are basically representational and not overtly symbolic.

The second group, those works that Storey designates as poetic naturalism, are closest to Chekhov in that their plots are minimal, with the external action that does exist unfolding on a highly symbolic plane. In the two plays that Storey included in this category, The Contractor and The Changing Room, the event that would appear to be central actually happens off stage (as is also true of In Celebration). One can add to this group Life Class, in which Storey hints at his philosophy of the artist as a singer of life, recording life in order that others may see it; if human beings partake of existence simply by “being” in the fullest sense of that word, then for Storey the work of art primarily “should not mean but be.” Storey’s opening direction for Life Class, as for Cromwell, specifies simply “A Stage,” providing an aesthetic comment about the empty space that needs to be filled, in the same way that the dramatist’s mind (like a blank page) is peopled through the imaginative act.

Among his third group of overtly stylized works for the stage, Storey had completed only Home and Cromwell—a history play for an unlocalized Shakespearean stage filled with imagery of light and dark—by 1973, but also belonging to this group is Early Days, as Pinteresque in its language of lyric threnody as is Home. Most characteristic of the plays in this category is the manner in which stage activity is stripped down to a minimum, in which the rhythmic dialogue becomes sparser and more poetic, sometimes elegiac, and almost at times a liturgical sequence of antiphons with responses. No matter, however, which of the three groups they fall into, almost all Storey’s plays are characterized by a use of the visual and verbal rituals of everyday life, the communal celebrations through which his men and women attempt to redeem the fallen world and to discover a validation for their own existence and some shared values in a diminished and precarious world akin to a modern wasteland.

In Celebration

In its surface details, In Celebration is Storey’s most Lawrentian and openly autobiographical play. Set in a coal-mining town in the North Country, it focuses on the conflict between the mother and the son-artist. In its structure, In Celebration is a traditional family problem play: Three sons return home to honor their parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary, and, while there, they dredge up a hurt from the past that continues to influence the present. The play’s observance of the unities of time and place, the emphasis on the parents’ guilt and its effects on the children, and the complex mix of love and hate that binds the family together, all make the work reminiscent of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (pr., pb. 1956). Furthermore, the strategy of a slow disclosure of a secret from the past puts the audience in mind of the realistic, well-made plays of Henrik Ibsen’s middle period, such as Gengangere (pb. 1881, pr. 1882; Ghosts, 1885). Mr. Shaw, proud head of the family, refuses to retire even after forty-nine years in the mines, despite seemingly tenuous health, since hard work serves as a means of making retribution for his “sins.” Shaw idolizes his wife, whom he got pregnant before they married. The daughter of a pig breeder, better educated than her husband (ironically, she holds a diploma in domestic hygiene), and significantly more religious, she must have felt it a “let-down” to marry him. Their first child, Jamey, who could “draw like an angel,” was only seven when he died; Shaw had prayed, to no avail, that the son be spared and his own life taken instead, and Mrs. Shaw, six months pregnant at the time with their youngest child, Steven, had attempted to commit suicide. Shaw refused to have his three surviving sons follow him into the mines, seeing instead that they all went to college. Consequently, they have been forced from the working class into the lower middle class, with all the problems in social dislocation that this change traditionally causes for a Britisher.

The youngest son, Steven, a father of four, teacher, and sometime writer, is a brooding, sensitive, mostly silent man disturbed by what he terms a “feeling of disfigurement.” Although he would have died in the womb had his mother’s attempted suicide succeeded, he now appears to be her favorite. As a young man, he was disdainful of the establishment and for several years worked on a novel highly critical of the moral flabbiness of modern industrial society. Recently, however, he has reached an accommodation with life and given up his writing; he views this not as a compromise, but rather as an acceptance of things as they are. What deeply disturbs him now is more personal: nightmares and crying spells about the dead brother.

The middle son, Colin, a card-carrying communist during his school days, is now an industrial arbitrator of disputes between workers and management. Colin insists that the family not measure one another by their failures and, solely to raise his mother’s spirits at a troubled time and ease her mind about the future, fabricates the news that he will finally marry.

The eldest living son, Andrew, has left a career in law to become an artist, a painter of—as he describes them—abstracts with “no sign of life.” As a thirteen-year-old boy, he announced to his family that he had no belief in anything, and he continues to be an angry young man, reviling the factory automation that turns workers into robots and continually goading Steven into reasserting his lost venom. Most of all, Andrew’s present intention is revenge against his parents, particularly against his mother, who, after Jamey’s death, had sent him off for six weeks to stay at a neighbor’s and repeatedly had been deaf to his desperate cries to be let back into the house.

Andrew resents the way in which his father has always enshrined his mother as a goddess out of some mishandled sense of guilt for having violated her, and he accuses the parents of needing to fashion Jamey into some impossible ideal of perfection to atone for their sins and of having too strictly controlled his life and that of his brothers as well. The home, to him, was a fetid atmosphere, and the parents’ guilt was responsible for their sons’ problems. Now, as his anniversary memento, he wants to bring all this out into the open, which to some extent he does—although Mrs. Shaw seems oblivious to much of it, perhaps deliberately refusing to face these truths. Steven, however, forbids Andrew to harm or damage their mother and father, and so a full confrontation is narrowly averted. Andrew dances with his mother—tellingly, with no music playing—and, like Arnold in Storey’s first play, somewhat unaccountably senses redemption, “salvation in his bones.” What undercuts the resolution, however, and marks the ending with uneasiness, is the way that the family’s final meal together—a breakfast of cold tea and dry toast—is left uneaten. No real communion has been established as the sons go off, leaving Mrs. Shaw with only Mr. Shaw to support her, a stage image much like that which concludes Storey’s next and finest play.

The Contractor

The Contractor retains elements of the conventional family problem play that Storey mined in In Celebration, but overlaying this probing of a family’s deterioration through three generations are new directions in Storey’s dramatic artistry that might even warrant the adjective “Storeyean”: the minimization of plot, the fascination with exact reproduction of minute details of daily activity (here the onstage erecting of a huge canvas marquee for a wedding reception), and the investing of concrete image and event with a multilayered network of symbolic meaning.

To describe the external action of The Contractor is to discover, from one perspective, how much meaning Storey can evoke from so little. Five workmen erect a tent on the lawn of...

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