E. A. Whitehead Essay - Critical Essays

Whitehead, E. A.

Whitehead, E. A. 1933–

Whitehead is a British dramatist.

I can appreciate the brilliance of Mr Whitehead's writing at individual moments, though it does also disturb me slightly that his style veers from terse and violent naturalism to overweight phrase-making (Frank announces, for instance, that he is merely 'lurching from one derelict sunset to another') without warning and with little justification in terms of character. But the cumulative effect of [Alpha Beta] suffers from too much unvaried harping on one note, too many short-lived explosions and empty threats that lead nowhere very much. It is impossible to doubt the strength of feeling behind the play, but it does seem possible that the author is too close to his material to abstract it sufficiently to make it stand on its own as an independent dramatic entity. (pp. 42, 44)

John Russell Taylor, in Plays and Players, (© copyright John Russell Taylor 1972), March, 1972.

The Sea Anchor is a calculated attack on the myths accompanying pleasure…. [With] mathematical puritanism, Whitehead proves that all is vanity. The Sea Anchor is already being compared to Eugene O'Neill's early plays, and indeed they have much in common: a telling sense of atmosphere, an impending doom, a careful realism in the dialogue and a determination not to be fooled by life.

John Elsom, "Empty Embraces," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of John Elsom), July 18, 1974, p. 89.

If there's one thing that seems to disgust and sadden E. A. Whitehead more than women, it is men. He has given stage-room to male misogyny in The Foursome, whose climax was a frenzied ode to lipstick, eye-shadow, Tampax and other female clutter, and in Alpha Beta…. [In Sea Anchor] he concentrates on male inadequacies, hauling onstage characters that might be the Liverpudlian tearaways of The Foursome, one marriage, several children, umpteen affairs and some 15 years later. They are in Dublin, waiting for the arrival of a friend, Nick, who is asserting his declining virility by sailing over from England in a dinghy….

It's a well-written, tense, depressing piece. Tense, because we're never allowed to forget that one major character may be drowning out there in the Irish Sea; depressing, because all the others seem resigned to anomie and sexual misery. The women are painfully dependent on the men; the men see their wives as burdens to be endured, and all other women as anonymous alcohol to which they're addicted. True, one purports to find joy in his children, but that's only because 'it makes me feel young again'. The other takes grim satisfaction in loving nothing and no one. For both, the end of life is 'freedom', which may be roughly defined as slavish subservience to the bodily processes…. The language positively oozes with distaste, both for self and others….

Indeed, we're left to wonder if Nick hasn't deliberately opted out of the degradation of it all, by jumping a ship or drowning himself; an ambiguous ending to a piece that grabs the ear and stomach whether it's considered as a quasi-sociological study of perverted puritanism, or a personal yowl of distress, or (probably) both. No one but Whitehead could have written it; but then none but White-head would have wanted to write it. He is to sex what Edward Bond is to violence and cruelty, a highpriest of misanthropy…. (p. 91)

Benedict Nightingale, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), July 19, 1974.

Superficially [Whitehead's] plays seem to be about getting drunk and making love inside and outside marriage. Deeper down he is more interested in illusions of liberty. He writes, as he has said himself, about characters who are trapped—by limited opportunities and by moral and emotional pressures. The husband in Alpha Beta is trapped not so much by marriage and the family situation as by his own idea of liberty, which he equates with the right to sleep with as many women as he can. Nick, the offstage character in The Sea Anchor, also thinks he's achieved something every time he beds a new girl, but the ironies of the play work against his attitude. He treats his wife as badly as his steady girlfriend treats her husband, and she is not more generous to Nick than his wife is in allowing him the liberty he takes anyway to sleep around. (p. 70)

We are in Dublin Bay, sharing the edgy anxiety of the four characters as they scan the horizon with binoculars, worried about Nick's non-appearance. They are asserting their freedom by having a dirty weekend in Ireland, while Nick has been more desperately asserting his by sailing over from Liverpool alone on a dinghy. In this Whitehead play, therefore, it is not just the pursuit of pleasure that turns out to be painful, it is the growing certainty that his bravado has been suicidal. Death, the final trap, has been his only possible escape from the traps that his misguided quest for liberty has caught him in. (pp. 70-1)

Randall Craig, in Drama, Autumn, 1974.