Quite a few of Henry Livings’s plays begin with the entrance of a man at work or just from it, who addresses the audience directly, setting up the first confrontation, either with his environment or with the scabrous social system that put him somehow beneath the station he deserves, if wit and perception were the criteria. Henry Cash, beekeeper and bookkeeper in Honour and Offer, is typical:Henry (sombre and intense, to us): This is where I contemplate. Later in the day, the bees murmur, and I’m able to contemplate even better.
This kind of opening, which violates traditional rules against addressing the audience directly, typifies the nature of Livings’s relationship with the theater: It is a place where he goes to present himself in various disguises, to discuss in theatrical and humorous ways the dilemma of being in this world and happy at the same time. The signature of Livings’s characters is whatever is opposite passivity, helplessness, anguish, and defeat. What separates the workingman from his pitiable superiors is that he works, while they merely swot at the free enterprise system as it is oddly practiced in England. Stanley, the lisping hero in Big Soft Nellie, defends his entire existence with the simple statement, “I am a man and I do a job.”
The corollary to the dignity of work is the sanctity of the workplace. In Livings’s world, a man’s shop is his castle, and no interfering foreman or supervisor is going to taint it. Livings’s best-known play, Eh?, takes place in the boiler-room of a mammoth dye factory, where someone upstairs shovels coal into the boiler while the hero, Valentine Brose, watches the gauges, at least in theory. Instead, Val commands his fortress like a baron, growing hallucinogenic mushrooms in the moist heat; bedding his new bride in the double bunk; confounding the works manager, the personnel officer, and the local environmentalist with startling vigor. Winning them over with his mushrooms does not save his castle, however, which is destroyed from within by a vigor of its own. “Once upon a time. There was a boiler. Once upon a time,” recites Val as the boiler explodes, making the connection between children’s tales and working-class life that Livings has claimed as his own invention.
For exploding or confounding, the best tool available to Livings’s characters is the language. Just as Federico García Lorca captures the naturally poetic diction of the Spanish peasant and John Millington Synge re-creates the rhythms and cadences inherent in the Western Irish tongue, Livings reproduces the amazing language patterns of the working-class families of Liverpool, Yorkshire, Manchester, and Birmingham. It is a difficult tangle of near-communication, lost threads, subjective references, internal arguments going on underneath the normative conversation, subtexts overpowering the superficially civil correspondences, vague antecedents, and private vocabularies hinting at metaphoric connections long lost to logic. Miraculously, they understand each other—in fact, they are bonded by the commonality of their language, so that an argument shouted in the presence of strangers has all the secrecy of a family code. The reader may wish for more signposts through the labyrinth of utterances that seem to be attacks and ripostes but whose meaning is just out of reach; the signposts are there, but they are obscured by the lush undergrowth of Livings’s imagination. If his characters are rather more loquacious than those of Harold Pinter, David Mamet, or Samuel Beckett, they share the same uneasy distrust of oversimplified exposition.
The comparison with Beckett does not end with the language. Livings finds great resources in the vaudeville skits and sight gags that find their way into Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954). In the opening scene of Livings’s The ffinest ffamily in the Land, Mr. Harris spends a good five minutes at the elevator looking for his key in every possible nook and cranny of his outfit, while his wife and son look on. When Mrs. Harris takes a try, her hand goes through a hole in Mr. Harris’s pocket and her wedding ring gets caught in the hair on his leg. Trapped in this ridiculous position, the Harrises take several elevator rides trying to avoid being seen by their lodger and her male companion. The short sketches collected as the Pongo plays (1971 and 1974) are essentially music-hall skits, featuring such visual tricks as walking in place, miming puddles and other impediments, exaggerated playing at saber and pistols, and mugging reactions. The broad appeal of this kind of humor calls on the talents of the actor, who must do considerably more than memorize his lines in order to bring the theatrical moment to life. Songs often introduce the plays, sung by a “Musician” visible onstage who often takes a small part in the stage business as well, as though the fictive stage intrudes on the real world at every turn. When, in The Boggart, the monster succeeds in scaring Pongo into wrestling with his daughter, the Musician joins in the fun with a song sung...
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