David Storey Essay - Storey, David (Vol. 5)

Storey, David (Vol. 5)

Storey, David 1933–

Storey is an award-winning English playwright and novelist. In both his fiction and drama, Storey uses ordinary people and commonplace situations to work out powerful emotional conflicts and complicated ideas about family and social class relationships.

A Temporary Life is an odd book, occasionally brilliant, always intelligent and absorbing. Mr Storey's command both of pathos and of comedy is increasingly sure: he switches here from the harrowing to the farcical with unnerving speed, and complete conviction. But the sum total is both cryptic and frustrating. For some reason, Mr Storey has chosen to channel his impressive understanding of modern society, the nature of change within it, and the effect of that change on the individual, into a sort of mannered parable. A host of characters who at first actually live, vigorously, through the abundant psychological realism, the quirks and eccentricities, which the author gives them, slip one by one into allegorical roles, and peter out in fantasy. The finely economical, staccato prose is clipped and pared down to a portentously meaningful minimalist style. Everything works with clockwork efficiency and intricacy—clues and symbolic pointers are dropped in every sequence and ingeniously explained, or taken up, at some later stage. But the final impression is of a writer putting his intense and disquieting perceptions of the way life is going through a nightmarish squaredance which muffles rather than clarifies the effect of what he wants to say. Few novelists now writing see so vividly, think so intelligently, command so much sheer understanding of people and society. It is sad to watch these abilities turned to an exercise in stylish evasion.

"Latest Developments," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced by permission), September 21, 1973, p. 1073.

[The] essential quality of [David Storey's] work comes, above all, from the characteristic balance he achieves between the literary and the visual. Structure is particularly important in his plays: their overall shape is almost sculptured. The Contractor takes its form from the erection and dismantling of the tent. After starting with an empty stage, we see the tent being put up and then being prepared for the wedding breakfast. This takes place in the interval between Act II and Act III, and the lights next go up on the chaos of empty bottles, dirty glasses and plates, damaged decorations and overturned furniture that the wedding guests have left. This is cleared up, the tent is taken down and we end, as we began, with an empty stage. In Celebration also centres on a celebration meal, which again takes place in the interval. The play is about a family reunion occasioned by the fortieth wedding anniversary of a coalminer and his wife. As the play begins, one of their three sons is arriving in the heavily-furnished living-room of their home. The other two arrive, the conversation between sons, parents and neighbours produces a series of insights into the lives they are all leading, and we see that those of the parents and neighbours have changed very little since the sons, now all in their thirties, were children. They stay overnight but leave in the morning. The excitement over, the parents resume their lives. (p. 12)

[In] The Changing Room the focus is wider, taking in all thirteen members of a professional rugby team, the cleaner of the changing room, the trainers, the referee and the club manager and chairman. Again, though the play is about the people, its shape—like that of Wesker's The Kitchen—is determined by the place, and though the place (unlike the tent in The Contractor) has a continuing existence both before and after the action, it comes to life only at the time of the game, and what we see is constructed around two busy climaxes, with the players changing first into their rugby clothes and, later, out of them. Again the main climax of action—the game itself—is excluded from the play, and again we begin and end very quietly, this time with the old cleaner, who never watches the game but whose life centres on the changing room. The wooden benches, the clothes-pegs, the towels, the rugby boots, socks, singlets and shorts, and the physical actions, including massage and the referee's inspection, contribute to the life of the play on almost exactly the same level as the words. (pp. 12-13)

Ronald Hayman, "David Storey," in his Playback (copyright © 1973 by Ronald Hayman; reprinted by permission of A. D. Peters & Co. Ltd.), Davis-Poynter, 1973, pp. 7-20.

Storey's [The Contractor] is minimal theatre, like his Home and The Changing Room, but with slightly more discernible shreds of plot adhering to the documentary structure. And structure it truly is; Ewbank, a Yorkshire contractor, has his men erect a marquee for his daughter's wedding (which, significantly, is not shown) in his suburban garden; later the structure is taken down again. The foreman and workers tease one another, bicker, and come to blows; the Ewbank family—gently pathetic elders, befuddled middle generation, and more or less alienated young—display their puzzlement, quiet cynicism, dislocation, or despair; somewhere in the invisible foreground, the city sprouts an ever more threatening Birnam Wood of TV antennas, encroaching on the view from the Ewbanks' hillside stronghold.

There is envy and dissension among the working-class contingent; uneasy comfort in the middle-class family….

Out of these elements, without ever allowing them to congeal into a real plot, Storey creates an atmosphere of general unfulfilment, unstable compromise, and poignancy, as slippery objects of desire elude hands drenched with the sweat of existential anxiety. And over it all looms the tent, whose erection, decoration, and dismantling constitute, respectively, the play's three acts. It becomes thus the embodiment of work, which is what finally keeps men from going totally purposeless, restless, mad; and also the emblem of the rise, culmination, and decline of all human endeavor, including life itself. The play talks around rather than into its theme: everything is indirection and implication, and very often only silence. There is a good deal of humor, more often raucous than gentle, and a rare bit of strangulated pathos, made more touching by its self-effacing brevity. In some ways this suggests a kinship with Pinter, but this is, happily, only superficial. Storey's pauses, non sequiturs, sudden changes of mood grow out of his conception of character: they represent genuine human weaknesses, hesitancies, derailments; in Pinter, these devices are calculated for effect, and represent undue cleverness on the part of the characters, and flashy prestidigitation on the part of the author. Pinter's weirdness is imposed from without, meant to stun the audience with the depth of its inscrutability; Storey's fumblings are those of people protesting against or subsiding into perplexity. Pinter tries to impress us; Storey impresses things on us. Pinter invents a teasing, distorted unreality; Storey allows the strangeness of ordinary reality to dawn on us, as when, let's say, we first see a hair under a microscope.

One more good thing about The Contractor: Storey, a man who has held many odd jobs, understands the intricacy and fascination of labor, which makes something come to be where, formerly, nothing was. He gets us painstakingly involved with the minutiae of tent-building, and we are exhilarated to see the thing go up and proudly assert its existence. We are further thrilled to see how furnishings and decorations make a veritable, even if gaudy, environment out of the edifice. At last, when it is dismantled, we experience a keen sense of loss, transience, mortality. (pp. 82-3)

John Simon, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1974.

The young men at the centre of David Storey's plays are a pretty sorry lot. His composite juvenile lead, lifted mainly from In Celebration, The Contractor and The Farm, seems usually to be visiting his old folks' place near Barnsley, a squat, stony womb that fills him with love and loathing in roughly equal parts. He's university-educated, despises his white-collar job, writes poetry and paints desultory abstracts, is planning to leave his wife and children if he can summon up the courage, and will soon have a nervous breakdown. His ever-admiring mother hovers with a teapot, while his father takes off his hobnail boots and grumbles into the fire. 'Sithee, lad,' says the old man helpfully, 'thou hust never done aught worth aught, hust thou?'; and the boy, thinking enviously of the career as a coal-miner or hill-farmer he's missed, will probably agree. He is, it seems, doomed to spend his rag-bag life on the outside, looking back in: a voyeur and, though not always regarded by the world as a failure, invariably a failure to himself….

Life Class may not have one of Storey's authentic fathers to show us, but it does have a father-figure of sorts, and here he is, living up to the part both by his rejection of Allott [the protagonist] in the last reel and by the aggressive and dogmatic conservatism of his views. Sometimes one wonders if his dramatic function might be to provoke a debate about the place, if any, of art and the artist in the modern world. But, if so, it doesn't amount to much: he and Allott provide, not a debate, but a blunt collision of extremes of opinion. What useful conclusion can the listener reach when one side seems to expect a second Renaissance to rise over Wakefield Cathedral, and the other hopes for nothing better than a random series of more or less sensational happenings?

None, of course, except that the world is a pretty confused and confusing place: precisely David Storey's view of it. Indeed, don't think he's as interested in assessing his characters' attitudes as in showing us how diverse and irreconcilable those attitudes are. His plays are all about disintegration, fragmentation: of society, of belief, of the family, of the individual psyche. From The Restoration of Arnold Middleton to Home to The Changing Room, they tell us how difficult it is for man to cooperate with man, or even to achieve much coherence and unity within himself. In artistic endeavour, if anywhere, the mind, emotions and hands should function as one: they patently don't do so in Life Class. (p. 558)

As often with Storey's plays, much is asked of the audience: it's up to you and me to speculate about character and ideas on the basis of far less direct evidence than modern playwrights customarily offer. But the evidence exists, and the rewards are there to be grabbed. Those who are prepared to do a little homework in the stalls, instead of slumping back and passively absorbing, will leave the theatre feeling that a good deal more has occurred than they can remember having actually seen and heard on the stage. (p. 559)

Benedict Nightingale, "Everyman on His Uppers," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), April 19, 1974, pp. 558-59.

The boredom that Storey inflicts upon an audience is, or so it seems to me, wilful rather than inadvertent, and I'm bound to say that indignation at his impertinence is tempered a little by admiration for his nerve. It used to be said of Ibsen that his plays (or some of them) began at the point where, in other hands, they would have ended. Storey is getting away with a rather simpler operation: he ends his plays (or some of them) at the point where they might more stimulatingly begin. His characters are drawn with an almost obsessive attention to detail that extends into all manner of irrelevance (the sort of thing that most dramatists probably jot down as notes on their characters, so that they know where they've been before getting down to the business of where they're going), and then, having familiarised himself with them, he calls it a day. Reviewers who praise this sort of thing are somewhat in the position of motoring correspondents who might rhapsodise over the bodywork of a car from which the engine has been left out.

It is an indolent approach to the dramatist's craft if there ever was one, and in the case of Life Class it seems to have required even less effort than meets the eye, since all the adult characters—including the central figure, an art teacher at some dubious college of art somewhere in the drearier northern provinces—are lifted from the novel, A Temporary Life, which Storey had published last year. Giving them different names seems to have been the limit of his further inspiration about them. (pp. 489-90)

Life Class, despite this character overlap, is in no sense an adaptation of A Temporary Life. The book was not exactly overdone with incident, but its quaint little threads of narrative were a frenzy of plotting compared with the fatiguing uneventfulness of the proceedings on the stage, which have an aimlessness extravagant even for Storey…. The scene throughout is the 'life class' presided over by the disenchanted Allott character, who moves among his unappetising students dispensing philosophical reflections on art that I took at first to indicate some wickedly satirical motive on Storey's part, but it gradually becomes miserably clear that this scourge of the captive audience is more or less the author's spokesman and that his half-baked aphorisms are intended to be taken seriously. (p. 490)

Kenneth Hurren, "Still Life," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), April 20, 1974, pp. 489-90.

Life Class,… unless I'm very much mistaken (which is conceivable) … is in the nature of a valediction. The stuff of the play is a dialectic on life and art, enduring and creating, proceeding and observing. Storey takes a naked figure and sets about it a group of student artists, a posse of teachers and a commentator. (p. 26)

Storey is not, I suspect, a writer to condone speculation. As he once said on TV, 'the bird sings, and that is all'. Allott, his teacher in Life Class, puts it less succinctly—'a bird sings in its tree but doesn't contemplate its song … we are life's musicians, life's singers and what we sing has no meaning'. All very fine. But I can't help pricking up my ears when Allott also issues the dark threat: 'My next effort may be something altogether less commendable' and, looking round the life class studio and the Royal Court theatre beyond, considers he's done some of his best work there. The valediction I'm busily detecting is to the life class, to the careful portrayal of 'that incredible miasma we call life', which has made Storey's name and about which he has surely said all he's got to say. Is there a promise here of a new direction, a farewell not so much to the theatre itself as to the safety of the Royal Court theatre of life-as-she-is-lived? God, I hope so. Because without this tantalising suggestion which, for me, lit up the last 40-odd minutes of the play and in retrospect the whole of it, I should be reporting on a very heavy evening.

It's as well, though, to consider the play as the singing bird, without such overtones. The tune is the polished artifice of the new establishment theatre…. All wrapped up in the good old slice-of-life show.

The students—or at least the lads—are broad types, easily despatched with a pair of adjectives. Saunders is prissy and conscientious (we know that on sight because he wears specs), Mathews is boyish and horny, Warren is jokey and aggressive, and so on. But considering the reflections on sexism, it's interesting to note that the girls are unable to establish sharp characters, having no arresting or idiosyncratic things to say and never holding, rarely passing through, centre-stage. Even their names—Catherine Smith, for instance—are anonymous. Moreover, the continuous ribaldry about the model is hard to take. A lot of the lines might have been written for 10-year-olds….

The ruminations on art are not, of themselves, very resonant (though totally fascinating if they relate to a farewell to farms, tents, rugby players and teachers). Thoughts like 'no work of art is complete without a personal statement' fall exhausted to the ground half-way up the stalls…. I've never thought Storey's laugh-lines came easy…. The mock-rape scene is quite preposterous, unbelievable on any level, save as a metaphor for what Storey allows his invented characters to do to real life, whilst Allott/Storey considers the event with a detached, slightly alarmed dignity.

No, it was definitely that note of congé that caught my fancy. Storey is in real danger of going round in diminishing circles at the Court. Now would be an excellent time to branch out, perhaps to avail his undoubted skills to an experimental group. I have no way of knowing how he sees his future, but I urge him to pursue the radical departure that I believe Cromwell was a false start towards and that Life Class presages. (p. 27)

W. Stephen Gilbert, in Plays and Players (© copyright W. Stephen Gilbert 1974), May, 1974.

Admittedly, [Life Class] appears, at first sight, to deal with the same kind of situation [as The Contractor and The Changing Room]. A group of people are engaged on a practical pursuit and the truth about them is meant to emerge incidentally as they carry through the project. In Life Class, instead of a gang of workmen setting up a tent or a rugby team before, during and after the match, we have a class of art-students in some provincial academy assembled on a cold winter's day to draw from the nude, under the direction of their disillusioned and sarcastic teacher. The pattern is similar to that of the other two plays: preparation for the action, the action under way, and the dismantling of the action for a return to zero; coming together in the morning, the class in operation leading to a dramatic climax, and then disruption and dispersal in the evening. The teacher allows, and perhaps encourages, something to happen which causes his dismissal, so that the life class is a symbolic crisis in his life. Instead of the students succeeding in drawing the nude model, one of them leaps on to her and simulates an orgasm so convincingly that the rest of the class is momentarily taken in and shocked, and a sexually-repressed student reports the matter to the principal. Real life nudity has produced a gross physical response instead of a work of art. Since, as the teacher keeps implying in his ironical speeches, we don't really know what art is, life has, in this instance, interrupted the life class and destroyed the supposed purity and sublimity of art, by showing that a nude is a system of sex-signals to be acted on immediately, with no nonsense about transposition to a different plane.

My central disappointment with the play arises from this implied message, which is a surprisingly crude simplification of the truth about life and art. It is a fact that artists have traditionally fornicated with their models, and good luck to them, but anybody can fornicate, whereas only an artist qua artist can produce the Rokeby Venus or any other collocation of forms celebrating the poetry of sex. I wonder if Mr Storey has not been misled by the new permissiveness into putting a nude on the stage and then making too facile a use of her, charming though she is. (p. 57)

[There] is never any indication that they are specifically art students, i.e. people who, in addition to their randiness and bowel-movements, are genuinely interested in the problems of art. They are all perfectly philistine, and the only art-object they produce is a hat that one of the girls has made at home…. The kind of art school he presents would only be appropriate in a farce, but Life Class is clearly meant as a serious statement.

The seriousness, alas, is little more than sentimentality. Allott, the sophisticated teacher, is a failed artist, who says he has ruined his marriage to devote himself to art, and then has found that his talent, or art itself, is non-existent. He consoles himself with the assertion that real life is his material and pads around the room creating an atmosphere with snooty-clever remarks, like any soured schoolmaster or university teacher. This is meant to be life as continuous happening. But the happening is quite lacking in salt, and … the play does not attempt to convey why there has been tension between his private life and his art, or between art and himself. He is no more than a rather dim fruit sec, who is presented in an aura of unjustified approval, a sort of minor Jimmy Porter who has strayed into an arts school to continue his grumbling there. (pp. 57-8)

John Weightman, in Encounter (© 1974 by Encounter Ltd.), September, 1974.

Life Class is a garrulous and pretentious play, astonishing from a dramatist as spare and understated as Storey has been in the past. Lately Storey has turned out plays too quickly, I believe, and if worthiness has become wordiness, the reason may simply be that concentrated leanness takes longer than prodigal prolixity….

In past plays, Storey was able to make some human activity—erecting a tent, playing Rugby, hanging on in an old folks' home—become absorbing on, or just off, stage, and unassumingly take on symbolic implications. But art school does not even provide a dramatic enough initial activity: charcoal sketches never seen by the audience are less than involving, and the petty animosities among immature students and untutored teachers refuse to grow into an overarching image of human endeavor and strife. And whereas Storey's characters formerly spoke tersely, bumblingly, or with a self-revealing evasiveness, allowing meanings to emerge against their will and all the more poignantly, here there is mostly verbose pontification or persiflage about life and art whose sardonic deflations by Allott sound not a whit less attitudinizing than the rest….

Unlike so many of our playwrights, Storey has had an eventful and varied life, which provides him with potent, strongly felt dramatic metaphors. Conceivably even a life class could have functioned in this way, had he again espoused inwardness and implication rather than portentous noise.

John Simon, "London Diary, VII … And Out," in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), September 23, 1974, p. 67.

David Storey's plays have invited comparison with Harold Pinter—and some scenes of implicit menace and unspoken dread in Storey's … novel ["A Temporary Life"] justify that comparison….

Like Pinter, Storey develops his narrative with a minimum of action yet manages to create a super-charged atmosphere. Enigmatic and episodic, "A Temporary Life" is far bigger than the sum of its parts—and far better than any Storey novel since "This Sporting Life." (p. 119)

Arthur Cooper, in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), November 11, 1974.

David Storey's Home extends this dramatist's dim view of "things as they are." In this play, however, the picture is more abstract and more "poetic" than in The Contractor. The atmosphere—well caught in the bare setting—is gentler and more muted. (p. 240)

[The] "home" of the title, though we do not know it at first, is an institution for the mentally disturbed, people given to some more or less harmless but probably incurable aberration. At the same time this "home" may be construed as England or, quite baldly, the world today.

At the center of the play stand two elderly gentlemen, who seem to be meeting casually at a glum seaside resort. They exchange banalities, desolate and ludicrous; they hardly ever complete a thought and when they do, how lamentable, self-contradictory and laughable it is. They yearn for communication but each dwells in a realm of which only the periphery touches that of the other…. Their lives are shadowy dreams, shattered memories. From time to time, without apparent cause, they quietly weep.

Pitifully, one laughs at them and ruminates, "Yes, this is typical of much that we too have seen, apart from the certifiably lunatic sphere." The horizon here is even less fleshed than are those with which Pinter has acquainted us. How pathetically bleak is the picture. But, I must confess, I do not fully believe in it: even the dullest beings have more substance, greater density of experience.

Near-farcical traits are drawn in the presentation of two women inmates of the asylum. They are less "symbolic." They may be likened to colorful cartoons of cockney characters. In these there are sudden intimations of violence and suicidal bitterness. Contemporary youth is limned in the image of a boy maimed by an operation which has removed part of his brain. He is nothing but brute muscle. His only address, to man and woman alike, is: "Do you want to fight?" spoken with no real hostility.

All this might become depressing, not to say monotonous, if it were not lightened by humor—saturnine, but still funny—and softened by an ambience of regret and restrained compassion. (pp. 240-41)

Harold Clurman, in his The Divine Pastime: Theatre Essays (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1946, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1974 by Harold Clurman), Macmillan, 1974.