In the introduction to the 1974 edition of his first thriller-novel, Stamboul Train, Graham Greene confesses to an early passion for playwriting. While his earliest attempts at that genre have never come to light, the idea of shaping scenes dramatically informed much of his work as a novelist. Greene admitted that he sometimes found it essential to escape the liquidity of the novel to play out a situation, a confrontation between two characters perhaps, within the narrow confines of a space approximating the dimensions of a stage. This dramatic method within the form of the novel reached its climax in The Honorary Consul, in which most of the story takes place in a hut in which the kidnapped victims are held hostage.
Whereas dramatic form has influenced Greene’s novels, the theme of what may be his most popular novel, The End of the Affair (1951), pervades his most ambitious plays: The Living Room, The Potting Shed, and The Complaisant Lover. Frequently thought of as a Catholic novelist, Greene, who may have converted to Catholicism out of an intellectual need to find answers to questions ignored by the Anglican Church, makes his most explicit statements about the relationship of God and human beings in The End of the Affair, a first-person narrative in which a novelist, Bendrix, searches through his memories of Sarah Miles, the woman he loved and lost, to attempt some understanding of the role that God has played in his own life. Sarah, who did not remember that she had been secretly baptized a Catholic by her mother against her father’s wishes, had undergone a crisis during a London bombing. Finding her lover supposedly dead amid the debris, she had prayed to God to restore him to life. In exchange, she would believe in him. With Bendrix alive, Sarah broke off the affair and remained with her loving but dull and passionless husband Henry, a civil servant. Unable to cope with the pain of a life without passion at its center, Sarah seems to have willed her own death after a cold is aggravated by her being caught in the rain. Bendrix, who contemplates but rejects suicide, comes to understand Sarah’s dilemma, her growing need for God, when he reads her diary and enters his own dilemma as he attempts, but fails, to shut God out of his life. The novel’s real miracle is not Bendrix’s seeming resurrection after the bombing but his finding and offering of comfort and love in a nonphysical relationship with Henry Miles, whose need for Sarah is as great as his own. God’s love offers them all eventual peace.
The Living Room
In The Living Room, twenty-year-old Rose Pemberton, the child of a Catholic mother and a non-Catholic father, both deceased, goes to live with her two spinster great-aunts and her great-uncle, a priest who for many years has been confined to a wheelchair as the result of a car crash. Just before coming to her new home, Rose has entered into a physical relationship on the night of her mother’s funeral with a man twice her age, Michael Dennis, the executor of her mother’s will and a lecturer in psychology at the University of London. Dennis still cares deeply for his neurotic wife, who has a desperate need for him, and he makes clear to Rose that he cannot marry her. When Rose sees Dennis attempting to comfort his wife, she realizes for the first time that there are different kinds of love. Rose tries to overcome her despair by submitting to God’s love and mercy as she takes a fatal dose of the pills with which Dennis’s wife had threatened to commit suicide herself. Rose’s great-uncle, the crippled priest, must explain to Dennis, who understands the mind of man but not the ways of God, that God’s realm is eternal. As a woman loves her child after the pain and suffering of bearing it, humankind finds eternal comfort in God’s love. Death is the child of humankind. For that death, which leads to God’s mercy, to be borne, human beings must first suffer the pain of life.
The most intriguing aspect of The Living Room, a play marred by its too-frequent emotionally charged confrontations, bordering on the melodramatic, is its unusual setting. Rose’s elderly great-aunts, Teresa and Helen, practicing Catholics, fear death even more than they love God. Like Luigi Pirandello’s character Henry IV (in his 1922 play), in an attempt to freeze time, to keep death at bay, they have made the third-floor nursery of their home its only living room. Every room in the house in which someone has died has been closed off. The dead have been forgotten; their pictures have been removed. The only room still available in the house, the living room, becomes Rose’s bedroom, and it is in the living room that Rose makes her choice, reverts to childhood as she seeks God in prayer, and dies.
The sisters Helen and Teresa, the characters in The Living Room who undergo a believable change as a result of the play’s action, force the theological issues of the play without being at its center. Helen, younger than Teresa but the stronger of the two, prevents Rose from committing the mortal sin of going off with a married man by convincing her nearly senile sister that she is ill and that Rose must stay to help nurse Teresa back to health. Helen has her daily woman, Mary, spy on Rose just as Bendrix, in The End of the Affair, hired Parkis, a private detective, to follow Sarah. Like Parkis, Mary comes to sympathize with her prey and regrets her involvement. After Rose’s death, Teresa asserts herself by choosing to move into the living room, which Helen wants to abandon. By embracing the memory of her dead grandniece, by choosing to meet her own eventual death in the room in which Rose died, Teresa forces her sister to an acknowledgment that God’s mercy could not be served by Helen’s unmerciful acts toward Rose, another of God’s creatures, for whom, hypocritically, Helen had only professed love. Helen’s role as villain, however, is a relative matter. A Catholic audience would understand that her actions have in fact kept Rose within the Church and leave Helen’s judgment to God. That same audience would further recognize the ambiguity of the play’s ending. Is Rose finally damned because of her suicide or does she achieve salvation? Greene leaves the question—which echoes that posed by Scobie’s suicide in the novel The Heart of the Matter—unanswered.
The Potting Shed
Greene’s next work for the theater, The Potting Shed, adheres to the conventional structure of the well-made play. A secret withheld from the protagonist is eventually revealed to him and to the audience as well. Benefiting from his experience as a writer of some well-plotted novels that he termed entertainments, Greene builds the suspense in what might be considered his religious thriller for the stage with a sure hand for most of the play. What makes The Potting Shed a sounder work than The Living Room is the author’s ability to relax the dramatic tension with humorous dialogue and some nuances of characterization absent from the one-dimensional earlier play. Adding an extra dimension to The Potting Shed and contributing greatly to its success was the memorable performance by John Gielgud in its central role. First produced in New York in 1957, The Potting Shed was presented in London the following year with some minor changes that reflected Greene’s original intentions. The most significant change was in the season of the third act—during the Christmas season in the American version, closer to Easter in the British version.
Like The Living Room, The Potting Shed is centered on death. The play’s premise is the imminent death of one H. C. Callifer, author of The Cosmic Fallacy and founder of a rationalist movement to disprove the existence of God (a belief that aligns him with Smythe, to whom Sarah Miles turned for comfort in The End of the Affair). Callifer’s works, which...
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